This year, I’m including a piece from my co-author for Write To Be Heard, Aaron Gansky on his experience that day:
On September 11th, 2001, I was still in college. To save money, I lived at home with my parents, and commuted. I didn’t have class that day, so I took the opportunity to sleep in. But those plans changed when my father began banging on my door. “Get up. We’re under attack,” he said.
In the grogginess of my sleep, I had no idea what he meant. I thought someone was breaking in. My first thought was, “Let them take the TV. I’m sleeping.” But my father continued to call. “Get up. You have to see this.”
I didn’t realize at the time that the world would never be the same. It had been irrevocably changed, and we had been changed with it.
I came out of my room to see one of the two Twin Towers burning. I didn’t know much about them other than this: two months before, in July of 2001, my wife (then my girlfriend) had been in those towers training for her job at Morgan Stanley Dean Whitter. Her and several of her friends had enjoyed their time in the Big Apple, seeing the sites, taking in the unique culture, and studying hard in their classes.
When the second plane crashed, I called Naomi at work. “Are you watching this?”
“We’re watching it,” she said. “Not really believing it.”
Morgan Stanley’s headquarters were in the World Trade Centers. My wife and her friends were watching their friends die. It didn’t take long for her branch to close, and she immediately drove to my house, where we sat together, hand-in-hand, watching the horrific events unfold. The whole situation was surreal. We were watching a movie, we told ourselves. This was some elaborate marketing campaign, perhaps. Our minds simply refused to allow us to believe that something like this could happen.
As the news coverage showed men and women jumping from the windows, smoke billowing up around them, my wife began to tell me about the people she’d met in the towers. “There’s a man on the 74th floor who shines shoes. He was saving up to throw a party for his son’s first birthday later this month.”
I didn’t say anything. There was nothing to say.
“There’s a cafeteria on the 82nd floor. The guy there makes the best Rueben sandwich. Nicest guy I’ve ever met. Always smiling.” After the inevitable silence, she asked. “What did they do to deserve this?”
And then the Pentagon.
And then Flight 93.
Years later, I’d talk with a friend of my mother’s named Cathy (whom I had been taught to call Ms. Cathy). Her husband, Mr. Bob, worked at the Pentagon. He was there on 9/11. She told me in very plain terms his experience. He’d been on eastern side, though. The side that wasn’t hit. Like everyone else, he’d been watching the news in his office. The explosion took him completely off guard. Thank God he was far enough away that he wasn’t harmed. He, like so many other first responders, immediately went into action. With no regard for his own personal safety, he ran toward the blazing inferno and ruins that was the remains of the western side of the pentagon. He gave no thought to the fact that he had a wife and children still at home. He knew only this: he had friends on that side of the building. Friends who needed him now in a way they’d never needed him before. She wouldn’t say how many people her husband pulled out of the pentagon that day. I don’t think either of them knew or counted. That was never the point. The point was to save lives. And that is exactly what he did.
In my house, sitting beside my soon to be wife, it’s hard to say that we were afraid. Afraid isn’t the right word. Our hearts broke for the people in the buildings, for the people on the ground running for cover as the towers fell and debris and black smoke and dust consumed the streets. Our hearts broke for those at home, watching the events unfold as they tried in desperation to reach their family and their friends in the buildings, even the children in the day care centers below the towers.
But our hearts also swelled with a certain pride as we watched heroes—every day heroes, without super powers—rushing into a building they knew would fall. These men and women were not in the towers when they were struck. They ran in to them, knowing they would not run out. This was not folly—it was bravery—the type of courage normal people see once in a lifetime if they’re truly lucky. Their sacrifices allowed countless people to escape the carnage before the towers fell.
And the families of those men and women rushing into a doomed building, watching the events unfold on their televisions, or just outside their windows.
We worried for them, but we were not afraid.
America was not afraid.
We were resolved. As resolved as those men and women rushing into the buildings. As resolved as those who were running out. As resolved as our soldiers in uniform who mobilized immediately to defend the country they’d sworn to protect.
Perhaps the most impactful moments were not the planes crashing into the towers, or the pentagon, or the fields of Philadelphia, or when our firefighters and police officers and military mobilized to action. They were the days after. The weeks after. The months after. The years after.
My favorite political cartoon of the era simply depicts the Republican Elephant and the Democratic Donkey rolling up their sleeves together. One says to the other, “To arms, old friend?” The other responds, “To arms.”
