by Hank Boerner
There are days that we should hever forget. The President of the United States said that after the awful tragedies of September 11, 2001, when thousands of Americans and visitors died and thousands more were injured in the direct attacks against American targets by foreign interests far, far away. And yet, so close. The attackers were living amongst us, for a time, preparing for the day they would inflict great damage on our nation.
There are four or maybe even five generations of Americans alive at this moment, going back to some who are of the Greatest Generation, the men and women who survived the Great Depression of the 1930s and fought the good fight for democracy from 1941 to 1945 —WW II. Many are still with us. They remember “Pearl Harbor Day,” each December 7th.
December 7, 1941, a “date that will live in infamy,” said President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the U.S. Congress and by radio to the nation. That day — December 7, 1941, the naval forces of the Empire of Japan attacked the U.S. military forces at Pearl Harbor in the U.S. territory of Hawaii. Almost 3,000 young men and women died in that attack. All of my young days I was reminded that it was “Pearl Harbor Day” today.
Another day that many of younger ages — the Baby Boomers — will recall was the funeral train that carried the body of U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, slain by an assassin in California in 1968. I remember this because I stood in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City as his coffin was carried out…and put on a train that slowly wound its way from New York through Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, and on to Washington, D.C. I had done work with the good senator, borther of the slain president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
This was reminiscent, broadcaster noted, of the final train ride for President Abraham Lincoln, assassinated in 1865, carrying his body to burial in Illinois — many miles, along parts of the same route. Tens of thousands of people lined the route on both occasions.
There is another tragic day to remember for those alive in 1963. Who can forget where they were when the news came on November 22, 1963 that the dynamic young president was shot to death in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. John F. Kennedy was in office just about 1,000 days — not even completing his first term.
As with other events, everyone would remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the leader of the “New Frontier” for America was assassinated in Dealey Plaza, Dallas. I remember watching the most well-known newsman in America, Walter Cronkite on CBS Network announcing the president’s death.
Today, September 11 — Let Us Remember
And so it is today, for many Americans, as we stop what we are doing to remember the frightful, awful, tragic events of September 11th. Four giant airliners were hijacked, from their take off points in the New York region, Boston and Virginia, and flown by fanatic, deranged men into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, into the Pentagon in Northern Virginia, and what would have been either the White House or the Capitol Building on the highest point in Washington, DC — except for the brave actions of passengers on United Flight 93 over rural Pennsylvania.
How unbelievable, how frightening to consider even today, 15 years — some 5,500 days — later.
For those not born yet, or too young to remember the events of the day: American Airlines Flight 11 — Boston to Los Angeles — departing Boston at 7:59 a.m. and then crashing into the WTC (#1) North Tower at 8:46 a.m.
Then United Air Lines Flight #175, departing from Boston at 8:14 a.m. — flying from Boston to LAX — hitting the WTC South Tower (#2) at 9:03 a.m. . Then American Airlines Flight #77, leaving Dulles International (Virginia) at 8:30 a.m. — heading for Los Angeles,, flying into the Pentagon at 9:30 a.m.
And then the report of the “missing” United Air Lines Flight #93, flying out of Newark at 8:42 a.m. en route from New Jersey to San Francisco — reported down on the ground in Shanksville, PA at 10:03 a.m. Even today, all of this is very difficult to comprehend.
These were massive passenger jets, with a combined almost 300 passengers and crew members on board, loaded with many tons of volatile jet fuel, carrying innocent passengers (including children) en route to a happy destination.
It was a bright, sunny morning, you may recall, all along the Atlantic coastline of our continent. Summer weather was still with us. New York region schools, schools in Boston, Washington area schools, Pennsylvania schools were open as the new school year was beginning. The summer break was over (Labor Day was the prior week); and literally thousands upon thousands of men and women streamed into the giant twin towers of the World Trade Center, which dominated the New York City skyline in Lower Manhattan, and other nearby complexes in the financial district. These towers of the WTC stretched 100 stories into the blue skies. Giant elevators whished tenants and visitors to the highest levels.
And then, in a few terrible minutes, two giant passenger jets flew directly into the buildings. It is hard even today to divine what was on the minds of the histrackers as those in the cockpit aimed the acricraft into the building. And even harder to think about the fear on the part of passengers — “souls” in airline parlance — in the last moments of their lives.
And what of the thousands of people at work as the rush hour was ending, high atop the bedrock of Manhattan Island — what were their thoughts as they heard the crash into their building? Smelled the smoke? Understood the threat to their lives?
At 9:59 a.m. unbelievably, the South Tower would fall to the ground, killing those inside and many on the ground, and spread deadly dust (asbestos) throughout the downtown. Throughout the heart of this nation’s vital financial center. At 10:28 a.m. the other tower would collapse. Chaos reigned.
And I think today with tears in my eyes of the brave responders. Firemanic forces — proud members of NYFD — running to the danger. 343 New York City firefighters would give their lives to save others. Police officers would die that morning, more than 70, members of NYPD (“New York’s Finest”), the Port Authority of NY & NJ Police Department; and some of the Federal agency officers on duty that day.
Thousands more responders — uniformed and volunteers — would be sickened, and many would die, as they were first responders working on the “pile” to find survivors and pull them to safety. And then, when there were no more, they would work on the pile to clear debris and look for human remains.
And so, today, I stop to pray for the souls of those who lost their lives on Setpember 11, 2001, and for those who we lost in the days and weeks and months after. I will think about the brave actions of the passengers on Flight 93 who fought the thugs who stole their plane and prevented a huge tragedy in our nation’s capital city. I will pray for those who lost their lives in the bastion of the nation’s military, the Pentagon complex just across the Potomac River from Washington.
This is personal. In my hometown here just outside the city, we lost three dozen people. This morning in Patriot’s Park, they are being remembered. Across our region we lost hundreds of men and women. And the bells still ring in churches as brave responders succumb to their illnesses. My long-time friend, Rep Peter King ascended to the chair of the Homeland Security Committee of the House, and I take pride in the good work that he and many others in government have been doing since 2001 to keep us safe. He is there with head bowed this morning at “Ground Zero.” His is a police family.
But this is a New Normal for America and especially for the young men and women who grew up after September 11, 2001. It is a different world for them — will any of them — or us — ever feel safe again?
Today, please say your prayers for those who lost their lives on that awful day and in the days thereafter. Including our men and women in uniform taking the September 11 fight to our enemies around the world who did these awful things to us.
May God bless America. And long may the Stars & Stripes wave overhead, a proud beacon to us all. The flags at Ground Zero in NYC, at the Pentagon, in the Pennsylvania field — all have very special meaning to Americans.
Separately today in this space I will share my notes of September 11, 2001, when I was the American Airlines responder in New York City.