This essay, published on
Tuesday, September 7, 2021, is exclusive to
TWENTY YEARS LATER: REMEMBRANCE AND REBIRTH
By Chris Matthew Sciabarra
Towers, from the Staten Island Ferry, May 12, 2001
Photograph by Chris Matthew Sciabarra
For twenty years now, I've been writing an annual remembrance of the events of September 11, 2001---primarily through interviews with those who survived that day, but also through pictorials and personal reflections. Readers have access to an easy index above, linking to each of the installments in this series.
Over the past year-and-a-half, I've written well over thirty installments as part of another series---on the Coronavirus pandemic---in which I've grappled again with the reality of mass death in the city of my birth. I never could have imagined at the turn of the millennium that my hometown would have been Ground Zero over the next two decades for two of the most life-altering events of the twenty-first century.
But here we are on the precipice of another September 11th anniversary---this one, twenty years later. Indeed, it was on a cloudless, sunny late summer Tuesday morning---not unlike today in NYC---that the events of that day unfolded to forever change the lives of so many people in this town, and all over the world.
The best way I know how to commemorate 9/11 is to take my readers through the past two decades of what I've written here, chronologically, in snippets from each of the featured pieces, which provide a kaleidoscopic view of the events of that day and its aftermath. Stories of loss, of courage, of remembrance and rebirth.
In what would become the first installment of this series, "As it Happened ...," I reproduced a message posted to the Atlantis discussion group at 1:20 p.m. on 9/11/2001, less than three hours after both the North and South Towers had collapsed. I wrote:
Most of my loved ones are safe, but we have not yet heard from a few friends and relatives who work in what used to be the Trade Center. We are all devastated over this tragedy. Though I've thought about such apocalyptic destruction---especially when the World Trade Center was bombed last time---I never thought I'd see the day that the Twin Towers would be brought down in rubble, and that they would never be a part of the skyline of my home. The thousands of people whose lives have been snuffed out, the millions of people who are directly affected by this... I just can't tell you how horrific all of this is. I only know that when I went out to walk my dog for her second walk of the day, in the late morning hours, the sky was gray with smoke, and it was raining white ash. I live in Brooklyn... and the F-16s are flying above. I'll be in touch.
Take care, and thank you, Chris
I didn't know at the time that some of those friends would indeed be lost forever. As I observed in the second installment of my annual series, "New York, New York" (7 September 2002), I also didn't know "as it happened" that the grayish-white ash falling on me as I walked my dog was partly constituted by the remains of pulverized human beings. The following year, in my third installment, I wrote a tribute to the Twin Towers (9 September 2003), which---truth be told---were not my favorite NYC buildings. I related how, since its opening in 1973, the Twin Towers had slowly won me over, even if the Empire State Building remained my #1 NYC skyscraper. Still, "the hole in my city's skyline" mirrored "the one in my heart"; I lamented that, with the WTC gone, the Empire State Building was "the tallest building in New York City. Again."
In the fourth installment of my series (7 September 2004), I published the first of many interviews I would conduct over the years with those who had been involved, in some personal way, with the tragedy of 9/11. My Friend Ray took center stage. As my first interview subject, Ray Mercado recollected the events of that day in chilling detail. Ray was working in the NYC Mayor's Office of Operations, on the 20th floor of 100 Church Street, just one small block from the Twin Towers. His description engaged each of the five basic senses: He heard the roar of the first plane as it slammed into the North Tower and witnessed the second plane crashing into the South Tower; he felt the impact of these crashes as they shook the office building in which he was stationed. He saw human beings jumping out of the higher floors of the Towers, smelled the acrid odor of the flames, and tasted the soot that engulfed the air of lower Manhattan. But the worst was yet to come. His cousin Harry had been in touch with his wife as he descended to the 42nd floor of the North Tower to assure her that he was okay. That was the last time anyone heard from him. The family would have a memorial service for Harry---only to have to relive the unfathomable sadness four months later, when Harry's leg was recovered and positively identified, requiring the family to gather a second time to inter the limb in a cemetery plot.
