An Upper School teacher remembers the risks his father took responding to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Anybody who knows me knows my favorite season is the fall. In Texas, fall is the time when the summer heat starts to break, Friday night lights are back and the memories of summer vacations (and our tans) are still fresh. Growing up in the Hudson Valley, fall was the time for soccer season, picking apples at the orchard and the best time to take in nature as the leaves changed colors.
But just like many New Yorkers of a certain age, as we flip the calendar from August to September we somberly remember the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001 and how that day changed our lives. Almost 20 percent of Americans were not alive before 2001. If you are part of this 20 percent (and even if you are not) I would implore you to not let this Sept. 11 pass without taking a moment to read, watch or listen to some of the stories of those who survived the attacks. The events of September 11 laid bare the truth of the human condition: that we possess in ourselves both the power to do unspeakable actions of evil and magnanimous actions of good.
I don’t remember much from 2001. I was in fifth grade, and because of my youth, I was shielded from the true nature of events. I remember the school guidance counselor coming into our class and telling us a plane hit the World Trade Center, and I remember parents pulling their children from school out of fear of further attacks. It was not until I was older and more cognizant of the magnitude of the attacks that I realized how lucky I was that my father was home that morning. My father, James McCarthy, has been a firefighter in the city of New York my entire life and was home on the morning that the New York City Fire Department responded to the deadliest fire in its entire history.
On the morning of Sept. 11, the first plane crashed into World Trade Center 1 at 8:46 AM. The official response time of the FDNY was five seconds. Within minutes, firehouses from across the city burst into action and all across Lower Manhattan the scream of fire trucks could be heard. Hundreds of firefighters responded that morning, and 343 would never make it back home.
To celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. day the past few years, I have had my sophomore world history class read King’s speech entitled “On Being a Good Neighbor.” In this speech, Dr. Martin Luther King highlights the altruism of the Good Samaritan who, as many of us know, stopped to help a traveller on his way to Jericho who was robbed and left for dead. This Sept. 11, I would ask you to join me and reflect on the actions of the firefighters responding to the attacks on the WTC and the altruism they showed. Like the Samaritan on the road to Jericho, the firefighters on that day had the capacity for universal altruism. They did not run into the burning towers to save their families, loved ones or even friends. They risked their life because they saw another human being in need. We remember their actions because they remind us that there are numerous Jericho roads of life.
As Dr. King noted in his speech “the true measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands in moments of challenge and controversy.” Too often as Americans we need a horrific tragedy to remind us how many people and how much of our way of life we take for granted. Too often, to paraphrase Dr. King, we find reasons to not help people, reasons to convince ourselves that our fellow man is not our neighbor and, thus, their livelihood is not our responsibility.
There is something my father said in an interview conducted about a decade ago that has always stuck with me. When you go back and watch the news coverage from that morning, you can see civilians running away, but you don’t see any firefighters running away. There is no doubt in my mind that many of these men and women were scared. I have met many firefighters, and they are normal salt of the earth people. They are parents, coaches, scout leaders, volunteers, community leaders, the list goes on. They are not beyond the reach of fear. But, unlike many of us, they did not let their fear lead to paralysis. Too often we are overcome with the concern of self-preservation and ask ourselves what will happen to us if we stop and help. Instead, the firefighters flipped the question and asked what would happen to them if they didn’t help. Many had to climb 50 or 60 flights of stairs with up to 75 pounds of gear on. But none of them ran away. It would have been easier to be compassionate by proxy or maybe wait for others because it was too dangerous. But none of them ran away.
In the days, weeks and years following the attacks on Sept. 11, the rallying cry was that Americans would “never forget” the heroism shown that day. In New York, it is hard to forget. Every September, there are religious services dedicated to the souls of the departed, the reading of names at Ground Zero and, in almost every commuter town, people pay their respects at local memorials.
As many of us have gotten older, part of never forgetting has grown to teaching the next generation about what happened that day. Those too young to remember will innocently ask questions and many of us, still trying to make sense of that day, will attempt, with a lump in our throats, to explain the unexplainable. When remembering 9/11 we can choose to talk about those who wished to destroy and cause harm or we can remind others of those who had an active commitment to the love ethic. I would implore you on this anniversary to reflect on those whose actions shake us out of the apathy of everyday life and remind us what it means to live a life of universal altruism.