When many hear the “Big Apple,” images of the Statue of Liberty, crowded streets and subways and flashy Broadway performances come to mind.
For Waterloo native and New York University alumna Lindsay Shields, one characteristic sticks out above the rest: resilience.
As the Republic-Times first reported in late September 2001, the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks are synonymous with that of Shields coming to New York.
“I think experiencing New York sort of in the direct aftermath of 9/11 really made me feel a special kinship with the city that I might not have felt otherwise,” Shields said. “Every one who was in New York at that time bonded collectively over the shared trauma. There was this resilience that is emblematic of New York and New Yorkers in the days, weeks and months that followed that is pretty remarkable.”
Shields’ first semester at NYU’s Ninth Street campus had started just a week before the attacks. With her family approximately 1,000 miles away, Shields called home as the Twin Towers burned and eventually crumbled.
“The first one, when that hit we thought it could be a mistake. It wasn’t clear it was intentional and it could have been an accident and people weren’t sure,” Shields recalled. “So then when I was on the phone with my mom and she said, ‘Oh my God, a second plane just hit,’ that’s when it was very clear that whatever this was, it was intentional. That’s when it got very scary.”
Not knowing what else to do, Shields and the several other students went to their morning classes. Eventually, the university told students to seek safety in their residence halls.
That walk back to her dorm bore a very different atmosphere than it did the week before.
“I just remember walking from my classroom through Washington Square Park and up Fifth Avenue. The towers were very visible from Fifth Avenue, so I could see them both on fire burning,” Shields said. “I remember at that point it was just pure terror because, again, we didn’t really know what was going on … I remember truly thinking that I might die because I thought bombs could go off at any point. It just seemed like we were totally under siege.”
Shields made it safely back to her dorm and vividly remembered embracing her roommate, so glad the two were safe. As more details emerged and it appeared the attacks were over, the mood shifted, Shields said.
“The grief overtook everything,” Shields said. “So many people died. In the days and weeks after it, people were putting up missing posters with names and photos of their loved ones hoping they could still be reunited with them. It was just tragic.”
Shields and another Waterloo High alumni who attended NYU in September 2001 shared with the Republic-Times the large amount of relief efforts was overwhelming.
Civilians flocked to blood banks, local hospitals and even to streets surrounding the Twin Towers to pass out water and supplies.
Shields said the campus facilitated get-togethers for student support along with movie nights and other events in the residence halls so those, like Shields, who could not easily travel back home would not feel alone.
Counseling was also provided.
She said the perseverance the city showed in the wake of the attacks was seen again in the midst of other adversities.
“After I graduated from NYU I moved here permanently and I’ve been here 20 years now,” Shields said. “I think part of the reason that I’ve been here since is that spirit that happens again and again in New York. (I saw it) with (Hurricane) Sandy and with COVID even. There’s this sort of esprit de corps and this resilience that is inherent in New York that’s really special.”
Just last week, Hurricane Ida caused disastrous flooding in the city. Shields said right away, residents were on the streets attempting to clear storm drains. Like with 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, everybody was checking on their neighbors, Shields said.
But when the COVID pandemic’s epicenter was New York in Spring 2020, New Yorkers could not visit each other in-person. Instead, they harnessed the power of the internet and social media to ensure others survived.
“You can’t go check on people, so how it manifested was mutual aid societies were created to help people financially, so a big part of it was donating to help people who were impacted or who maybe lost their jobs or couldn’t go to work because of COVID. We also made a point to patronize local businesses that were very important to us that we wanted to make sure stayed open,” she said.
Once again, New Yorkers found themselves in uncharted territory.
“(9/11) was sort of like COVID in that when it happened, it was something very few people who were alive in the U.S. lived through prior to that,” Shields said.
Shields acknowledges this year’s milestone 9/11 anniversary coinciding with her arrival in the city she now calls home is “bittersweet,” and she plans to spend the week checking in with her fellow NYU alumni as well as taking time to memorialize those lost.
She encourages those back in Monroe County to do the same – especially families with those not old enough to remember the attacks.
“I think it’s very important to know your history, and especially with something like 9/11 that wasn’t that long ago. Twenty years seems like a lifetime ago to some people, but time goes by really fast and time goes by faster as you get older,” Shields said. “There are many, many people who carry memories of this. It’s very important to them and it profoundly impacted their lives. So, I think it’s very important for people to learn about it … to have a sense of empathy for other people.”