This Friday is the anniversary of 9/11. April, 2001 we were in Manhattan with my 3 sons for their spring break.
We did all the usual tourist stops, the crown of the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, a Broadway show, the Empire State Building and two memorable dinners; one at Tavern on the Green, the other at a corner window table on the 107th floor at Windows on The World.
We were back in NYC that same October, just 3 weeks after the tragic event. We stood in silence with hundreds of others as we looked upon the still smoldering rubble.
This year in April, my wife and I went back to NYC. During our two weeks there, we visited the 9/11 Memorial located within the footprints of the original World Trade Center Towers. It was very somber and moving and I think every American should experience it for themselves. Sure, we all THINK we know what happened because we watched it unfold live on television. But no matter how gimongous your flat screen is, it isn’t big enough to hold the scope of what happened there that day.
Yes, on television we saw the emergency vehicles crushed, twisted and covered in ash. But when you stand next to a HUGE fire truck destroyed as a child’s toy would be, the enormity of the forces as work that day become even more real. The Memorial is exceptionally well done and the hours you spend there will no doubt have a lasting impact on you as it has us.
Not everything we learned during our visit saddened us or angered us, much of it reassured us. Reassured our faith in our fellow Americans, our faith in the human spirit, our faith in God and miracles both big and small. The survivors stories is an area of the Memorial worth some time. It was there we read about a survivor walking home who was given more appropriate walking shoes by a nearby resident – then a stranger, now a dear friend. Touching story after touching story of people helping strangers, many of whose names they never learned.
There are two particular stories we’ve talked about perhaps more than any others since our visit. One we learned at the Memorial, another just recently.
First, the elevators were a technological wonder and also the source of hundreds of deaths. The tragedy of the elevators stands as the greatest disaster in the history of the industry. However, 6 people survived one of the elevators because trapped with them was a Polish immigrant window washer. On his way up to join his work crew, he was on board the elevator with 5 other passengers with his squeegee and bucket. When disaster struck, they were stuck between floors. In an dark elevator filling with smoke and fumes, they pried open the doors and took turns using the handle of the squeegee to break through the wall that was between them and survival. The handle of the squeegee is on display in the Memorial.
The second story we have found particularly compelling is that of the passengers on the 38 inbound international flights that were diverted when the air space was closed on 9/11. Sure, we knew flights were diverted, but with so much tragedy and carnage to focus on, 38 airplanes full of safe people were not on our minds. But those planes had to land “somewhere” and that somewhere was Gander, Newfoundland. This town of just over 9,600 residents became unexpected hosts to over 6,500 travelers from all over the world when all 38 planes landed at their airport. Imagine Fairfield, Iowa or Anaconda, Montana suddenly besieged by an additional 6,500 people. Where would they all stay? These communities do not have hotel rooms to accommodate those numbers. What about food? There aren’t enough restaurants or even groceries on hand to handle a sudden influx of people in these numbers! What about medicine? Communications with those back home? All factors. Add to that the international component (travelers from over 100 countries) and language can add to the complexity.
Yet the town of Gander and the neighboring communities rallied. The story is told in a book titled “The Day the World Came to Town”. There is even a stage play “Come From Away” based on this true story. Imagine putting your life on hold for nearly a week to help strangers. Imagine bringing strangers into your home, having them join your dinner table, sleep under your roof with your family. This is exactly what the residents of Gander did. On the 10th anniversary, many of the unexpected visitors returned to Gander to say thank you.
So this week, as we honor and remember those who lost their lives that fateful day I would encourage you to also seek out stories such as those I’ve shared, stories to remind you of our humanity and undefeatable spirit even in the face of horror and evil. We can never let evil win. We can never forget.