The fifth installment of my series focused on Patrick Burke, Educator (8 September 2005). Patrick taught mathematics for 34 years in the NYC public school system, and in 1998, became principal of the High School of Economics and Finance (HSEF) at 100 Trinity Place, one block south of the WTC. On this bright September summer morning, only the fifth day of classes for the 750 students in attendance at the school, Patrick was conducting a staff meeting at the time that the North Tower was struck. Glancing out the window, he saw that the loud boom that shook the school building had left a shower of glass, steel, and cement in its wake. His gut instincts told him this was an explosion, similar to the one that had rocked the same tower in February 1993. He immediately directed a shelter drill and went to each of the floors to assess the emotional state of students, none of whom had seen what had happened in the streets outside the school. By the time the South Tower was pierced by another incoming plane, Patrick and his staff knew that something extraordinarily bad was happening. In touch with both the Superintendent's Office and Office of School Safety, Patrick and his colleague Ada Rosario Dolch, principal at the High School for Leadership and Public Service (at 90 Trinity Place), coordinated a systematic student evacuation. Once the floors of the HSEF were fully evacuated, Patrick made sure the building was empty and joined other staff members as they and the students walked toward Greenwich Street. Yet, even the most systematic and orderly of evacuations could not have anticipated the utter chaos caused by the collapse of the South Tower as dust, ash, and debris engulfed everything in its path. The blackness endured for what seemed like an eternity, but Patrick was undaunted in his singular purpose to assist in the transport of students from Lower Manhattan by foot or by tugboat across the rivers. Patrick was among those educators who made sure that not a single student in attendance in a New York City public school was among the casualties that day.
Our Cousin Scott was the subject of the sixth installment of my series (5 September 2006). Sitting in his office on the 89th floor of the North Tower, talking on the phone as the clock ticked toward 8:46 a.m., Scott suddenly felt the building rock violently. He remembered how out of control his body felt, as if it were on one of those swinging cars on the famous Coney Island Wonder Wheel. As that giant Ferris wheel reaches a certain height, the swinging cars fly from its center to the outer rims. A person feels as if they are going to go right off the track, into the air, crashing into the street below. "Except when you're in the building," cousin Scott explained, "you know you're not on a ride. And that was one of the feelings that hasn't left me and that hasn't left some of the other people: the fact that you were helpless and the building was going over. And you're looking down at the window and you're just holding on, and you just don't know if it's going to stop. ... You think that the building is going to crack in half and that you're going to go tumbling down." But suddenly, the building snapped back. Scott did not know that he was only a couple of floors below a space from which no human beings would survive. After a treacherous descent to the lobby, he ran from the North Tower, five or six minutes before its collapse. His exit was met by a sight that he will never forget: individual human beings jumping from the higher floors, some using their coats as makeshift parachutes, doing anything to escape the bellowing smoke, intense heat, and diesel-fueled flames that would have surely consumed them inside the Towering Inferno they inhabited. This image remained seared into the memories of so many others whom I interviewed for this series.
My friend Charlie Pomaro was featured in the seventh installment of my series, "Charlie: To Build and Rebuild" (11 September 2007). Back in the summer of 1972, having graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School, Charlie worked as a laborer for DIC Underhill, a concrete contractor, and he was among those who poured concrete from the 45th floor to the roof of the new Twin Towers. When the Towers fell on September 11, Charlie felt as if a little piece of him was lost with them. So it was only natural for him to rush to Ground Zero in the days after the tragedy, among those volunteers who transported food, medical supplies, and other equipment to the site to assist in the quest to find and save survivors. That only eighteen survivors were pulled from the rubble---after the collapse had killed over 2,600 people---was a fact too difficult to process. As his daughter later recollected, Charlie would return home from his days of toil at Ground Zero, "covered in dust and debris, the look of fatigue and pure sadness in his eyes as he---the strongest man I have ever known---looked up at us and broke down into tears because of the horrific things he had just witnessed. That was the moment that the truth of the pure devastation that was 9/11 became real to me. My father, a man whose two hands had the strength to build such a strong and magnificent structure as the Twin Towers, was standing in front of me filled with such sadness that he could do nothing else but cry and lend his two hands and his heart to help clean up the pieces of a shattered building and the shattered lives that were created with its collapse."
