Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Tribute on 9-11 (And a Brief Note on Chicago's Teachers)

NO ONE OLD ENOUGH TO REMEMBER can ever forget the attacks on 9/11, the terrible loss of life, the shock and horror of an entire nation.

I was teaching a seventh grade class in American history that morning, when my principal knocked at the door. She whispered that there had been a terrorist attack in New York City. Until we knew more we were supposed to keep quiet rather than scare students. The story continued to develop, of course, and I was soon spending the rest of the day and much of the following week trying to help students make sense of cataclysmic events.

It was nice to hear this morning, via Facebook, that Lynzi Engel remembers:
I will never forget this day that happened 11 years ago. At the time I was so confused but later that day I had Mr. Viall and he explained what exactly was happening. My thoughts and prayers go out to all the families that lost loved ones this morning 11 years ago and thank you to all the police, firefighters and the service men/women who are helped that morning and are still serving. This day will never be forgotten!!!

I retired from teaching in 2008. But if I was still in the classroom here's what I'd be doing on this sad anniversary. I'd be showing a compilation of short film clips recorded in 2001, including some of the most tragic events. Today's seventh graders were only one or two years old on September 11. So, I'd show them a scene filled with people falling, falling, from the North and South Towers. What moments of terror those must have been for desperate victims. And I'd add this detail, because I'd want the kids to have a sense of what it was like for real people. I'd tell them some of those who leaped from those burning buildings were holding hands, perhaps with friends, perhaps with loved ones, where they had been trapped by smoke and flames.

It's this small gesture that that might touch the hearts of today's kids and give them a sense of what a loss our nation suffered.

Nearly 3,000 died eleven years ago. Who were they?

Steven Coakley was coming off a regular shift with Engine Company 217, in Brooklyn, just as the first plane struck. On five separate occasions, as a part of his job, he had helped deliver babies. This was different and Coakley and the rest of Engine 217 rushed to the scene. Sal Fiumefreddo, a telephone technician, had a one-day assignment to install equipment at the trade centers. Divorced, feeling lonely, he met Joan Chao at at a friend's backyard barbecue the summer before. Now, on a crisp day in September the couple was getting ready to celebrate a first wedding anniversary. Gary Bird was starting a new job with Marsh & McClennan. Normally, he would be working out of Phoenix. On this day, however, he was scheduled for a meeting at the World Trade Center, beginning at 8:15 a.m. All three were killed.

Let's remember them all. Let's remember Jill Campbell, the young mother, whose son, Jake, was learning to crawl. (She didn't live long enough to be told; but he crawled for the first time that same day.) Let's remember Timothy J. Finnerty. A bond trader at Cantor Fitzgerald, we can assume he was hard at work on the 105th floor of One World Trade Center on 9/11. Just three days earlier he had enjoyed himself at his cousin's wedding. His wife, Theresa, remembered him cutting up (which was his style) and doing the "Lawn Mower Dance," followed by the "Sprinkler Dance" at the reception.

He was one of 658 employees of his company who perished in the attack.

At a funeral later, Keith Wiswall spoke fondly of his father and how much he liked working in the lawn. One day, Keith looked out the window and saw Dad using a shop vac to suck up berries from a neighbor's tree, because they were falling on his grass. David Wiswall was 54 when he died and no one has vacuumed the lawn since.

Kristin Walsh remembers her mother, Nancy, bringing Carol Flyzik home and introducing her as "her girlfriend." It meant an adjustment, but she and her two brothers came to love their stepmother. Flyzik was one of 76 regular passengers aboard American Airlines Flight 11, headed for the West Coast on a business trip. At 8:46 a. m. she perished when the aircraft crashed into the North Tower. Amy Sweeney was an attendant on the same flight, one of eleven crew members. When hijackers took over she kept calm and contacted ground supervisors, asking them to notify the F.B.I. Her grace and bravery in a time of tragedy were no surprise to those who knew her. She died without having a chance to see her children, Anna, 6, and son, Jack, 4, grow up.

(Seth McFarlane, the creator of Family Guy, was meant to be aboard but arrived at the airport too late.)

Mayra Valdes-Rodriguez, last seen alive on the 78th floor as she hustled others down the stairs of the South Tower to safety, was known for her contagious laughter. She didn't make it out alive. We know Maria Benavente removed her shoes to speed her descent from the same building, because they were recovered later in the ruins. It wasn't enough. She didn't get out. Bill Biggart, a photo-journalist, rushed to the scene in Lower Manhattan to record events. After the South Tower fell he phoned his wife to say he was safe. "I'm with the firefighters," he explained. Nothing at all to worry about. When the North Tower came down he and the firefighters around him died in the collapse. Joe Maloney, a firefighter and Mets fan was killed. Assistant Fire Chief Gerard Barbara, a Yankees fan, was killed, too. Mike Carroll, a fifteen-year veteran with Ladder Co. 3, died along with hundreds of brave firefighters. Since his remains could not be found a friend from his softball team carried a helmet down the aisle at his funeral mass.

