On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Cory Coulter walked out of the apartment complex in Newark, N.J., that his company had rented and admired the weather.
The day before, when he flew in for a training class being held at the World Trade Center in New York City, the weather had been rainy and miserable. Coulter’s flight had been delayed. Now, the sky was clear and blue with temperatures in the 70s. He took the PATH train to the World Trade Center, and as security scanned his driver’s license at the South Tower he considered checking out the view from the observation deck on the 103rd floor and getting a quick breakfast at the food court on the 107th floor before his class.
Instead, Coulter opted to go straight to his class on the 25th floor. It was there, sitting in a conference room waiting for his class to start, that Coulter heard something like a thud. Burning debris began to fall past the conference room window. Someone walked in and ordered Coulter and his classmates to evacuate. On the way down, a classmate called his wife who told him a plane had hit the North Tower. Coulter’s class reached the World Trade Center plaza and was met by a maelstrom of fire engines, police cars and ambulances.
It was only later that day, over a cheeseburger and diet Coke in a hotel restaurant, that the Forsyth County resident learned the details and grasped the enormity of what had unfolded around him, of what he had survived.
“Not really understanding the full details while I’m wandering around New York made it easy for me to cope with it,” Coulter, 55, said. “I just wanted to go home.”
The anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attack in world history approaches again. This used to be a time when Coulter most wrestled with contemplative questions surrounding his experience of that day: What should I think about it? How should it make me feel?
Instead, it’s become the time of year where Coulter starts to get busy planning for his birthday party. Ever since the 9/11 attacks, Coulter has used the time around his birthday on Dec. 10 as an occasion to collect children’s gifts to donate to Toys for Tots, the charity run by the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.
It has been a therapeutic outlet for Coulter. As his first birthday after 9/11 approached, Coulter considered taking a trip back to New York. It might bring closure to all of his internal wrestling, he thought. Coulter also wanted to throw himself a big birthday party to celebrate that he would even get to have it. But he couldn’t afford to do both.
Coulter chose the party, and he added a wrinkle: all the guests had to bring a toy to give to charity.
“I came to the realization that there’s nothing in New York that I needed to see,” Coulter said. “How is this going bring me closer? It’s really not. The idea of collecting toys is something more therapeutic. Thirty-nine years old, and I haven’t really left a mark on the world. Now, I can start to do something here.”
Coulter chose to have that first one at a Rooster’s Café where he was a regular customer. Plenty of people showed up. They brought enough toys to make a nice pile. Toward the end of the night, Coulter started to hear the same question: Are you going to do it next year?
Coulter considered a trip to New York again, but the charity birthday party hooked him. It was something of a refuge too. He embraced the routine of preparations the event required: reaching out to sponsors, commissioning designs for his T-shirt giveaway, devising new ways to drum up awareness.
“It becomes my distraction,” Coulter said.
And it’s become more and more successful. Within a few years, Coulter was collecting at least 1,000 toys at his party. Last year, Coulter estimates it was close to 4,000. This year’s party will be Tuesday, Dec. 11, at 6 p.m. There will be another T-shirt giveaway and a 50/50 raffle. Santa Claus will show up at 6:30 p.m.
When Tuesday comes, Coulter won’t think much about that day in New York. He’s answered most of the nagging questions that arose out of his experience.
Yes, he can fly on an airplane. He did it in 2004 for a trip to Italy.
Yes, he can be in tall buildings. He went back to New York in 2014, with his wife, and toured the Empire State Building.
What made the biggest impression on Coulter during his return was the sight of One World Trade Center, the main building of the rebuilt World Trade Center complex, a 1,776-foot structure that rises higher than its predecessor.
“They knocked it down, we rebuilt it,” Coulter said. “That’s always been the American spirit. Keep moving forward.”