"Eddie Mecner: Firefighter" was the first time in my series that I interviewed an FDNY 9/11 first-responder (9 September 2008). Eddie was among those firefighters who took part in the recovery efforts after the WTC bombing on 26 February 1993. But nothing could have prepared him for what he witnessed on September 11. That morning, he was completing a 24-hour shift when he was informed of a plane accident at that same North Tower of the World Trade Center. He and his brothers drove down the West Side Highway and got to the North Tower, making their way up with weighty equipment, including heavy extrication tools and giant Halligan-like crow bars that might help them to open up stubborn sealed doors. They got as far as the 23rd floor before they felt an enormous rumble---the South Tower vanishing from sight in the south-facing windows. The North Tower was declared structurally unsafe, and it was a race in time to evacuate before a similarly catastrophic collapse would engulf them. But the lobby of the North Tower had been blocked up to the fourth floor by debris from the South Tower, and it took extra effort to get out of the building, as dangerous debris and people jumping out of windows were crashing into the ground all around them. Two or three minutes after his exit from the North Tower, the building vanished behind him. Eddie had barely escaped with his life. Eddie worked on The Pile for 2-3 months, but precious few bodies---or body parts---were recovered. "We didn't find anything," Eddie told me. "To tell you the truth, it was just like looking through dust. You're just looking through dirt and dust. You'd find, like, pieces of metal. You would think that you would find ... a door handle. Or something from a sink. Or a bathroom. Or some porcelain. Or metal. You didn't find anything. ... All you found ... dust, and dirt, and rebar and I-beams... There wasn't anything I could identify," because everything, including human bodies, had been pulverized by the collapse. So many of those with whom Eddie worked were lost---343 firefighters in all, a total that does not include the more than 200 firefighters who have since died from 9/11-related illnesses borne from the toxins they handled in the recovery effort. Eddie prides himself on his ability to maintain a straightforward and calm demeanor, but the loss of his buddies remains tough to comprehend. "There's just so, so many."
"Lenny: Losses and Loves" (11 September 2009), the ninth installment in my series, tells the story of Lenny Trerotola. On the morning of September 11, Lenny, who had been a music teacher at New Dorp High School on Staten Island, was at work in the Staten Island District Office of BASIS (Brooklyn and Staten Island High Schools). When the first plane hit the North Tower, Lenny could only think of four family members who worked in Lower Manhattan, three of whom worked in the Towers themselves. All but his sister-in-law, Lisa, got out of harm's way. "Lisa was a very devoted Mom," Lenny told me. "While the kids were babies, she continued to work every other week as an administrative assistant for the Port Authority, in order to supplement the family income. Unfortunately, for her, it was her turn to work on the day of the attacks." The night before those attacks, Lisa, who loved arts and crafts, was up until 2 a.m., making decorative bags for her kids. She was asthmatic and her descent from the 64th floor of the North Tower, where she worked, was slow and labored. She spoke to her parents and to her husband---Lenny's brother Michael---by cell phone, until they lost contact about fifteen minutes before the North Tower disappeared. It would be a while before the family received confirmation of Lisa's death; "some of her remains were found along with some of her jewelry." But Lenny also lost a cousin that day (FDNY Battalion Chief Joseph Grezlak) and a dear friend (firefighter Allan Tarasiewicz). Reflecting back on the events of September 11, Lenny stated: "I don't know that you ever really get over it. We have to move on but we can't forget that infamous day. The lives of my family members, as everyone else who was impacted by this tragedy, are forever changed."
