When Ann Van Hine woke up on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, she was looking forward to the day ahead.
At the time, she was a ballet instructor with her own school in Bergen County, New Jersey, just northwest of New York City. Her husband, Bruce, a member of New York Fire Department (FDNY) Squad 41 out of the Bronx, was on duty; their two daughters, Emily and Megan, had just gone back to school.
The semester at Van Hine’s ballet school had not yet started, and that meant she had that sunny day all to herself. “I was very excited about that day because it was supposed to be a day for me that I could do anything I wanted,” she said.
Before getting her day started she stopped by her school to check some messages. She was back in her car, around 9:00 a.m. – then she heard the news.
“On the radio they were talking about a plane had hit the World Trade Center,” Van Hine said. “Then, as I put the car into reverse, they announced that another plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I just sat there for a few minutes to try to figure out what were they saying.”
Van Hine headed to their home in Greenwood Lake, New York (roughly 50 miles from Manhattan) and, as she did so, she heard yet another announcement on the radio.
This time it was FDNY issuing a total recall, signifying all firefighters to report to duty. Being the spouse of a firefighter herself, that’s when she realized the significance of the situation – the fire department doesn’t typically issue total recalls over public radio waves.
Like everyone else that day, when she made it home, she was glued to the TV, but broke herself away from it at some point to pick up her daughters from their high school. As day’s events unfolded before Van Hine’s eyes, she knew Bruce was out there on the grounds doing a job he was well trained to do.
“As a firefighter’s wife, I couldn’t think about exactly what he was doing,” she said “I just thought it is his job and he knows what he is doing and the other firefighters have his back.”
That thought carried her until just around midnight, when there was a knock on the door – the FDNY. Van Hine was told Bruce was unaccounted for.
Ann and Bruce Van Hine were married in 1980. When they wed, each were small business owners. Bruce was an arborist and owned his own company; Ann owned the ballet school. The couple were soon blessed with two daughters.
Living in the northeast, Bruce’s tree job was seasonal. This meant he had to pick up other kinds of work during the winter months.
One night, not long after they were married, the couple was sitting together at the dinner table. Bruce was looking for a job and unsure of what he should do. Ann asked him what he’d always wanted to be when he grew up.
Bruce, who was the first cousin of Mebane resident Jean White and second cousin of Mebane resident Jonathan White, said he’d always wanted to be a New York City firefighter.
“So, go do that,” Ann said to him. So, he did.
In the summer of 1980, Bruce registered to take the test, which was offered a year later in September 1981.
“He took the written test, the physical test, the psychological test, and the list came out and he had done fairly well,” Van Hine said. “We assumed he’d be hired any time, but that list ended up in the midst of a lawsuit – it was in the discrimination against women lawsuit. So, the city could not hire off that list until they redid the physical test.”
So, Bruce began working at for the West Point Fire Department in West Point, NY until, in 1990, he was hired on at the FDNY.
After years of waiting, Bruce achieved his lifelong dream and was a New York City firefighter. He was originally stationed on Engine 79, Truck 37 then ended up being assigned to Squad 41.
Sunday, September 9, 2001. That was the last time Ann and her daughters saw Bruce. He was on duty Sunday night through Monday night, and he had scheduled himself for what is called a makeup tour on Tuesday. Makeup tours allow firefighters to get their schedule the way they want it.
“We had decided he would spend Monday night at the Firehouse because, why drive over an hour, probably hour and a half, home to sleep to drive back,” Van Hine said.
Exactly how everything unfolded that day for Bruce and Squad 41 is unclear. “My understanding is that after the first plane hit, they were sent to lower Manhattan to actually go into Squad 18, but as they were heading to lower Manhattan the second plane hit so they went straight to the World Trade Center,” Van Hine said.
Bruce, four other firefighters and one lieutenant, all from Squad 41, went up into the second tower after it was hit and got quite high up. The other members of Squad 41 believe they got up to the first sky lobby, around the 44th floor. The group was headed back down with civilians when the tower collapsed.
“But [the remainder of] Squad 41 did not know, exactly, where they’d gone into, that was why he was unaccounted for,” Van Hine said. “They eventually found where the truck was parked and realized they must have gotten into the building.”
As mentioned above, Ann Van Hine and her daughters wouldn’t learn what happened to Bruce until around midnight that night, when Lieutenant Charlie Schmid of Squad 41, now retired, came to their home to tell them the news.
