A Tribute to the Dead on 9-11 (And a Very Brief Mention of Striking Chicago Teachers)

NO ONE OLD ENOUGH TO REMEMBER will ever forget the attacks on 9/11, the terrible loss of life, and the shock and horror of an entire great 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. Until we knew more, however, district leaders wanted us to refrain from comment lest we scare students. The story continued to develop, of course, and I was soon spending the day and much of the following week trying to help students make sense of cataclysmic events.

Like any good teacher, I wanted them to understand the world they lived in, now so dramatically changed. 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 I recorded at the time, including some of the most tragic events. After all, today’s seventh graders were only one or two years old on September 11, 2001. So, I would show them a scene filled with people falling, falling, falling, from the high floors of the North and South Towers. What moments of sheer terror those must have been for trapped and 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 human beings that day. I’d tell them some of those who leaped out of those burning buildings were holding hands, perhaps with friends, perhaps with loved ones, where they had been trapped by the smoke and the flames.

It’s this kind of small gesture, I think, that reminds all of us who do remember, that might touch the hearts of today’s students, and give them a sense of what a loss our nation suffered on that day.

Nearly 3,000 died. Who were they?

Steven Coakley was coming off his regular shift with Engine Company 217, in Brooklyn, just as the planes struck. On five separate occasions, as a part of his job, he had helped deliver babies. This was entirely 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 a friend’s backyard barbecue the previous summer. Now, on that crisp September day, they were planning to celebrate a coming first wedding anniversary. Gary Bird was starting a job with Marsh & McClennan. Normally, he would be working out of Phoenix. On this day, however, he was scheduled for a three-hour meeting at the World Trade Center, beginning at 8:15 a.m.

All three were killed.

Let’s remember them all. Let’s remember Timothy J. Finnerty. A bond trader at Cantor Fitzgerald, we might 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 about his father and how much he liked working in the lawn. One day, Keith looked out the window and saw Dad using the 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 at terrorist hands. No one has vacuumed the lawn since.

Kristin Walsh remembers her mother, Nancy, bringing Carol Flyzik home and introducing her as “her girlfriend” one day. It meant a real adjustment at first, 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 scheduled for that flight but arrived too late at the airport.)

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, herself. 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 survive. 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. There was nothing 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 other 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 NYFD 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 finally added. Quappe was responding on 9/11, not to a little fire, but to a huge one, unlike anything he or anyone else had ever seen. Fate caught him up and swept him away.

Steven Cafiero first “met” his girlfriend on the Internet but they were not able to speak in person until another year passed. Now, in the weeks leading up to 9/11 they were talking about marriage and children. Peter Gyulavary had also blessed–years earlier–by fate, meeting his American wife while she was on vacation 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 find 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 because he had to help complete an insurance audit. (His remains were identified two months later when a lucky 1976 bicentennial silver dollar he always 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 her 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. The sad fact is that 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 micro-biology, and their daughter Christine Hanson, only 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 see Disneyland. At the last minute, Paige realized she could use frequent flier miles and switched to American Airlines Flight 11, instead.

They had planned to meet up in California, before both planes in a cruel twist, found themselves 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. And 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 could probably have escaped. Instead, they stuck around and used a crowbar and other tools to help at least fifty trapped men and women escape from the North Tower. They, themselves, 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 never made 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 at the wedding. 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 from Covington, Kentucky, who moved later to the Big Apple for work. Joseph J. Hasson III had survived a terrible car wreck his 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 of the South Tower. He managed to leave a phone message on his fiancée, 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 the 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 birthday. “I feel silly, Liz,” he explained, but added, “you’ll have to cancel that.”

Neither man made it home that night.

Rick Rescelora had served in Vietnam and survived heavy fighting; but he died on this day. Mike Warchola had one day left until he retired from the New York Fire Department. And he died. Port Authority police officer Dominick Pezzulo is trying to free two other trapped officers from the wreckage of the South Tower when the North tower collapsed and he is killed by a falling beam. John Perry was actually turning in his retirement papers to the New York Police Department when the first plane struck. He asked for his badge back and raced to the scene, to help others in a time of dire 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 10 a. m. Ed Nichols, for one, was bleeding from his head, arm and abdomen when Smith took him gently by the elbow and led him outside. Then she turned and reentered the lobby. About this same time, eyewitness saw melting aluminum pouring out of the gash on the 80th floor where the hijacked aircraft had hit. In a 911 call at the same time, 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 whole 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 victims on the ground. Cheryle Sincock had already been at work inside for several hours by then because she liked to get an early start whenever she could. 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 was 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. But Cheryle turned out to be one of many innocent victims.

Todd Beamer, you may still recall, was one of the passengers 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, of course, was one of the ring leaders of a passenger revolt organized to try to regain control of the plane from the hijackers before they 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 more 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 just can’t help believing that this story still matters.

(No disrespect intended to the victims of 9-11, but Chicago teachers are striking today mainly because they don’t think education is improved by tying teacher evaluations to test scores.

I have to agree.

We’re following fools who say they can fix the schools; but few teachers today believe the testing approach is wise or working.)