In the tenth installment of my series (11 September 2010), I interviewed "Tim Drinan, Student," who provided a unique perspective on the tragedy, as a sophomore at Stuyvesant High School, one of the city's specialized high schools, which was situated in the shadow of the Twin Towers. Tim's first period English class had begun at 8:45 a.m., a mere minute before the first plane struck the North Tower. He remembered that he felt a sort of "trembling" in the building, but nothing significant. That "trembling" returned 17 minutes later, when the South Tower was hit. By 9:30 a.m., during his second period mathematics class, the teacher told the students to pack up and follow him outside the classroom. The main entrance doors were locked and outside there was a sea of people, mostly parents, seeking to retrieve their children. But the students were instructed to return to their homerooms. Tim's homeroom was on the seventh floor, facing south, and "for some time," Tim recollected, "it could have been 3 minutes, but it felt like an hour---we were there by ourselves, a bunch of 15-year-olds, crowded around the windows, watching the Twin Towers burn. I remember ... the jumpers. From our vantage point, we could see straight into the thick black hole that the first plane had bored in the North Tower. And we could see people jumping out of the upper floors. At first it wasn't clear what they were, but it was the same motion, over and over: A small white speck, shaped like a capital 'T.' They would appear at the edge of the building, and they would fall forward, towards us, with the T flipping upside-down, and then they would shoot down into the mass of smoke." This, however, was not the only image that remained deep in Tim's consciousness. More importantly, perhaps, was his observation that this "was also a day filled with gratitude---gratitude that my friends and family were okay, that I was able to get home, that there were kind people on the street giving out water and bread to anyone who needed it. That day, and in the days that followed, this city came together in a way that I have never seen. From delivery men to grocers to strangers on the subway, everyone made eye contact with me. Everyone's look seemed to say 'We're here, all of us. We're here, and we're grateful, and we'll take care of each other. We will.'"
"Ten Years Later", the eleventh installment in my series (11 September 2011), gave me an opportunity to take stock of the first decade after the events of that painful day. It also provided me with the opportunity to return to Tim Drinan who emphasized, tellingly: "Our lives and our cities and our friendships have a way of absorbing shockwaves, and sometimes there is no telling when the ripples will cease." Indeed, I echoed Tim's words when I observed at the time: "If the tenth anniversary of September 11 provides any enduring lessons, it is that the ripples never cease. Not in the lifetimes of those of us who lived to bear witness. Ultimately, it is our willingness to own the memory of darkness that lights the way to renewal." It is a theme to which I have returned, and will return, again and again.
Part of that renewal process involved visiting "A Memorial for the Ages" (11 September 2012), my twelfth installment, which was primarily a haunting pictorial of the grounds of the National September 11 Memorial. "As one moves into the Memorial site," I wrote, "one becomes aware that this is still a place of immense suffering. Each of the two Tower footprints on the site is outlined by 30-foot waterfalls, cascading into a reflecting pool and then into a void. It is a symbolic absence, conjoined to a presence: the names of the dead, engraved on granite panels, around the perimeter of each of the footprints. People's names are grouped by the Towers in which they were last present, and among those individuals with whom they spent their final moments." But I was also struck by how these grounds were teeming with life---hundreds of visitors, moving among the 400 white oak trees, the one exception being "a Callery pear tree known as the 'Survivor Tree,'" which, as a Commemorative Guide pointed out, "was planted on the original World Trade Center plaza in the 1970s, and stood at the eastern edge of the site near Church Street. After 9/11, workers found the damaged tree, reduced to an eight-foot-tall stump, in the wreckage at Ground Zero. The tree was nursed back to health in a New York City park [Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx] and grew to be 30 feet tall, sprouting new branches and flowering in the springtime. In March 2010, the tree was uprooted by severe storms, but true to its name, it survived. In December 2010, the tree returned to the WTC site. Standing just west of the south pool, it embodies the story of survival and resilience that is so important to the history of 9/11." The quiet solemnity of the site was among its most moving attributes.
