Recalling 9/11 … and all the memories since

A few years back I was at the State Capitol for Arizona’s annual commemoration of the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

I’ve gone for decades. Each year fewer and fewer veterans who survived the attack are able to attend.

The unwinnable war against time.

 An aging vet I spoke with after the ceremony told me, “There aren’t many of us around anymore. After all these years we’ve gone from telling people to remember what happened to trying to convince them that it happened. For folks like you, who weren’t born then, it’s just a story old people tell. But you know, they’re not just stories. It happened.”

“They’re not just stories.”

He shook his head sadly and added, “It’ll be that way for 9/11 someday.”

I suppose he’s right.

This year is the 17th anniversary of the attacks that killed thousands at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pa. We’re in a lull between the 15th and the 20th  anniversaries. Major tragedies receive their most ambitious and grandiose commemorations every five years.

In between, perhaps the least we can do is tell our stories. Not just about that horrific day, but stories of the days and months and years since.

A few years after the attacks, for instance, I received a letter from John Herold of Peoria, whose brother Gary, an insurance executive, died in the collapse of Tower 2.

A lesson from another time

He stayed behind to make sure others in his office got out. John wrote that the support his family received since 9/11 taught him the same thing that “tragedy taught a little girl in Amsterdam (Anne Frank) many years before. ‘In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good in their hearts.’”

John recalled how at a memorial service in New York a man associated with bombing victims from Oklahoma City gave his then 1-year-old daughter a stuffed bear decorated by Oklahoma children. John said that such experiences have taught him that “each new day is a gift.” 

Donna Killoughey Bird shared that view.

Her husband, Gary, died when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

He was in New York to meet his new employers.

“Faith, Grace and Miracles….”

On the 10th anniversary of the attack, Donna published a memoir called “Nothing Will Separate Us: A Widow’s Memoir of Faith, Grace and Miracles Since 9/11.”

She told me, “For a while, what happened on 9/11 was about Gary and me and the other families. What I’ve found out since is that, going forward, it is more about what we commit to do in our lives to change things. To follow the teachings of the great religions about peace and brotherhood. Things we all know.”

The day after the attacks back in 2001 I passed a woman getting out of her car at the local Safeway. In the rear window of her vehicle was a large handmade sign with the words “Not Afraid” printed on it in bold red letters.

“I like your sign,” I told her.

She walked quickly over to me and gave me a big hug. Then she turned and headed into the grocery store.

These things happened.

They’re not just stories.

I traveled to New York for the one-year anniversary of the attack.

Much of the debris had been cleared but there was still plenty of evidence of the horror and destruction at the attack site.

A view from the abyss…

I was standing one morning in the middle of the pedestrian bridge overlooking the 16-acre crater of concrete, dirt and steel that once held the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Next to me was a man who introduced himself as Solomon Sydney. He was born and raised in Haiti and spoke with a heavy accent.

“I was driving that day with a friend who has a cab,” he told me. “We are on Fifth Avenue, you know, and I am saying to him, ‘That plane seems very low.’ But he says, ‘No, that happens all the time.’ And he asks me to look behind at traffic so he can pull into a different lane, and while I am doing this, he is shouting, ‘My God! My God! The plane went into the building!’ I didn’t see it. I saw only the smoke. Then we pulled over and listened to the radio. After that, I went home because who knew what things were about to happen. But this morning I have a job on Canal Street, and I am coming here for the first time to see this.”

I said I was a reporter from out of town and asked if it was OK to write down what he’d just told me.

“From what city are you?” he asked.

“Phoenix, Arizona.”

“Ah, yes,” he said, “The Grand Canyon. I would like to see it someday.”

Then he paused and said, “Maybe now this is our Grand Canyon, eh?”

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