It is just after 11 PM on 9/11. I have just finished watching several hours on the History Channel. First was a documentary on the Marriott at WTC. Then a remarkable documentary entitled “102 Minutes” with a melding of video professional and amateur of the events of 9-11, from at the site and from those observing elsewhere in the city and across the river in Hoboken NJ. Finally there was a brief piece about some of those whose video was used, among dozens or even hundreds, to create that documentary.
There are remarkable things in that documentary. And I will discuss them.
But my focus is this – in this documentary I saw real courage, real heroism.
I do not deny the courage of those that go into combat. It is real.
But imagine just this. The first tower has come down. You see fireman walking towards the remaining tower, with hoses, and axes. And they go in. They are trying to save lives. They will lose their own.
First the documentary on the Marriott. The hotel lay between the two towers. It traces the story of several of those who survived – most of the building collapsed when the first tower fell on it. You hear about a woman with MS, confined to a wheel chair, and her mother. A lawyer who stubbornly was trying to pack his papers and his belongings and the fireman who helped save him. A woman hoping to be an actress who was working part time at the hotel and about to be interviewed for a manager’s job. An architect about to have an important interview. These stories and others are heart-rending. The lawyer wound up honoring the fireman at his daughter’s wedding. And the architect helped save a woman badly burned, only for her to die a few weeks later. He had been wearing a bright yellow tie for his interview, because his sister had suggested it. Only later did he find out she and her daughter were on the plane that slammed into the first tower.
The 102 Minutes documentary was amazing – no other word will suffice. One experienced the shock both of those on site and those observing from the neighborhood and from elsewhere. Some of the footage is from a professional cameraman who happened to be in Times Square on another assignment and wound up shooting people reacting to what they saw on the jumbotron. Other footage is from people shooting from apartments nearby, or from helicopters run by TV stations. You hear radio traffic from first responders. You see people leaving the buildings and then the area, even as first responders continue to flow towards the fire. You get the immediate reaction of people when the second plane hits, or when they realize that people are jumping from the towers – here I remembered an article I read about which I wrote shortly after on the events of 9-11-2001: it and my own writing were titled “Teacher, Teacher, the Birds are on Fire” as children at a New York playground tried to describe what they saw, which was people jumping from the Towers.
The heaviness of the air, with the dust. The horror of the landscape. The shock at the realization of what was happening.
You see fireman coming into a nearby building, covered in dust and in shock from the collapse of the first tower, some calling their wives to say they were okay, then going back out – to continue their work – courage.
I saw EMTs from Jewish community groups, their jackets labeled with Hebrew letters. And so many law enforcement jackets, including FBI – which reminded me of someone dear to me, the husband of one sister-in-law, who responded as did so many, and that when the first tower collapsed and cell service was disrupted we feared had been buried in the rubble, not to hear he was okay until hours later.
And that is what sticks with me. That is my takeaway. Those law enforcement personnel, the fireman, the EMTs, all of them – continuing into the face of danger and horror, even as they urged civilians to move away.
We live perhaps 5 miles from the Pentagon. We live two blocks from Arlington Hospital, the largest of the hospitals in this county of around 200,000 people. My wife has reminded me of the awful silence, that there were no ambulances bringing the injured here to our neighborhood.
I had forgotten until today, but I now remember what my wife asked that we do. A few days after that horrible day, we put up a sign on our corner lot, for which our front street is both the main ambulance route to the Hospital and also a bus route. For about a month we had up our sign simply offering our thanks to our first responders, to the Arlington VA Fire, Police and EMTs who responded to the incident at the Pentagon.
In the short piece after the main documentary of “102 Minutes,” one of the videographers explained about a piece of film. It was taken after the first tower came down. It was a fire company from Queens. We see them looking at the building ahead, and the smoldering dust from the collapse of the first tower, as they walk towards the site carrying hoses, and axes, and other equipment. In this brief after-documentary, the videographer tells us that none of them made it out of the second tower. Courage. Going forward knowing the risk. Going forward on behalf of others. Courage.
All off-duty fire and police were called back to duty after the first plane hit, but many did not wait for that call, responding as soon as they knew what had happened. Courage.
We see policemen directing civilians to safety, even as they stay in the danger area. Courage.
We hear the radio traffic of first responders in the building, some 70+ stories up trying to rescue people. Courage.
It is appropriate to honor those who go into harm’s way wearing the uniform of our military. Hopefully they will never have to see combat, the existence of which I once heard a flag officer say was evidence of the failure of their main mission, which is to prevent war.
Police and fire face the possibility of danger every day. Courage.
When I first taught, as a teacher intern in a Quaker school in Moorestown NJ in 1974, I became friends with a Moorestown police sergeant named Frank, whom I often encountered at the local Friendly’s. As an Irishman, he was greatly moved when I gave him some 78s of the great Irish tenor John McCormack that I had inherited. At one point he tried to recruit me for the Moorestown Police Department, and knowing him I was tempted (although I would have been ill-suited to being a policeman). I remember Frank at one point telling me that he had never had his gun out of his holster except on the firing range.
After I moved from Moorestown, I heard that Frank had died. He had walked in on a bank robbery, and been mortally wounded. Even after that, he for the first time as an officer drew his service weapon and emptied it in the direction of those who had slain him. Courage.
I have been in a fire. My junior year our dormitory caught on fire. Fortunately the damage was minimal. But it was scary. I was glad to get my then girlfriend, our cats, and me out our ground-floor window because the hallway was full of smoke, and we could not have gotten through it. I have a hard time imagining going in to fires, to fight them, knowing buildings might collapse, to rescue those who might be trapped. Courage.
On 9-11 23 NYPD police officers died.
on 9-11 37 Port Authority police officers died.
on 9-11 343 FDNY firefighters and paramedics died.
On 9-11, FDNY chaplain Father Michael Judge died – oh, and by the way, he was gay.
All responded to the crisis. Courage.
All were more concerned with the safety of those at risk than with their own safety. Courage.
Tonight I was watched several documentaries on 9-11.
Tonight I remembered what real courage is.
I thought it worthy my writing a diary.