Everyone can tell you their story. Mine is simple. I sat at the Atlanta Bread Company at the second table from the door by the windows working on my daily plan.
Then, a man I did not know approached my table ashen and trembling. “They hit the second building.”
I am sure you know what it is.
Tomorrow is the twentieth anniversary of an event etched in memory. Life changed, from travel, to who we see and how, and how we feel.
Tomorrow is 9/11, a kind of cultural shorthand for the day terrorists turned airliners full of innocent people into missiles. They brought down the symbols of America’s strength, the World Trade Center towers, rammed the symbol of American military power, and–except for the heroics of the passengers–were headed to Washington to either the Capitol or the White House.
All told, on that day, almost 3000 people left for work and never went home. Empty cars with coffee cups in cup holders remained in parking lots. People that day never had a chance to see children grow to adulthood, to watch daughters walk down aisles, to hold a grandchild in their arms. They were pregnant women, single artists, cooks, financial advisors, firemen, and policemen.
It is easy to focus on the carnage of the day. Some stories point us to the way, even after a two-decade imprint on all.
One is about Janelle Guzman.
Guzman was a secretary at a firm that housed in the north tower. When the plane hit the building with a jolt, she started down the stairs.
But before she could reach the bottom floor, the building collapsed. Many, if not most, believed she had died.
Firefighters combed through the rubble of the day into the night, searching for anyone alive.
One, named Paul, was moving mounds of concrete, listening for any sign. He shouted, “Is anyone alive?” Guzman uttered a hoarse sound of “help me.”
Paul asked her to keep talking, but he could not find her. Paul grasped at a straw and told her, “if you can, stick out your hand.”
Suddenly, she thrust her only free arm through the rock and steel, and Paul grabbed it and did not let go. It took some time, but they got her out.
An ambulance swept her away. At the hospital, they told her two things.
One is that she had been buried for 27 hours. But the second was, “You are the last survivor.”
I would hope she wasn’t.
Every August, as we approach the grisly anniversary, I listen to the audiobook called The Only Plane in the Sky by Garrett Graff. It is not a book about the events, but the people who survived tell their own stories.
I am struck by a single idea. On that day, survival was all people should have thought about. Instead, they focused on something else. Help others.
Firefighters died in stairwells with arms around their shoulders. People who could have been home earlier stopped to carry men and women burned and bleeding down dozens of flights of stairs.
I would like to believe that the last survivor of 9/11 is not a person but an idea.
In all times, we find the courage and grit to help each other get through life. It saddens me to watch the hate-lace vitriolic of the current political climate. All sides are at fault, but they ignore the point. It’s not about power but people.
As we bow heads, we listen to 2,997 names read while bells chime. We must do more.
Give to others the way those people did on that day. That is the great survivor of an ugly day.