Naples woman who worked near Ground Zero finds memories too fresh to return

Reporter: Lindsey Sablan Writer: Joey Pellegrino
Published: Updated:
Claire O’Keefe, (Credit: WINK News)

20 years have passed since 9/11, but for a woman who frequented Ground Zero, the memories of pain and loss have not.

Claire O’Keefe, who now lives in Naples, is a New Yorker at heart, and her office sat across from the World Trade Center on that horrific day.

“20 years later, I have never been back to Ground Zero,” O’Keefe said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever go back.”

O’Keefe, now associate dean of admissions at Ave Maria Law School, worked at the Office of the New York State Attorney General one-and-a-half blocks away from the World Trade Center. However, she wasn’t present on 9/11.

“This is my neighborhood; I would look out every night and see the Trade Center,” O’Keefe said. “I would walk to work… and the Trade Centers to my left. I’d go shopping there at lunchtime… it was Manhattan.”

That very same heart of Manhattan was struck a terrible blow, killing 2,606 in minutes.

“I remember all I could see was the orange dust and silence… I mean, silence like you’ve never heard before,” O’Keefe said. “The next morning, we went to pick up my car at the train station, and there were still so many cars sitting there, and I thought, ‘Are these people who are not coming home?'”

She says she should have been out on the street, getting her bagel “at that exact moment.” O’Keefe still has an email that serves as a stark reminder of the danger and confusion of that day. It’s dated 9/11, at 9:24 a.m. The subject is “Evacuation of 120 Broadway” and reads: “As a result of a possible terror attack on the World Trade Center, a precautionary evacuation of 120 Broadway is underway.”

Thankfully, O’Keefe was three hours north, getting off an Amtrak in Albany.

“I heard someone say, ‘The Trade Center’s collapsed,'” O’Keefe said. “And I thought, ‘What are they talking about?'”

She watched the second tower collapse on TV like so many other Americans. Unlike many Americans, however, she rushed back into the city. Newspapers she’s kept for 20 years show what she headed towards.

“There was this haze, this orange, and the smell—I’ll never forget the smell as long as I live,” O’Keefe said. “I could not believe that it had happened.”

10 days later, she returned to her office, within an area remembered in one article of the time as “Hell’s Half-Acre.”

“If you shifted your blotter or stacks of paper, you could see the outline of the dust,” O’Keefe said. “But it wasn’t just dust, and you knew that. You know, I lost somebody I went to high school with.”

For months, she attended memorials, walked out of the subway to see people holding posters of their missing loved ones, and wondered how someone could do that to the country. Then came a day in October when she walked into work to find 22 voicemails. The first saved message was from Tuesday, Sept. 11, at 8:52 a.m.

“Claire, where are you?” it asked.

O’Keefe remembers gasping, “to hear the terror, the absolute terror in their voices, I’ll never forget it.”

While Claire O’Keefe has never been back to Ground Zero, she is spending this anniversary in the city and going to a Mets and Yankees game on Sept. 10. The Mets played 10 days after the attack to deliver a message about American resilience, and 20 years later, she’ll be among the people delivering that message yet again.

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