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Chicagoans remember 9/11: ‘Our mission is not over’

A McKinley Park man who was in New York City when the attacks happened recalled the tragedy Saturday as Chicago honored the nearly 3,000 lives lost.

Members of the Chicago Fire Department walk past two fire trucks hoisting an American flag during the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Members of the Chicago Fire Department walk past two fire trucks hoisting an American flag during the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Jose Carlos Vega was on his way to work at the World Trade Center 20 years ago Saturday when his life’s trajectory forever changed.

He remembers Sept. 11, 2001, being a normal yet extraordinarily beautiful morning in New York City. His train came to a premature and abrupt stop, and the conductor urgently yelled at passengers to get off.

Vega, unaware of what had happened and slightly aggravated that he had to wrestle through a crowd to walk the rest of the way to his office, made his way up the stairs from the subway station. He found the city eerily quiet, with the exception of some emergency vehicle sirens. That’s when he noticed a piece of paper floating down from above, which prompted him to look up.

“I followed the flow of the paper, which led my eyes to the World Trade Center, which I saw burning. After seeing the debris and other objects falling from the building, realizing that some of them were human beings,” Vega recalled in his native Chicago Saturday morning. “It didn’t actually register in my mind [until] later that evening.”

“There are things that I bore witness to on that horrific day that I choose not to share,” he continued. “I found myself walking backwards throughout the city, routinely turning around to look at the World Trade Center,” which he said was “hypnotizing and horrific at the same time.”

Veteran Carlos Vega speaks about his experience of the 9/11 attack during the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 at the Richard J. Daley Plaza in the Loop, Saturday morning, Sept. 11, 2021.
Veteran Carlos Vega speaks about his experience of the 9/11 attack during the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 at the Richard J. Daley Plaza in the Loop, Saturday morning, Sept. 11, 2021.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Vega remembers being in an auditorium and watching on screen as the twin towers collapsed, adding “we still would not believe it” to be truly happening.

Vega, who grew up in McKinley Park, recalled that devastating day in front of a crowd of hundreds of veterans and first responders who gathered downtown to reflect on the 20th anniversary of the events that changed the world.

The memorial event included Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Police Supt. David Brown and Fire Department Commissioner Annette Nance-Holt, all commemorating the nearly 3,000 lives lost and countless others impacted by the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The chorus of drums and bagpipes echoed through Daley Plaza. The music stopped just before 7:45 a.m. central time, marking the moment the first plane crashed into the North Tower. The congregation observed a moment of silence; the only sounds heard was the rumbling of a nearby ‘L train and the howling of wind between the skyscrapers.

A Chicago Fire Department helicopter flew over the crowd and Chicago Fire Battalion Chief Jake Jakubec struck a bell multiple times.

Patrick McParland, a Navy veteran who lives on the city’s Far Southeast Side, held up an oversized flag that he got from one of the vessels he worked on, saying: “I just looked at this as some way to pay tribute to those that have fallen, those who have lost family members, loved ones and friends. It’s a small token of my appreciation for what they’ve done.”

Vega’s niece Sonia Lopez called the event “really inspiring.”

“I think it’s just like a nice reminder to come together and remember to stay together,” said Lopez, who drove in from Wheaton to support her “Uncle Carlos.”

Lopez said she was in her eighth grade math class at the time of the attacks. Her teacher told the students to huddle under their desks. She recalled being fearful and unsure of what was happening.

When Lopez found out the World Trade Center had collapsed, she immediately worried for her uncle’s safety.

“I can’t believe it’s been 20 years... I still remember the feeling, the scare, the nervousness, like what [Vega] went through,” Lopez said.

The images from that day were burned into Vega’s memory. He said he’ll never forget the first responders who selflessly put their lives in jeopardy to help save others.

Witnessing the aftermath of the attacks inspired Vega to join the military, serving two tours in Iraq. Now, Vega said he helps veterans who struggle with post traumatic stress disorder.

“The way we live our life from this day forward will determine how we honor those that are no longer with us today,” Vega told the crowd. “Our mission is not over.”