In the thirteenth installment of my annual series, I interviewed "My Friend Matthew: A 9/11 Baby of a Different Stripe" (11 September 2013). I wrote: "The '9/11 Baby' has referred variously to babies born on 11 September 2001, or babies born to mothers whose fathers were killed in the tragedy of that horrible day in American history. But there is a '9/11 Baby' of a different stripe: people who were born on 9/11 in years long preceding the one that earned its place among days of infamy. For me, 9/11 was always a special date ... and it still is, but not only for the obvious experience of memory, for which I have written an annual remembrance ever since. It is because it is the birthday of one of the closest friends I have ever had in my life, a man whose generosity, support, guidance, love ... have taught me a thing a two." My friend Matthew was born on September 11, 1967. Ironically, he had been out quite late with friends on the evening of Monday, September 10, 2001---the night before his 34th birthday. At 5 o'clock in the morning of September 11, he decided to take the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel en route to the Belt Parkway, the Verrazano Bridge, and his home on Staten Island. Before entering the Tunnel, he passed directly in front of the Twin Towers on the West Side Highway, a growing shimmer of light coming from the promise of a sunrise on what was to be a gorgeous late summer day. We were supposed to have a surprise birthday party for Matt the following weekend, but the party never materialized---because downtown Manhattan was a simmering graveyard, New York was in a state of war; bridges and tunnels were still closed, and most people found it impossible to travel beyond their immediate homes. As I wrote in 2013, "[t]here rarely is a time when Matthew has called a company or a financial institution or a customer service agency, and has not been asked to verify his date of birth. And invariably, the mere mention of 9/11 generates a discussion of how he can celebrate the event of his birth on a day now so filled with the painful memory of tragedy. I always emphasize to him: It was your day long before it became the day of terrorism. And on this date, September 11, 2013, you are still here, a living, breathing tribute to the spirit of New York. And an embodiment of the meaning of friendship. Happy birthday, my dear friend. It's something to celebrate. Always." Matthew is still in my life---and our friendship is still "something to celebrate." Always.
The fourteenth installment of my annual series brought me back to Ground Zero, as I visited "A Museum for the Ages" (11 September 2014) in a pictorial documentation of its contents. I wrote:
The main floors provide a sense of the grandeur that was once the Twin Towers: spacious, open, creative. And yet, it seems as if the more one descends into this extraordinary Museum, the more one descends into the deepest rings of a real-llfe Dante's Inferno; the most emotionally wrenching aspect of the museum was off limits to photography. It is not hard to figure out why. The reflective pools above mark the footprints of the North and South Towers, and provide one with an opportunity for placid moments of quiet reflection, in honor of the nearly three thousand who perished. By contrast, the Museum below is quite literally a descent into a hellish abyss. Here, the Museum tells the story in all of its nightmarish details. At the Museum's core is a claustrophobic exhibit that chronicles the actual 102 minutes of the events that began on a beautifully clear late summer morning, whose blue skies were soon blackened by the worst attack on American soil in United States history. We are led from 8:46 am, when the first plane, American Airlines Flight 11, hit the North Tower until 10:28 am, when that Tower collapsed. It follows the events systematically, and includes film and artifacts tracing the hit of the South Tower by United Airlines Flight 175 (at 9:03 am, and its collapse at 9:59 am), the attack on the Pentagon at 9:37 am (by American Airlines Flight 77), and the battle for United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed at 10:03 am, into a field in Stoneycreek Township, Pennsylvania, largely a result of the attempts of heroic passengers who attempted to wrest control of the cockpit. ... Words cannot possibly capture the overwhelming emotions that visitors experience in this Chamber of Horrors: from grief and sorrow to anger and rage. I felt that whole array of emotions, crying effortlessly at the sounds that bombarded me from all directions---the voices of confused air traffic controllers as the airspace across the country was closed; the sounds of voice mail messages left by individuals who knew their lives were doomed and who consoled their loved ones to go on living with the knowledge that they were loved; the sounds of beepers, relentlesssly pinging to alert those in search of the living and the dead who were buried beneath the rubble. Here in this exhibit, it is history as if it were in real-time.