Lincoln Quappe, another FDNY veteran, interviewed for a story in March, told a reporter, "Every fire is scary. That's the way it is. You're a damned liar if you say you're not scared." Even a little fire could get a guy killed. "It all comes down to fate," he added. Quappe was responding on 9/11, not to a little fire, but to a huge one, unlike anything he had had ever seen. Fate caught him up and swept him away.

Steven Cafiero first "met" his girlfriend on the Internet but they were unable to speak in person until another year passed. Now, in the weeks leading up to 9/11 they were talking about marriage and planning for children. Peter Gyulavary had also been blessed by fate--years earlier, at least--having met his American wife while she was vacationing in Australia. They eventually settled down in New York City and had a daughter, Geniveve, who turned 13 around the time of the attacks. Eskedar Melaku, came to America from Ethiopia as a young woman, to attend college and build a better life. Emerita de la Pena and Judith Diaz Sierra were fast friends and co-workers, each serving as maid of honor at the other's wedding. James Martello, a former Rutgers linebacker, liked to coach his 7-year-old son's football team when he wasn't at work. Sheila Barnes was a fanatic about clipping coupons and saving money. None of them survived.

Jerrold Paskins, 57, was only in New York on 9/11 to help complete an insurance audit. (His remains were identified two months later when a lucky 1976 bicentennial silver dollar he carried turned up at Ground Zero.) Christine Egan, born in Hull, England, was visiting her brother Michael in New York. That morning he decided to take her up to the restaurant, "Windows on the World," to get a cup of coffee and a panoramic view of the city. Moments before the North Tower collapsed, Michael Egan finally managed to reach his wife by phone. "You made it," she responded with immense relief. "No, we're stuck," he admitted. They were still on the line together when she watched in horror on television as the building collapsed.

Orasri Liangthanasarn, a native of Thailand and a recent graduate of New York University, a new administrative assistant at "Windows on the World" also died. In fact, no one who was in the restaurant that day survived.

Peter Hanson, a huge fan of the Grateful Dead, his wife Sue Kim Hanson, a native of Korea with a degree in microbiology, and their daughter Christine Hanson, two-and-a-half years old, were aboard United Flight 175, originally scheduled to fly from Boston to Los Angeles. Paige Farley-Hackel was supposed to be aboard. She and her sister Ruth McCourt were taking Ruth's daughter, Juliana McCourt, 4, on a trip to Disneyland. At the last minute, Paige realized she could use frequent flier miles and switched to American Airlines Flight 11 instead. They planned to meet up in California, before both planes in a cruel twist, were taken over by Osama bin Laden's men, and sent hurtling into buildings.

Hilary Strauch, a New Jersey sixth grader, was 12 years old on the day of the attacks. She had to watch on television at school as the tower where her Dad, George Strauch, worked went down in dust and mangled metal and ruin. Frank Martini and Pablo Ortiz, both fathers, could easily have escaped. Instead, they stuck around and used a crowbar to help free at least fifty people who were trapped in the North Tower. Martini and Ortiz stayed around too long to survive. Beth Logler, 31, had run cross-country in high school. Now, she was planning a wedding for December 30, 2001. She wasn't quite fast enough to make it out in time. Sara Manley Harvey, a Georgetown graduate, had at least been married a month. The magenta-colored napkins at the reception had matched the roses carried by the flower girls. Robert A. Campbell, 25, was a painter and window washer at the World Trade Center. That morning his parents think he was working on the roof. Brian P. Williams was a high school football star back in his Covington, Kentucky days, and moved later to the Big Apple to find work. Joseph J. Hasson III survived a terrible car wreck freshman year of college. Sixteen years later his time ran out in New York.

Brad Vadas found himself trapped in the smoke and ruins on the 88th floor, just above where the plane hit the South Tower. He managed to leave a phone message on his fiancee, Kris McFerren's answering machine: "Kris, there's been an explosion. We're trapped in a room. There's smoke coming in. I don't know what's going to happen. I want you to know my life has been so much better and richer because you were in it." He promised he'd try to get out, but to be safe added, "I love you. Goodbye." Ed McNally called his wife, too, and told her he was in trouble, trapped by flames on floors below. He told her where to find his life insurance papers. Then he admitted he'd been planning a surprise trip to Rome for her fortieth birthday. "I feel silly, Liz," he added, "you'll have to cancel that."

