When the planes crashed into New York City’s twin towers two decades ago, the images played over and over on every television I happened to pass — and every TV in America seemed to be turned on. At one point, my daughter Jeni, 4 years old at the time, said “Momma, I don’t like that show.”
I didn’t like it either.
But those crashing planes are not actually the image that I carry forward from that horrendous day.
In the moment, I felt so much ache and rage for the murders and the destruction, including the knowledge that the world had changed for my daughters, probably forever. But as that day — and the day after and the day after that for 20 years now — unfolded, what burned into my consciousness was how strong we are and how willing to help each other in crisis.
The terrorists didn’t destroy us. They showed us and the world our resilience and our honor and the strength we find in unity. They didn’t make us more fragile. They proved we could work together for the good of all, regardless of things we sometimes think should divide us, like race or politics or religion.
Those can only divide us if we let them.
What I remember are the better angels of 9/11. I wonder if I would have run into the chaos to help or would I have tried to get away. I relate to those who fled, but I remain so grateful for the heroes who ran toward danger or who stayed to help others. The firefighters, the police, the soldiers and the regular Janes and Joes.
As we mark what we lost two decades ago, I pray we also celebrate what we gained because so many put others ahead of themselves.
A month after the towers fell, Washington Post reporter Michael Grunwald wrote of “inspirational hero-tales that have sprouted like wildflowers from the Twin Towers rubble.” Here are a few of literally hundreds of such stories.
‘Red bandanna’ man
In his book “The Red Bandanna,” Tom Rinaldi asks what you’d do with the last hour of your life.
It would take Welles Crowther’s family months to learn how the 24-year-old spent his.
When he was a kid, Crowther’s dad gave him a red bandanna that became his trademark and later helped his family learn how he spent that final hour. He always had one with him, whether playing sports in high school or learning the ropes as an equities trader for Sandler O’Neill on the 104th floor of the south tower. When the plane struck that tower and dust, smoke and debris engulfed him, he wore the bandanna over his nose as he moved down the stairs to the 78th floor lobby in a still-functional stairwell he found.
Crowther had been a volunteer fireman since age 16 and yearned to join the New York Fire Department. Later, witnesses would say he spoke with authority, this tall, calm man in the red bandanna, telling those who could stand to do so and those who could help others to do that, too. He led them to the stairwell, carrying an injured woman on his back, then left them to other heroes on the 61st floor and went back up to find more survivors.
Years later, dedicating the National September 11 Memorial Museum, then-President Barack Obama would say, “They didn’t know his name. They didn’t know where he came from. But they knew their lives had been saved by the man in the red bandanna. He called for fire extinguishers to fight back the flames. He tended to the wounded. He led those survivors down the stairs to safety, and carried a woman on his shoulders down 17 flights. Then he went back. Back up all those flights. Then back down again, bringing more wounded to safety. Until that moment when the tower fell.”
He saved at least 18 people who later identified him from a photo. Crowther’s body was found months later in the wreckage with a group of firefighters killed by the tower’s further collapse. Posthumously, in 2006, he became an honorary New York City firefighter.
Launched in 1931, as the Empire State Building was rising on the New York City skyline, Fireboat John J. Harvey would perform one of its greatest feats years after its 1994 retirement.
The fireboat was slated to be scrapped when a group of friends decided over dinner that they’d like to save it. They bought it during a 1999 auction and had it so well restored that the National Park Service listed the John J. Harvey on its National Register of Historic Places.
Then the planes hit the twin towers and that group of owners rushed from wherever they were to the John J. Harvey, scrambling to get permission to help evacuate Manhattan Island — one of more than 100 boats large and small that together managed to evacuate a half-million people from near ground zero.
Firefighters were struggling to put out the fires that had erupted and the damage to the area was so great that some of the water mains near ground zero were demolished.
In service, the fireboat had been able to pump an astonishing amount of water — 18,000 gallons a minute. Was there a chance, officials wondered, that the pumps still worked? They did.
HudsonRiverPark.org reported those who’d been picked up for evacuation were quickly taken to safety, then the fireboat returned to the disaster site to provide water alongside two in-service fireboats, John D. McKean and Fire Fighter. The trio pumped nonstop for 80 hours until water mains were restored.