In my fifteenth installment, a pictorial of pain gave way to a pictorial of renewal: "A New World Trade Center Rises From the Ashes" (11 September 2015). I observed that the new One World Trade Center "has risen from the ashes, like a veritable phoenix, giving life to what remains, in effect, a cemetery. To that end, it provides visitors with a vision of the power of human ability to truly rise above tragedy, celebrating as this site should, the greatness of the human imagination."
That portrait of possibility could not obscure the intensely personal and painful turn I took in 2016, in my sixteenth---and most autobiographical---installment: "Fifteen Years Ago: Through the Looking Glass of a Video Time Machine" (11 September 2016). So very difficult to write, that installment encapsulates so much of what I experienced when "the city of my birth, the city I still call home, was changed forever by an attack of unbearable madness." Essentially, I reviewed all the video recordings I had of the actual events I'd taped in real time on September 11. One passage in particular captures the anguish, pain, and fear that flooded my consciousness:
By 9:43 a.m., the chaos is spreading throughout the country. The growing fear is palpable among reporters, those they interview, and viewers at home. At least this viewer. The phone rings; it's my sister again, I am reminded that she needs her asthma medication, and that I have to get to the pharmacy, just a few blocks from our home. I kept the video tape running, but I took my Sony Walkman---remember those?---which was a compact cassette player with an AM/FM transistor radio. I walked down the flight of stairs from our apartment, the second floor of a two-family house. And as I neared Kings Highway, walking toward our local pharmacy, I looked to the North sky. On a clear day, one could sometimes actually see the top of the Twin Towers from this vantage point; but the clear day was gone. Dark smoke was beginning to move toward Brooklyn like an ominous cloud. Entering Kingsway Pharmacy, I chatted with Alex, its owner, while I waited for the prescription to be filled. We were both in shock over the events that had transpired. I tell him that the announcer on the all-news radio station WINS 1010 AM has just informed us that the FAA has grounded all air traffic nationwide. It was 9:53 a.m. and the station is now confirming that a plane slammed into the Pentagon (we later learn it was American Airlines Flight 77, a Boeing 757-223, having departed from Washington D.C.'s Dulles Airport, that struck the Pentagon). The White House, the Capitol, the Treasury and State Department buildings are all being evacuated since they have been designated as credible targets of planes still unaccounted for. Alex and I are both clearly shaken by the news. For the first time, I hear the name of Osama bin Laden uttered; he is known for funding and staging spectacular "coordinated" attacks against the perceived enemies of Islam. When my sister's prescription was ready, I left the pharmacy, gave Alex a hug, and started walking back toward my home. I suddenly heard a horrific crashing, rumbling sound in my earphones, the WINS reporter screaming at the top of her lungs that the South Tower was coming down, creating an explosive cloud of debris. My heart began to race, and my legs took me right back into the pharmacy, where I told Alex that the South Tower had collapsed. Practically in tears, I regained my composure, and again began walking slowly, listening to the radio, and not realizing that the pace at which I was walking was increasing with each step. I was soon jogging, and then running, back home. This gigantic black cloud was almost cascading toward Brooklyn. I ran up the stairs into my apartment and by 10:05 am, I was back behind closed doors. But the safety of home hardly provided me with any feeling of security. ...
My sister didn't get home till well after 11 pm. ... She told me that she saw hundreds of people walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, away from an area that appeared to be covered in the dust of a nuclear winter. She saw thousands of papers flooding downtown Brooklyn, and whole, thick, intact law books that had been explosively propelled across the East River, perhaps from one of the law offices at the WTC.