Neither man made it home that night for dinner.

Rick Rescelora survived heavy fighting in Vietnam but not this terrorist attack. Mike Warchola had one shift left until he retired from the New York Fire Department. And he died. Port Authority police officer Dominick Pezzulo was trying to free two trapped officers from the wreckage of the South Tower when the North collapsed and he was hit and killed by falling beams. John Perry was turning in retirement papers to the New York Police Department when the first plane struck. He asked for his badge and raced to the scene, ready to help others in a time of need. Moira Smith, a blond-haired policewoman, was last seen helping injured victims out of the lobby of the South Tower a few minutes before it came crashing to earth. Ed Nichols, for one, was bleeding from head, arm and abdomen when Smith took him gently by the elbow and led him to safety. Then she turned and reentered the lobby. About that same time, eyewitness saw melting aluminum pouring out of a gash on the 80th floor where the hijacked aircraft had hit.

In a 911 call a shortly after, an unidentified woman trapped high up in the tower reported the floor under her was collapsing. Moments later, Greg Milanowycz, trapped on the 93rd floor, called his father and reported, "The ceiling is falling, the ceiling is falling." Then the Tower collapsed.

At 9:37 that same day a third plane, a Boeing 757, carrying 57 passengers and crew, crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D. C., killing all aboard and another 125 Americans on the ground. Cheryle Sincock had already been at work inside for several hours because she liked to get an early start when possible. Husband Craig, a computer scientist for the United States Army, usually came to work a little later. Now, having been struck by a third hijacked aircraft, the Pentagon was billowing black smoke, and he found himself caught on the D. C. Metro, as it shut down for security reasons. He sprinted two miles, cutting across highways and through Arlington National Cemetery. He would help with rescue attempts until 11 p. m., go home for a brief rest, and return again at 4 a. m., in hopes of locating his wife.

Cheryle didn't make it.

Todd Beamer, you may recall, was one of the passenger on United Airlines Flight 93. His widow, Lisa, would later tell reporters that Todd "really didn't do much of anything without a plan." Her husband was one of the ringleaders of a passenger revolt to try to regain control of the plane before the hijackers destroyed it. A phone operator heard him ask others, including big Jeremy Glick, a former high school wrestler and judo champion, and Mark Bingham, an old rugby player: "Are you guys ready? O. K. Let's roll." And roll they did. Although they couldn't save themselves they did bring down Flight 93, before it could do any additional damage.

THAT'S WHAT I'D BE TALKING ABOUT TODAY, if I was still in the classroom. I know it doesn't have anything to do with standardized testing; but I can't help believing this kind of story still matters. 

The body of FDNY chaplain, Father Mychal Judge, is carried away.
He was struck by a falling body and died instantly.
I'd want students to consider the tragedy of the moment.


  1. Sarah Jackson responded on Facebook:

    Mr. Viall, I was in your class when I found out about 9/11. It is seared into my memory. If I close my eyes I can still see myself sitting your classroom, who I was sitting by and the way I felt. Today, in my first grade class my students didn't understand the significance of this day. To them it will be something they learn about through history textbooks but for me it was a real life experience that opened my eyes.

  2. I too recalled that day in a way I thought I could never forget but to read your article was the most heartfelt version I have ever seen. I too think it's important that our children understand the depth of that day as even we as parents can not protect them against evils such as this. I also will admit I had to pause several times to wipe the tears as your article reminds us all how real this is today as much as it was the day it happened. THANK YOU.

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  4. I was also in your class when I found out about 9/11. I remember that I had absolutely no idea what was going on. It wasn't until later, watching the news in Mr. Ball's class, that I "understood" what had happened. By "understood", I mean that I knew a lot of people had died, and because of that, a lot of people were crying and sad. I was still really confused, and being so young, I couldn't grasp the immediate impact and the other reactions - the shock, the anger, the fear - or the idea of someone purposely crashing a plane.
    I'm glad your focus was on the victims. It's heartfelt, personal, and very real. I cried several times reading this article, and it brought back memories.
    I'm sure everyone was talking about it on the bus ride home, and I'm sure my parents sat my sister and me down to explain it to us, but I really don't remember much from that day.
    The few memories I do have, amaze me... even though I had no comprehension of the importance of that day at the time, I still remember being in your class when I heard about it, being in Mr. Ball's class when I first saw the replay of the crash, and some of the very specific thoughts and questions I had running through my head at both of those times.

    Anyway, thanks so much for sharing.