It was a hot September; I remember that. I sat in the air conditioning of the all-purpose vehicle belonging to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The agent had inserted the CD with the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) recordings hurriedly put on disk by the manufacturer. I was there to listen to and identify the alarms and warnings the B757 cockpit makes during normal operation and then, of course, when not operated normally.
It was the second run-through and I could plainly hear through the vehicle’s speakers, the noises coming from the passenger cabin-side of the closed cockpit door. It’s hard to explain: the passengers’ will to live, their fight to regain control came so strong through the cockpit door, as if it was just outside the FBI vehicle’s windows. Determined shouts, orders given by calm voices; a brave plan initiated with the words, “Let’s Roll!” The terrorists in the back were overwhelmed immediately, easily; the once confused passengers/hostages had been replaced by Americans with a mission. The terrorists’ whimpering cries for help were almost inaudible. One could almost see the lead terrorist’s face, the desperation as he realized the cockpit door was meager resistance to the retribution about to be leveled against him with great vengeance. Through their incompetence, he and his terrorist thugs had missed their opportunity. They failed miserably.
September 11, 2001, was a tragic day in US history. American Airlines’ flights 11 and 77; United Airlines’ flights 175 and 93; along with their passengers and crew, were taken over by terrorist/extremists and used against New York City’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon outside Washington, DC. At the same time the passengers and remaining crew of flight 93 committed to an all-or-nothing attack on the terrorists in their aircraft, Firefighters, Police and Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) ran toward the burning towers in NYC; and firefighters, police, EMTs, men and women of the military ran toward the fiery gaping hole in the Pentagon’s southwest wall. Without concern for their own safety, these domestic and military heroes risked all to save who could be saved.
On this July 4th, as we do every year, we celebrate the bravery of our forefathers and their families to stand up to those who would rob them of their freedoms and rights, whether they were farmers or businessmen; whether they lived in New York or South Carolina. How different was it onboard that doomed B757 over Pennsylvania when each passenger saw beside them, not a person of different race or creed, but a fellow American. Each decided to deny the terrorists their prize and the many more lives that would be lost if they were not successful. Those on flight 93 demonstrated the better parts of their nature.
And what of the firefighters, the police, the EMTs, the military representing each branch? Did not each of them exhibit their devotion to the innocent American lives they were sworn to protect and defend; did they not prove that all lives matter?
Sixteen years later, my wife’s middle school students, who were not even born when 9/11 occurred, could not appreciate what kind of nation our country had been or had become in those tense hours, days, weeks, months. But then, they have an excuse. We, as a nation, don’t have the luxury of ignorance when we decide what we are becoming.
And, what have we become and why? The media, whether leaning left or right, report nothing but divisive news all day. We are given a choice: watch it and get aggravated; change the channel; or stow the social media while canceling any subscriptions we have.
Our military has become an entity that’s being ignored; our veterans who have earned our highest levels of respect and thanks, are forgotten for the most irresponsible reasons.
The police officers, those sworn to protect and serve, are stabbed, shot at, injured, killed, and turned into targets of lawsuits and ridicule by ignorant masses armed with cell phone cameras. Firefighters and EMTs have become marked for attack at demonstrations and mob rallies, all for the crime of putting out fires, protecting private property and helping the injured.
And what of our political leaders, both Federal and Local? They spend more time launching sarcastic, hateful rhetoric against their political enemies, than they do concerning themselves with the country’s direction and its citizens’ well-being. They do nothing to discourage – indeed, in some cases, they encourage – the illegal activity aimed at our first responders: our police, firefighters, EMTs and military, who are abused, threatened and killed. Private citizens are beaten and killed in foreign prisons without regard. If one wants an argument for smaller government and term limits, turn on C-Span; does anyone want these bickering guys and gals writing laws without limitation? How different are they than a sandbox full of five-year old toddlers, fighting over a toy?
I remember the months after 9/11; until I was assigned to American 587, the airliner that crashed in Belle Harbor, NY, in November 2001, I spent a lot of time at Ground Zero, the Pentagon and Shanksville, PA. The weeks I spent in those sites were unforgettable; the experiences were humbling. I’ve never felt as powerless to do anything, yet so grateful to help in any way I could.
In a field in Shanksville, PA, the gruesome job of recovering the victims’ remains was exact and slow. The atmosphere was professional, committed; we were focused, patient, yet anxious to quickly do the right thing by the victims’ families. The FBI led the way with an incredible attention to detail. Each piece of evidence – and yes, there were many pieces of solid evidence – was carefully recorded and stored; the human remains were medically tested for identification. Safety of all helpers was paramount, yet we put important tasks on hold at a moment’s notice, all work stopped, the workers vanishing from sight, to give respect to the families who came to see the accident site where their loved ones died. The citizens of the neighboring towns could not do enough for us; they wanted to do their part to help.
At Ground Zero, the atmosphere was different; many of the victims were first responders; police, firefighters and EMTs, who had run towards the danger when the Towers were struck. Those first responders not caught in the stairwells herded the civilians away from the falling towers, assuring as many innocents survived the raining debris. NYC opened its hearts, businesses and wallets; they gave us anything we needed to get through the cold nights, from food to clothing.
As the earth movers dug through the ruin of the Towers, we kept our eyes open for first responders and civilian victims killed in the collapse. When a firefighter, police officer or EMT’s remains were discovered, all work stopped; the earth diggers moved back, everyone’s heads lowered, hats were removed and respective silence prevailed, as the fallen first responder’s brothers and sisters moved in with a stretcher to carry the hero off the field with honor. Not a word was spoken as the body was lifted by his or her brothers and sisters and was solemnly removed to a waiting vehicle. After a respective duration of time, the work began again with a renewed tenacity.
Even the time spent in Fresh Kills, Staten Island, sifting through Ground Zero’s debris for remains and personal effects, my team dedicated to being diligent in our searches, to bring closure to the families. One would not believe the items we found and returned to their loved ones. When I could I opened the day attending services by the Army Chaplain; I still have the Rosary he gave me, precious it is to me.
Every night – in my case, morning – citizens lined West Street holding signs thanking us for doing what we could. The New York City area was my home; I was born in Manhattan, raised in Queens and Long Island; my father and uncle were NYC policemen; many of my family and high school friends were NYC police officers, firefighters and EMTs. I never felt I could have done enough.
The atmosphere at the Pentagon was dangerous; it wasn’t perilous to the workers, but one could feel the tension of a large spring ready to let go. The military folks I met expected any fight to be brought to them, indeed, they trained hard for it. For the terrorists to attack innocents left an anger and dedication to respond that was impossible to describe, difficult to measure; it was like electricity: treacherous and, as yet, untapped. The only thing these men and women waited for was Permission.
July 4th, like September 11th, is a day for remembering. It’s a day to rededicate ourselves to a belief that what we have in America: our friends and family, are worth everything we have to give up for to keep safe and free. I remember how each person I met was impacted by the senseless deaths from the 9/11/2001 ‘accidents’. What I don’t understand is how we, as a people, have allowed ourselves to forget what we became that day – ONE. I know I didn’t forget.
The heroes of Flight 93, the first responders at the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, they proved to all of us that our petty differences are not what’s important; in fact, our disparities are irrelevant. It’s what joins us together as Americans, neighbors, citizens, workers, believers, teammates, spouses, children, clergy, that is important: fighting side-by-side with each other, for each other and to protect each other. At least, they thought so. Whether it’s 231 years later or sixteen, we should continue to push for what they believed in … together.