In the seventeenth installment of the series, I turned to "Sue Mayham: Not Business as Usual" (11 September 2017), focusing on the heroic efforts of businesspeople like Sue, who sought to keep the wheels of commerce functioning in the wake of one of the city's worst catastrophes. Working on the 15th floor of 101 Barclay Street, at the heart of the financial center, Sue was among those who witnessed the attack on the Twin Towers and took managerial charge to guide her staff safely out of their offices, even as the Twin Towers had collapsed before their very eyes. The focus of Sue's life in the days and weeks and months after 9/11 was in getting back to business in the midst of chaos, creating a suitable atmosphere for the sustenance of a new, healthy work environment for her staff. On September 12, that project commenced immediately with the establishment of a worksite in Westchester, for over 500 people, as she coordinated with her colleagues to set up travel schedules, hire construction crews to transform a factory building into an office space, install industrial fans for the circulation of cool air, and bring in all the necessary infrastructure to serve their clients around the world---even as those clients' original documents and contracts remained locked in a building that was, quite literally, part of a huge crime scene. Amazingly, by October, they were able to "move the entire operation back to Manhattan," in Chelsea, where they remained for another nine months, returning downtown by June 2002.
My eighteenth installment, "Anthony Schirripa, Architect" (11 September 2018), featured my first and only interview of someone who escaped from the South Tower. Having arrived at his office on the 21st floor of the South Tower, Tony was glancing out his window when the North Tower was struck at 8:46 a.m. The chief reason that Tony and his staff survived was that they never heard the initial Port Authority advice to South Tower occupants to stay in place, in their offices, where it would be "safer", given the amount of debris coming down from the North Tower. He only heard those announcements after he'd gotten to the lobby. Acting decisively, he told his entire staff to immediately evacuate the firm's floors within five to ten minutes after the first plane hit the North Tower. Because of his swift decision making, all of his employees had made it out of the South Tower, literally one minute before Port Authority officials told occupants to evacuate both Towers---and only two minutes before the South Tower was struck by a second incoming plane that sliced through the 77th to 85th floors of the building.
"Zack Fletcher: Twin Towers, Twin Memories" (11 September 2019), the nineteenth installment in this series, was also, perhaps, the most poignant. It told the heartbreaking story of fraternal twins, Andre and Zack Fletcher, both of whom were among the first FDNY responders. As Zack explained: "Andre and I were the epitome of what defines twins. ... There is this magical, unseen connection that only someone who is a twin can understand. There would be times when I would be singing a song in my head and he would start whistling the very same song. There would be times when we'd try to figure a solution to a problem and we'd come up with the same exact solution without any spoken word. It was all thought processes." Andre was stationed on the northern tip of Staten Island, near the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, as a member of Rescue 5. Zack was stationed at a Lower Manhattan firehouse, Engine 4, Ladder Company 15. On that day, Andre and Zack had been in touch as each headed toward the WTC to respond to the crisis unfolding in lower Manhattan. It was not until much later in the day, after about nine hours working on the smoldering Pile, that Zack realized that Andre was missing. The "traumatizing thought" that haunted him, as he pondered the fate of Andre, was that his brother was "trapped somewhere or worse"---"gone." It "was so overwhelming," Zack recalled, "and the only way I suppressed those thoughts was to think positively, telling myself that there was no way he could be gone. He was my twin, my womb buddy, my best friend, my brother and how could I go on living without him. Every day, we would talk in one way or another, approximately five-ten times per day. So I had to think positively, giving him the absolute benefit of the doubt that he was alive." But Andre was gone. He perished in the collapse of the South Tower. Till this day, his remains have not been identified, though with advancing gene technology, there is still hope that someday they will.