“They said he was unaccounted for and, to that, I responded, ‘I have no doubt God can get me through this but I don’t want to go through this,’” Van Hine said. “The minute I said, ‘I don’t want to,’ in my head I thought of myself always saying to my own daughters, and to all my students, ‘Most of life has nothing to do with what you want to do.’”
Ann said she didn’t feel dread – she was in disbelief, dumbfounded that something like this would even happen. In the days that followed, the FDNY and the Van Hine’s family and friends rallied them. But the shock, the pain of it all – not just Bruce’s death but that day overall – was immeasurable.
“We had a personal loss in the midst of an international tragedy and there’s really nothing to tell you how to do that,” Van Hine said.
On September 18, a week later, the FDNY announced the site was moving from rescue to recovery – they no longer expected to find anyone else alive. Not long after that announcement, Van Hine sat her daughters down and asked them, “Where do you think daddy is right now?” They both answered, “Heaven.”
“Then I said that we need to have a memorial service; our faith is very important to us and that is what has sustained me through all these years,” Van Hine said. “We planned a memorial service for September 29, 2001 and that service brought glory to our God, which was important to us, and it also celebrated Bruce’s life.”
Following that service, on October 1, Van and the girls set out to establish what they called their “new normal,” as they tried to move forward from the tragedy.
But, in March 2002, this new normal was shaken up when Ann got some surprising news. Bruce’s body had been recovered. Lt. Schmid asked Van Hine if she wanted to come see his body carried out; she declined, and said, “There are some images I can’t have my head.”
Schmid told her it would take roughly six weeks to identify the body to ensure it was Bruce’s. Ann didn’t tell her daughters until he was identified.
Asked how it was to get this news, both for her and her daughters, when they had been working so hard on moving forward, Van Hine said, “It was, suddenly, like this boat you’ve been in that’s going along smoothly is now rocking.”
In the years that have followed that day, Van Hine has been on a journey. One which parallels the evolution of Ground Zero from a place of death and destruction into the moving Memorial Plaza it is today. Van Hine explained this.
She said after the attack, the site was called the pile, because all the debris was there. After the debris was cleared, it was called the pit – a void serving as reminder of what was lost. After the pit, came the plaza, which filled the void that was the pit.
“So, in a way to me, I had the attack of losing Bruce – and we all have things that happen in our life that just shake you to your very foundation,” Van Hine said. “Then, there’s a pile of stuff you have to go through, is it funeral arrangements or is it figuring out treatments or is it finding a new job? Whatever it is, eventually, you’ve gone through the pile, and now there’s a pit and that’s when you realize what’s really lost. And how do you reclaim that, how do you fill the hole to become whole again? Then, hopefully, you end up with a plaza.”
As much as 9/11 affected the Van Hine family, Ann has always been sure to make sure it is not what defines them. This is something she has stressed to her daughters.
“I always said to them that September 11 did not define them – they were not children of 9/11, their dad died in the line of duty,” she said. “They do appreciate when people say to them, ‘Your dad was the hero’ or ‘Thank you for your sacrifices,’ but they didn’t lose a hero, they lost their daddy.”
On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Van Hine hopes Americans will remember everyone who was affected, directly or indirectly, by the events of that day. She noted it’s important to remember and honor those survived just as much as those who died.
“I want people, especially this year being 20 years out, to remember the people that saw things that day that nobody should ever see,” Van Hine said. “With tragedies, and it’s right, we focus on the loss, but there are people that saw things on September 11 that nobody should see, ever…”
Van Hine mentioned employees at the World Trade Center and those who came down with 9/11 related illnesses, in particular.
“There are many people that have died since from 9/11-related illnesses and there are many people that are ill with 9/11-related illnesses – so, that’s kind of what I want people to think, I appreciate they think of who they consider the heroes, which Bruce would never call himself a hero, he would tell you he was doing his job,” she said. “But there were other people whose lives were totally turned upside down that day and they were heroic, too. They got themselves out, they got their friends out, they got total strangers out, they moved forward in their lives and we need to remember that, too. It’s been said that on that day, we saw the worst of humanity, but we also saw the best of humanity.”
Ann Van Hine has written a book about her journey during and after 9/11, titled “Pieces Falling: Navigating 9/11 with Faith, Family, and the FDNY,” published just last month.