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Big Norm's September 11, 2001

(Editor's Note: This was originally written back on September 11, 2014 for PenniesForNorm.US)


September 11, 2001 has always been a touchy subject with my family. Having immediate family that was born in the five boroughs of New York City, seeing the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center demolished was personally troubling. The closer and closer the date gets to September 11 each year, I get down. The main reason: my father was right near the situation that day.Even before the horrific display on 9/11, my father had narrowly avoided the 1993 World Trade Center bombing by a matter of months. Big Norm used to work at Chemical Bank (which then became Chase Manhattan, which then became J.P. Morgan Chase, which then became J.P. Morgan) in the 1980s and early 1990s. My mom told me a few times I visited my father in the Towers as a baby. In the summer of 1992, my father was moved to 55 Water St to work out of that location. Thankfully, my old man avoided the tragedy that happened on February 26, 1993.

For the next 8 years, my father worked on Water St, which was 1 or 2 long blocks from the Towers. There was even one time in the summer of 1997 where after a “Take Your Kids to Work Day” event took place, my father took my brother and me to a lunch truck right in front of the Towers. In front of the Towers was a small concert happening to promote New York’s newest country music station. I literally can’t remember the station off the top of my head, but I do remember the situation very vividly. It was a good day for the three of us.

Unbelievably, I’ll never forget the morning of September 11, 2001 BEFORE the tragedy unfolded. I remember a few minutes before 7 am, right before my Dad would drive to the East Brunswick Transportation Center to take the bus to the city, he gave my mother a kiss goodbye and told all 3 Harder Boys he’d see us later. That always stuck with me, as one way or the other, we were always running around the house getting ready for school. However, on this day, we were all packed into the kitchen.

At 8:48 am in the morning, I was in the beginning of my 2nd period class of gym, looking to get my lock for my locker, when the world as we knew it started to change. By 9:15. I was in my printmaking class, watching everything unfold. Knowing how close my father, and coincidentally my Uncle Jim, was to the Twin Towers, I immediately got nervous. Around 9:45 am, I got called to the Main Office of South River High School, where I was told my father was OK.

Normally, if my father was running early, as he would be most mornings, he would have stopped off in front of the World Trade Center at a little muffin stand and got a muffin. However, on this morning, the traffic from New Jersey into Manhattan caused him to run a little late and he bypassed the muffin stand to go immediately to the Water Street office.  Just knowing that there might have been a chance my Dad would have been there when stuff went down freaks me out to this day.

Once everything started happening, my father went and called home. My mother was in the shower and little 4 year old Benny was downstairs watching Blue’s Clues. Benny picked up the phone and had a brief conversation with Big Norm, then went and knocked on the bathroom door. My mom, not knowing anything major was happening in the world, told Benny that she would call him back. A few minutes later, she got out and saw what was going on. She put 2 and 2 together and tried calling him back. The phone lines were jammed. My mom asked Benny “Was your father OK?” In return, Benny said he was.

As the Towers went down, I was for a loss of words. Without a clue at the time, I realized that the world had forever changed. New York, the state where I was born, had its skyline forever tampered with. More importantly, I was incredibly worried on how my Dad was going to get home.

I remember rushing home from school with my ex-girlfriend and just waiting in my house for any type of notice on the whereabouts of my Dad.  Around 3PM or a little later, my mother got a phone call. It was Big Norm on a cell phone. Not owning a cellular device, it was strange to hear that. After a minute or so, my Mom hung up and told us that Dad had gotten on a ferry out of Manhattan to New Jersey, which then led him one way or the other to getting to a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. He would then get on a bus home to the East Brunswick Transportation Center.

5PM, my two brothers and I waited in the living room. All of a sudden, we were hearing car honks coming from up the block to the house. Mom and the boys all came outside and saw the 1998 GMC Safari pull up in front of the house. My Dad was safe. I think we all gave him a hug that day.

At the time, I remember asking my Dad about what was it like, and I got some standard basic answers, like “They gave us a mask to wear once I left work,” and “I got a free hot dog and water on the street!” For the most part though, I know it bothered him.

My Dad worked in the city for another 6 months, until he got laid off and worked the remainder of his life in the great Garden State. However, for the next 6 months, he walked to his job every day through the toxins of that air that was still burning for months later at Ground Zero. I will NEVER say that my father got sick due to 9/11, but I will go on record and maintain that my father’s awful cough, which he had for the final 10 years of his life, came from that awful air that polluted Water Street in Manhattan. I have seen some skeptics call this “the World Trade Center Cough”. It has never been diagnosed as an official disease, but I can feel like that Big Norm’s cough was legitimately caused by that fateful day.

Two months before he died, on 9/11/13, I finally asked my father about that day. Being 12 years older, I just wanted to know what it was like for him on that day and to experience what had transpired. He opened up and told me some things. He, again, was late that morning, so he avoided the muffin stand entirely. He was in the office when he felt the building shake multiple times. He was told to wait at his desk until further notice. He indeed did talk to Benny, who was clueless to what was happening. Once all that happened transpired, he vacated his building and received a mask from the fire department and walked around aimlessly, trying to figure out how to get home. He then followed the police’s signals on where to go and ultimately got to the Seaport, where the Ferry took him to New Jersey.

You know what the most incredible part was? If my father continued to work at the Towers before he left in 1992, the plane would have smashed right into his work floor. To hear that from my old man stunned me. I had no idea. It honestly made me think of how lucky I was to have had him for another 12 years after that day. Others weren’t as grateful.

Life sadly goes on and forward. People never forget though what happened. I look back on that day and almost every time, I get upset thinking about the loss of life on that day. Firefighter Chris Pickford, my Uncle Jerry’s cousin, wasn’t as lucky. He always will remain in my prayers as a hero.

I guess I just needed to talk about this day and my father as a calming method. I miss my Dad every day, but I’m thankful that I found out about his trials and tribulations on that day and saw him home that night. To all that lost their loved ones 13 years later, you are still in my prayers. God bless all of you.


EPILOGUE (9.11.20) So, many years later, my mother and I got into a conversation about this blog. She said that every point in this blog was spot on...EXCEPT one point. My father didn't get on a ferry.

Big Norm and about six others hopped on a good samaritan's power boat and went to New Jersey, where he used someone's cell phone.

It actually makes the urge to get back home to his family that much more impactful.

God Bless America.

Jon Harder


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