America has a history of letting our political, social, economic, and cultural differences divide us. But in the wake of 9/11, we were no longer Democrat or Republican. We were not gay or straight. We were not black or white.
We were Americans.
In the years that have passed, that unity has slowly bled away. We’ve slipped back into our old ways. We affix letters to our names to denote our political affiliations. We use social media as a means to attack those we disagree with. Today, political turmoil boils around us. The news covers our differences, and the violence that sometimes breaks out over such differences.
If we remember nothing else today, let us remember this:
We are Americans, and we are not afraid.
Whether we are running out of the building or into it, we are Americans.
Whether we are shining shoes, or selling stocks, we are Americans.
Whether we are teaching classes or students learning, we are Americans.
Whether we are black or white, straight or gay, republican or democrat, we are Americans.
And we are not afraid.
Now Mr. Halligan and Mr. Raja: Part of Project 2996
Robert Halligan Profile published in THE NEW YORK TIMES on November 15, 2001.
SHOPPING ACROSS THE POND
To a proud Englishman, America is a country of vexing insufficiencies. Its supermarkets know not of H.P. (House of Parliament) sauce and tins of steak and kidney pie. Marmite, sadly, remains a mystery.
Several times a year, London-born Robert Halligan, 59, a vice president at Aon, an insurance brokerage firm, would cross the pond to stock up on such indelicacies. He would cheer on his beloved Tottenham Hotspurs, visit his sprawling family, including five adult children, and drop by a specialty shop to add to the locomotive steam engine models he had been collecting since his trainspotting boyhood. Every weekend he brought the old country to his wife, Jerrie, and their son, Trevor, in Basking Ridge, N.J., by cooking a lard-loving British breakfast (sloppy bacon, fried bread, eggs splashed with grease) and Sunday lunch (roast, two vegetables, potatoes, Yorkshire pudding).
Yet for someone who clung to his British identity, Mr. Halligan flourished in America, where he moved with Jerri, his American wife. He gardened here, played golf and danced beautifully. He was a kind, solicitous grandfather of 10 with a knack for joke- telling. And here he celebrated the holiday he loved even more than Christmas: as a citizen of two countries, Robert Halligan adored Thanksgiving.
Ehtesham U. Raja of Clifton, NJ was 28 years old when he died in the World Trade Center. He’d gone there for a conference and was in Windows on the World. He was a 1996 graduate of The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia. He had his MBA from Goizueta Business School at Emory. His nickname: Shamu, from his friends in Pakistan.
His parents, Raja Aftab Saeed and Begum Asmat Fatima, donated the land for the Arifwala Hospital, a 40-bed facility, fully equipped with diagnostic and curative services, inaugurated on January 19th, 2009. The hospital is dedicated to their son, Raja Ehtesham Ullah, who lost his life on 9/11. All medical equipment was funded by LRBT America. We have also pledged to fund the hospital’s annual operating budget. (note: the hospital is in Pakistan and fights blindness)
From the Emory Goizueta Memorial site (Ehtesham Raja ’98MBA):
“He was a very kind, caring, compassionate, loving, and intelligent person,” says his mother, Asmat Fatima. “He was respected and admired by those who knew him. His talent and sense of humor made him standout in any crowd. But it was his loving and caring attitude that always made me proud.”
Raja, born in Lahore, Pakistan, worked for TCG Software in Bloomfield, N.J. After graduating with a bachelor of science in industrial engineering from Columbia University in New York City, he worked as a security engineer at Citibank on Wall Street, then, according to his Goizueta Business School application, he returned to Pakistan to work for Citibank Lahore, take the GMAT, and apply to business school.
“He was in the best years of his life,” says Fatima. “Everything seems to be going in his favour. After years of dedication and hard work he finally achieved this status. He had all the plans to pursue his career in finance. He was full of hope for his future.”
Raja also enjoyed sports. He was a swimmer and played cricket, squash, soccer, tennis, and polo while at Columbia.
A memorial service was arranged by TCG Software. “They were proud to have him working for them,” his mother says.
“It is still very hard to believe that he is missing and lost forever,” she continues. “I have to be emotionally strong as Ehtesham has a younger brother, who is at a very impressionable age.
“[Ehtesham] knew life and lived life. His time was limited but in that time he touched so many people. . . . May peace be with him now and forever. He will stay in our hearts and memories forever.”
Rest in peace, Mr. Halligan and Mr. Raja.