And I have nothing to give . . .except this gesture, this thread thrown between your humanity and mine: I want to hold you in my arms and as your soul got shot of its box of flesh to understand, as you have done, the wit of eternity: its gift of unhinged release tearing through the darkness of its knell.
The Dead of September 11th (Toni Morrison)
History books provide lessons, sans the muddy footprints. They present a narrative on the destructive nature of hatred, but only those who live through that history can truly speak to its ghastly dimensions. Eighteen years have removed us from that clear blue sky morning when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center and changed everything.
We are eighteen years removed from United Airlines Flight 175 banking hard and ramming into the South Tower and providing us with the horrible answer to all our many questions. Eighteen years removed from American Airlines Flight 77 breaching the west wall of the Pentagon. Eighteen years removed from Flight 93 plowing into a field in Pennsylvania as fighter jets raced to intercept its final destination.
The following are but a few of the mighty answers to the evil that men do. I chose stories that I’ve written on and read about, stories that moved me to tears and stories that left me knee deep in thoughts about forever. Stories whose afterglow provides me an eternal warmth.
Betty Ong and Madeline Amy Sweeney were the flight attendants on Flight 11 that morning. In the face of unimaginable horror, these two women managed to contact the airlines and thus provide authorities with crucial information on their attackers. And they stayed on the call from around the time their plane was hijacked until it lost signal moments before the attacks began.
Wherever the city needed him, that’s where you could find Father Mychal Judge. And that Tuesday morning was no different, as he arrived at the Trade Center shortly after the first plane hit. The NYFD Chaplain entered the North Tower with firefighters and rescue personnel, intent on climbing those stairs right along with them. He was killed by an avalanche of debris when the second plane hit.
Welles Crowther was an equities trader who was working on the 104th floor of the South Tower that morning. He called his mother after Flight 175 struck the South Tower to let her know he was okay. A volunteer firefighter, he had designs on joining the FDNY one day. September 11th became that day, as Crowther descended twenty six stories to the sky lobby, where he directed people to the one working staircase and then delivered them to firefighters before heading back up to save more. “The Man in the Red Bandana” is believed to have saved as many as eighteen people. Inside his final moments, he realized his dream so that others might live.
As head of corporate security for Morgan Stanley, Rick Rescorla had warned his company about the security weaknesses at the Trade Center. So when he was told by the Port Authority to keep all employees at their desks, he told them in no uncertain terms to “piss off”. After which he went about saving more than 2,700 people. He made it all the way down to the tenth floor of the South Tower with survivors, before turning around and heading back up for more. His body was never found.
At the Pentagon, Army Spc. Beau Doboszenski was working as a tour guide on the opposite side of the Pentagon when the building was hit. The massive structure is a city unto itself, so Doboszenski didn’t even realize there had been an attack initially. But the former volunteer firefighter and trained EMT sprang to action when a Navy captain asked for anyone with medical training. He ran around the building but was prevented from entering by police, so he gave first aid at a medical triage station. Later, he was part of a six man team that went back in to look for survivors, with the building still in flames.
It was due to the efforts of survivors and first responders that so many of the injured were able to make it outside of the Pentagon. That’s where Lieutenant Colonel Patricia Horoho went to work. Armed with nothing more than a first aid kit initially, Horoho tapped into her experience in burn care and trauma management. She cared for seventy five people that day.
The passengers and crew of Flight 93 knew full well they were not making it to Wednesday. They’d learned of the plot through friends and loved ones, which is when they decided to take matters into their own hands before the hijackers could deliver another wicked payload into another national landmark. And their actions speak not to some politicized t-shirt slogan, but to the better angels in us all.
The better angels are what Luis Alvarez believed in, because to believe otherwise would have been to leave his fallen brothers behind. And it was the fight in him that prevailed over that hopeless pit at Ground Zero for months on end after the attack; a painstaking search for any simple thread of humanity inside that hell on earth. And he would keep on fighting, into the final days of his life, along with Jon Stewart, to invoke that humanity on all the simple minds who prefer to forget.
Pat Tillman refused to forget. The California kid who busted it to get the last remaining football scholarship at Arizona State in 1994, was full of plans that were bigger than his 5’11” frame. And it was destined, really, that he would excel at college ball and get a shot at the NFL. He was picked by the Arizona Cardinals with the 226th pick in the 1998 NFL draft, and he was so thankful for the opportunity they had given him that years later, he turned down a big contract offer from the St. Louis Rams. Out of loyalty. Who does that?
Pat Tillman, that’s who. Because the kid never met a promise he wouldn’t keep, or a cause he wouldn’t stand behind. A gritty, hard nosed linebacker, Tillman was making an NFL life for himself when September 11th happened. And never mind that he was thousands of miles removed and times zones away . . because to Pat, Manhattan and Virginia and Pennsylvania were every bit as much his home as the place he laid his head. And all those people lost, his neighbors.
So the kid from central casting who was busy making bank playing the game he loved, decided to enlist in the Army. And dammit if he missed the fucking memo about athletes being self absorbed jerks. And dammit if the world is not the most unfair thing, because the kid from central casting didn’t make it home. And dammit but those numbers lie, because the casualties did not end at 2,977 on Tuesday, September 11th. Those numbers keep crawling upwards, like a furious rage of ivy into a sleepless sky.
Maybe there is no rectitude to the catechisms. Maybe faith is found inside the footprints of those who prosper the darkness so that we may gain the light.