WINS radio legend John Montone, who recently retired after 40 years on the job, nearly died on 9/11 as he covered the story that day. Having lost contact with the station for hours, covered in ash with the collapse of the South Tower, Montone put it best when he said: "I saw the worst of humanity and the best of humanity within minutes. My lasting memory before the South Tower fell and I got trampled by the crowd and covered with that ash ... was the line of young firefighters walking right into the South Tower, and you know, I didn't give it much thought at the time ... but they were in their last moments. Young guys. ... Young vibrant guys. The type of courage I still don't understand. ... To walk into a building ... these guys had to know it might come down."
Among those guys was "Firefighter Gerard Gorman: Ultimate Survivor" (11 September 2020)---the subject of the twentieth installment of this series---a man who has had a remarkable capacity to survive more than a few near-death experiences. His 9/11 story is a case in point. Like Eddie Mecner and the Fletcher brothers, Gerard was among the first FDNY responders that day. He had made it to the 23rd floor of the North Tower when word came down that they had to evacuate, in the wake of the collapse of the South Tower. Separated from his firefighter brothers, Gerard had miraculously made it to the northside of the lobby, even as the southside had filled up with debris from the fallen South Tower. The images of that day remain firmly implanted in Gerard's memory. As people hit the ground from the top floors, the thuds of their bodies overwhelmed the senses. Standing next to a window in the lobby, it was splattered again and again with blood and human remains, as body after body slammed into the ground. Swiftly exiting the lobby, Gerard saw the bodies, including one person in particular and the clothes they were wearing. When he viewed later footage of people jumping from the tower, he recognized the image of a person who had been wearing the same clothes he recalled having seen when he escaped from the building. He went down the outside escalator to Vesey Street and "heard a roar in-between the two little buildings going out toward the escalator. And it was like the sound of a train coming at you. ... So I only had a chance to run a couple of feet and dove between two I-beams and took cover." He had no idea that the North Tower, which he had just exited, was collapsing behind him. "Then it was like ... the dirt was just like going into your throat. Nose, ears, and eyes. I had a mask on me and I couldn't get the mask up to my face because of the compression"---he was only 200 or so feet from the building. "I thought I was dying when the building was collapsing because I was blacking out. ... It was like I was being waterboarded with dirt," Gerard recalled. "I was drowning in the dirt." But then the roar, the compression ... stopped. As he put it, he was "just lucky."
We are all lucky that he---and all of those whose stories I have attempted to tell---survived to bear witness. I cannot thank each of these individuals enough for their sincerity, generosity, and raw honesty in sharing their experiences with me and all my readers.
I have always touted the importance of a dialectical method of understanding the world---a method that requires us to look at each issue, social problem, or event by situating it in the larger context of which it is a part.
In this series, however, I made a conscious decision not to focus on the "big picture" in which the events of 9/11 took place or their historical background. I have not examined the wider political, social, and cultural context that made 9/11---and its aftermath---possible. I have done that elsewhere. I was less interested in those larger questions and more interested in understanding the personal tragedies of that day, because all too often, it is the personal that gets lost when one looks at the sheer scope of the catastrophe that was 9/11, with its monstrous loss of human life. Over these last two decades, I was persuaded that something unique was to be gained by piecing together a tapestry of tragedy---and of hope---not only through my own reflections and pictorials, but through the voices of individual human beings, each of whom had their own contexts, their own lives, their own futures altered so fundamentally by the events that unfolded on that late summer morning.
I have long believed that a future of more humane possibilities can only emerge when one does not disown memories, no matter how painful, sad, or tragic these might be. In the context of September 11, 2001, remembrance and rebirth entail one another. Remembrance has its therapeutic value, but it is also cathartic insofar as it makes possible our own ability to rise above the tragedy. Rebirth is itself an act of catharsis, of cleansing, almost by definition. It is my hope that this series of twenty-one installments has contributed to that project of remembrance and rebirth. It has been a tribute to those we have lost, and a paean---a song of praise, indeed---to those who survived, who demonstrated the life-affirming power of a community of individuals coming together to aid one another in the face of unimaginable horror. It is the power of life over death. It is the power of love over hate.