Robert “Bobby” Ideishi in 2011. (MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo

It has been 20 years since Robert “Bobby” Ideishi, 66, escaped from the World Trade Center in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. Many thoughts flash across his mind from that day, yet one image has lingered all these years — the face of a firefighter, a captain, who spoke to him as they passed on the stairwell.

“What floor did you come from? Did everybody get out?” the captain asked, then he reassured Ideishi. “Just keep going. You’re going to be all right.”

“And I know he died,” Ideishi says. “I think back sometimes on being in the stairwell. I see his face and I think, ‘How sad.’ He was about the same age as me at the time, which was in his 40s. He was so heroic. Doing his job.”

Ideishi also remembers being on the bus, trying to come home to his wife and two daughters, who were 5 and 9 years old. “It’s not a bad flashback, but I gotta think about it every year (on 9/11) for a little while.

“I watch the ceremonies, the roll call of all the names (of those who died). I don’t know why I watch that, but I do it every year. And I do it alone because there are people that I saw that died, especially firemen. All the firemen that came up past us, they all died.”

Scott Ito

Scott Ito had volunteered to serve as a poll-watcher in New York’s Chinatown when on Sept. 11, he heard a loud boom. “It almost sounded like a bomb went off. I think everybody was kind of in shock. We heard someone say that a plane had run into the World Trade Center, and we all thought, ‘That must have been a horrible accident.’ I remember hearing hundreds of police cars racing downtown.

“Then when the second plane hit, everybody knew that there’s something wrong going on. After that, people were really freaked out. People were crying and really upset. We looked up, and we could see flames coming out of the building,” Ito recalls.  

According to Ito, there were a lot of rumors that it was terrorism. He headed back to his office and was told to go home.

“You just felt like the end of the world was coming,” Ito said. “I saw people walking from Lower Manhattan like zombies, men in suits covered with dust.

“One thing I had immediately thought of was being Japanese American and what the Japanese Americans had gone through (at the outbreak of World War II).  I was worried about the Muslim community here in New York City.

“I remembered all the hysteria around Japanese Americans and wondered what was going to happen to the Muslim American community,” Ito explained.

“The images that stay in my mind are the pictures posted around the city of people looking for their loved ones — on telephone poles, subway walls, etc. I remember just walking around.

“After a while, people just left the pictures as tributes or memorials to loved ones and friends who had passed away. It was very moving.”

Ito has two daughters who hadn’t been born yet when 9/11 happened. “I guess I’ve kept it buried inside me,” he admits. He and his family visited New York about three years ago and visited the memorial to the 9/11 victims.

For Ideishi, the desire to share what he learned on 9/11 became a calling. His daughters were in grammar school at the time. Their school asked him if he would speak to the students, to reassure them that he was okay and that the country was okay. Since then, he has willingly donated his time to share his experience “throughout California, for Boy Scouts, civic organizations, Kiwanis, Elks Clubs, a panel for the Japanese American National Museum, and for churches I don’t even belong to.”

Ideishi said he hopes that people will reflect on what they felt that day, “and I don’t mean the anger part. I mean the part that says, ‘Okay, I’m willing to help, be kinder’ … I hope reflecting back on that day will help people understand.

“I hope it will soften the cemented beliefs that you have right now, whether it’s the pandemic, whether it’s political, whether it’s immigration, vaccination, whatever it is…”

Robert Ideishi’s first-hand account of 9/11, first published in 2001, will be posted on The Rafu Shimpo’s website.

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