21 years later: Remembering September 11, 2001

With everything else going on in the world today, it might have been easy to lose sight of Patriot Day, our remembrance of the horrors we witnessed on September 11, 2001. While some of the ceremonies may be more muted than normal, neither the White House nor the media are overlooking it entirely, thankfully. 

Google went to the trouble of putting a tiny American flag with a black ribbon over it on their main search page. To their credit, the Associated Press ran a lengthy summary of the planned activities and official pronouncements. President Joe Biden will lay a wreath at the Pentagon today, while Jill Biden visits the crash site in Pennsylvania. First responders in cities around the country are doing their annual uniformed stair climbing events in remembrance of their fallen colleagues. 

At a time in our nation’s history where there is so much political and social divisiveness, there is at least this one thing that most (though not all) of us can come together for.

Sights and sounds of this day in 2001, when America suffered the worst terrorist attack on its soil.

At 8:45 a.m. on September 11, 2001, an American Airlines Boeing 767, Flight 11, collided into the World Trade Center’s north tower in New York City immediately killing hundreds of people and trapping hundreds more in the 110-story skyscraper. Only 18 minutes later, a second Boeing 767, United Airlines Flight 175, flew into the south tower.

Both towers afire, burning debris covered the surrounding buildings and the streets below while hundreds jumped from the towers to their deaths in an attempt to escape.

About 30 minutes later, a third plane, American Airlines Flight 77, crashed into the west side of the Pentagon near Washington, D.C. and a fourth plane, United Flight 93, crash-landed into a field in Pennsylvania killing all 40 souls onboard.

Meanwhile, both World Trade Center towers collapsed into a terrifying and deadly inferno of rubble.

As the second tower collapsed I was on the phone with my wife, doing my best to make some sense of the tragedy. I suggested that perhaps the raw brutality of terrorism might finally be exposed and universally condemned by the civilized countries of the world. Perhaps we could all unite against such savagery. And the civilized peoples of the world did unite in sorrow, empathy and resolve.

The turning point of that day came with the passengers of flight 93, citizens that raised up to an incredible challenge when they knew what they were facing. Their courage and love for their country and their fellow citizens is inspiring and the true fabric of who we are, 40 people (33 passengers and 7 crew members) that on 9/11 morning took a plane in their course of their normal daily lives and in a fraction of a second they found themselves confronted by an enemy that wants to destroy us.

They went from being just a citizen to be the ones that put their lives on the line to save our institution of government by laying down their own lives so the rest of us could live. It is our duty to honor their sacrifice by ensuring that we protect our country in the same fashion against those who wish to destroy our country foreign and domestic, not doing so will render their sacrifice meaningless.

Their message is clear in the words of Todd Beamer “Lets Roll.”

9/11 marked the end of happiness for many, even those not directly affected. It marked the end of sustainable prosperity for millions of Americans. Companies immediately cut back on spending, the economy went into a mini-recession, and many people were laid off. 

The horror of that day is impossible to forget and imperative to remember. Today I will put aside my partisanship and political worries and try to focus on the true power of good which, God willing, will always triumph over evil.

The victims, their families, the first responders and the leaders who were trying to make the right decisions under hellish circumstances, deserve that from me as much as they deserve my prayers and heartfelt gratitude.

We saw the face of true evil that day, should anyone ever doubt it exists, but more importantly for our future, we saw magnificent heroism and sacrifice from police, firefighters, and ordinary citizens–heroism that our men and women in the military have continued to display every day since as they work mightily to keep us safe, as we face the same evil and always will. Heroism that humbles me.

Today I will pause and reflect that immediately after 9/11, American flags flew as they never had before and the most comforting songs were the “Star Bangled Banner” and “God Bless America.”

I realize that no matter how some now try to sanitize and alter 9/11 with politically correct “memos” on how to observe the day– which I don’t need or want– no one will ever take away or alter what I saw and what I felt on that terrible day.

Eventually the anger, the fear, and the horror gave way to a realization that as imperfect as we are as a people and a nation, when it really matters, when things are their absolute darkest, we can rise to the occasion; we can unite; we can triumph.

Many years later a memorial and new beautiful buildings have risen from the ashes of that day. That very fact speaks to the best that is in all of us.

At the time, President George W. Bush addressed the nation with a formal statement, “Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.”

At the hands of 19 militant terrorists associated with the Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda headed by Osama bin Laden, more than 3,000 people (including more than 400 police officers and firefighters) were killed and more than 10,000 others were wounded during the attacks on 9/11. It was the deadliest terrorist act in U.S. history and the most devastating foreign attack on American soil since the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Survivors and family members of survivors have come forward with stories of bravery and triumph. Tens of thousands have suffered. The initial Victim Compensation Fund (in operation from December 2001 to June 2004) received 7,408 applications from 75 countries and made 5,560 awards totaling over $7 billion for both death (2,880) and personal injury (2,680) claims. Awards ranged from $500 to $8.6 million with an average award of $2,082,128, all tax-free.

On January 2, 2011, President Barack Obama signed the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010 in honor of NYPD detective and first responder James Zadroga who died in 2006 from respiratory problems attributed to the inhalation of toxic dust from the World Trade Center disaster site. Also known as the “First Responders Bill,” this Act expanded the scope of the Victim Compensation Fund to include first responders and individuals who later experienced health problems related to 9/11. More than 20,000 claims have been processed since then and close to $3 billion in compensation for lost wages and other damages related to illness have been rendered.

While there are thousands of known victims and survivors, some remain unknown. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York has custody of 7,930 unidentified remains of those killed in the attacks. The remains are located in the World Trade Center Repository situated between the two footprints of the Twin Towers on the sacred ground of the World Trade Center site. There is a private Family Reflection Room that is not open to the public. Family members can also speak with World Trade Center anthropologists who can answer questions about the steps they are taking to identify the remains of 9/11 victims.

September 11th is now known as "Patriot Day” in the United States and is observed as the National Day of Service and Remembrance of the victims of the 9/11 attacks. Across the country, numerous events are held on this day to honor the loss of thousands of lives. There are also three somber and beautiful memorial sites dedicated to remembering the victims of 9/11.

The National September 11 Memorial & Museum, a nonprofit in New York City, remembers and honors the 2,983 people killed in the horrific attacks as well as hundreds more who risked their lives to save others and all who demonstrated extraordinary compassion in the aftermath of the attacks. It is located at the epicenter of Ground Zero at the World Trade Center site. The names of every person who died in the terrorist attacks are inscribed in bronze panels around two enormous memorial pools with waterfalls that stand in the footprints of where the twin towers once stood. A Callery pear tree that miraculously survived within the rubble of Ground Zero, now known as the "Survivor Tree," stands tall and thriving nearby. A symbol of strength and resilience here and elsewhere, each year, the 9/11 Memorial gives seedlings from the Survivor Tree to communities that have endured tragedy.

The Flight 93 National Memorial is located at the site of the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 about 2 miles north of Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The memorial honors the 40 passengers and crew who died on 9/11. It features concrete walls outlining the Flight Path Walkway and a white marble Wall of Names. There are also plans to construct a 93-foot tower to designate the entrance of the Flight 93 National Memorial which will contain 40 wind chimes — one for each passenger and crew member who died.

The National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial located in Arlington, Virginia, honors the loss of 184 people who died on September 11, 2001. Each victim’s age and location at the time of the attack are inscribed into the Memorial starting from the youngest victim, three-year-old Dana Falkenberg, to the oldest, John D. Yamnicky, 71, a Navy veteran, both of whom were aboard American Airlines Flight 77 that morning.

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