Today, Fireboat John J. Harvey enjoys a more placid pace from her home at Pier 66a on the Hudson River Park, venturing out when its owners decide to host free river trips. And the boat and its owners are immortalized in a charming children’s book by Maira Kalman called “Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey.”
Eyewitness account from a plane
American Airlines flight attendants Betty Ann Ong and Madeline “Amy” Sweeney were the first to let officials on the ground know something awful was happening on Flight 11, the plane that would hit the north tower.
The cockpit had been breached, crew members had been stabbed and passengers had been maced, they reported via Air Phone calls from the back of the plane, where they first provided information to an airline reservation center in North Carolina and then to an airline operations center in Texas. The calls were described as calm and professional.
Those phone calls informed what the 911 Commission learned about what was going on during the hijacking. The official commission report said the calls were long — more than 20 minutes to the operation center — and described the hijackers and where they were seated, which allowed officials to identify men and make the first connection to Osama bin Laden as the source of the attack. Within hours of the attack, government officials were laying blame and shoring up security based in part on information the two women provided.
The singing former soldier
In Vietnam, British-born Richard (Rick) Rescorla earned the Silver Star and a Purple Heart among other medals for his bravery as an officer in the U.S. Army. But he is best remembered for what he did in the south tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. He’s credited with saving roughly 2,700 people.
It started with not following orders.
When the first plane hit the north tower, those working in the south tower were told they weren’t in danger and to keep working. Rescorla, vice president of security at Morgan Stanley, didn’t trust the advice. The 62-year-old, who was born in Cornwall, England, had feared more terrorism after the 1993 terrorist attack in the World Trade Center’s underground garage and told others he expected terrorists would try again. Every few months, he’d insisted his colleagues practice emergency evacuation, news reports said. He ignored the advice to stay seated and ushered the employees down a stairwell.
Military.com reported that Rescorla “had the habit of singing the Cornish and Welsh battle hymns of his youth during times of crisis to buck up the spirits of those around him. He sang them during the worst of it in the battle of Ia Drang, and he sang them again as the towers burned on 9/11.”
Witnesses said he sang “God Bless America” over a bullhorn as they left the imperiled structure.
He got his people out safely, then went back up the stairs to make sure no one had been left behind. His biography on the 911 memorial site says just 13 Morgan Stanley employees or consultants died, including Rescorla. His body was never found. President Donald Trump honored him with the Presidential Citizens Medal posthumously.
Strangers and friends
Michael Benfante, then 36, was a branch manager at Network Plus when a passenger jet crashed into the north tower. He told his team of sales reps to take the stairs and get out of the building. But on the 68th floor, he spotted a small group of women who were not leaving. That’s when he discovered that Tina Hansen used a motorized wheelchair and could not evacuate without help. He and one of his sales reps, John Cerqueira, then 22, strapped her into one of the light emergency wheelchairs that had been placed around the World Trade Center after the 1993 bombing. They carried her down all 68 flights.
According to an article honoring Benfante in the Brown University alumni magazine, their journey took an hour and 15 minutes through increasingly dicey conditions. They waded through debris and sometimes water in the smoke- and dust-filled building, wending their way through offices to find new paths out.
After they turned Hansen over to medical crews outside, the two men had to dive under a truck for safety as the tower collapsed completely. Eventually, they made it to a church, where they prayed. “I just thanked God,” Benfante told the magazine.
Years later, Cerqueira told CBS17.com that “if we’re focused on helping other people and suppress our self-centered motives, we’re in a much more powerful position to help, to be productive and be successful.”
That selflessness was evidenced, too, by Avremel “Abe” Zelmanowitz, 56. He stayed behind on the 27th floor of the north tower with his close friend Ed Beyea, 36, who used a heavy motorized wheelchair after losing use of all four limbs in a diving accident.
The Courier Journal reported that Zelmanowitz answered each entreaty to evacuate with “I’m staying with my friend.”
Help came in the form of New York City fireman Capt. Billy Burke, who was making sure the building was clear. But it was too late. Another firefighter told Syracuse.com that Burke sent other firefighters away, but he stayed with the two men. Zelmanowitz and Beyea were among 13 Empire Blue Cross/Blue Shield employees who died in the terror attack, as did Burke.