Brownsville dentist Tara Rios saw the World Trade Center bombing site at its most horrifying in the days after the 9/11 attacks as part of the team of forensic dentists who identified the victims and helped the authorities eventually say how many people died in the tragedy.
“I think that moment really connected us to the rest of the world, so looking back I think it was a moment of immense growth for the country and really the world when we realized, wow, we are really affecting each other,” Rios said, reflecting this past week on the events of 20 years ago.
In September 2001, Rios had just started a graduate fellowship in forensic odontology under Dr. David Senn at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. Senn is one of the leading forensic odontologists in the country and was deployed to the site immediately after the attacks to begin the identification process.
Forensic odontology, or dentistry, is the science of identifying human remains through dental records.
“I went because of my fellowship. I was just learning how to do forensic odontology. I was called there. We worked in teams with other dentists from across the country,” Rios said. “It was a concerted effort to identify every person. It was mission-driven, and the mission was to find every person that we could and give their remains back to their families.
“While I was there, we only identified one person, but we worked in teams, so it’s a process. … Everybody does their part one day and so the puzzle might not be put together until two months later.”
Like most Americans alive when the attacks occurred, Rios remembers exactly what she was doing when she found out. She said 9/11 and what came after is imprinted in her memory, and also that it’s hard to believe it has now been 20 years.
“It seems like a lifetime, it seems like another time,” she said. “We all know that 9/11 happened, and it seems it was just sort of accepted as the new normal.”
The impact of that time remained as time went on.
“I’ll never forget it, I don’t think any of us will ever forget. I’ll never forget the mission-driven people, where you have hundreds, I’m going to say it was hundreds. It was a process that went on for months and months,” she said.
Reflecting on the difference between then and now, she said, “If we learned something, we should have learned that our life on this planet is precious, and I feel like it’s such an honor to be alive right now. I personally am following my joy to the best of my ability. Every moment that we’re alive is a great joy.
“Obviously 9/11 was such a pivotal moment for the entire country, and I think for the world,” she added. “New York is the best of the country, it’s multi-cultural, It’s so many people come together and that’s what made it so painful. It is sort of like the epitome of our democracy, it being so diverse, the immigrants that have lived there for a long time. It’s just a great part of the United States.”
Rios has been back to New York City since 9/11 but not to the 9/11 memorial. She said she wants to visit the memorial, but there’s still a lot of sadness there.
After 9/11, she returned to Brownsville a changed person.
“It was at that time that I decided I was really going to be involved in public life,” she said.
“Going and seeing all the devastation caused me to say, what is my personal responsibility in helping my neighbor, but also our area and the Rio Grande Valley,” she said. “I came home and then I became a city council member on the Island and then a state representative. It just opened my eyes to the potential. I think a lot of people were different after we had this event happen in New York City. It changed everyone. … It was like we grew up. There was the way many of us believed the world was before 9/11 and then after. The world changed.”
These days, Rios hosts a podcast called Tara in the Neighborhood.
“It’s based off my favorite childhood star Mr. Rogers, and it’s the culmination of 20 years. I really now want to talk about all the good that people are doing. The shocking and controversial stuff gets all the attention in the media, but if you want to know where my life is 20 years later, it’s about searching for the beauty in everyday life. We highlight people around the Valley and the cool stuff they’re doing right in our backyard, in our neighborhood.”