A reflection on the American Heroes of September 11th

By Wayne Elsey

As I was sitting to write my piece for September 11th, although I thought about writing about one of my usual topics, I felt it essential to write about September 11th, 2001 instead. Incredibly, that day that changed a lot of the way Americans think and launched endless wars and military operations that continue to this day; it’s vital for us to remember. There are thousands of families that live with the effects of that day. As a country, and as people, in many ways, we do as well and we should never forget.

In the intervening years, many things have transpired. On the right and the left, it feels that we are often a nation divided. It doesn’t have to be that way. Our country is at its best when we reach out, listen to each other and take the high ground.

And so, today, I want to write about three stories of heroism and courage that occurred on September 11, 2001. At no point did any of these heroes think about the nationality, gender, religious affiliation, political ideology or anything else when they were stepping up. Each one of these people just saw a fellow human being and did what they knew they had to do. Seventeen years later, these are but three stories of heroes on a day that was filled with thousands of large and small acts of courage and self-sacrifice. As a country, those are our American values, and as President Ronald Regan expressed, our great nation is a “shining city upon a hill,” which serves as a beacon of light to everyone who loves freedom.

Passengers of United Flight 93

By now, we all know the story of these Americans, but it bears repeating today when we seem to be a nation that is so divided. The passengers on that flight were the first to understand what was happening that September morning and take action that prevented more deaths. Four Al Qaeda high-jackers stabbed the pilot and took over the flight at 9:28 a.m. It was upon learning that two other planes had hit the World Trade Center that the passengers on United Flight 93 began to determine the incredible evil and significance of what was happening.

Many dialed their families and loved ones. It was during this process that they cobbled together information, realized that they were not going to return to an airport as the high jackers had told them and then began to formulate a plan to re-take the plane. They came to realize that it was on them to try to do something to prevent their aircraft from being slammed into another building.

These ordinary people did the extraordinary and were some of the first to give up their lives in service of our country. We owe a debt of gratitude to the memory of passengers like Tom Burnett, Mark Bingham, Jeremy Glick, and Todd Beamer, whose last words on the telephone were “You ready? Okay, let’s roll.” There were also women like flight attendant CeeCee Lyles, Lauren Grandcolas, and Linda Gronlund. All acted together and died together in service to our country.

New York City Police Officer, Moira Smith

Officer Smith was the first officer to report the attack after she saw the first plane hit the first World Trade Tower. As she was trained to do, she ran toward the tower and immediately set to work evacuating people. Again, an ordinary person did the extraordinary. Officer Smith was remembered by one of the people she guided out of the tower, Martin Glynn.

As people exited the tower toward the main plaza, many came across Officer Moira. She instructed people as they were coming off the escalator leading to the underground passageway to exit not to look out onto the plaza. She kept her flashlight moving and directing people “Don’t look! Keep moving.” As Glynn wrote, it was Moira who was one of the people that day who directed people and kept them moving as they encountered the horrors of what was happening on the plaza.

Glynn wanted to see past her to the plaza, but as he wrote, “She quickly matched my motion and blocked my vision saying ‘don’t look.’ Our eyes made direct contact. My eyes said to her, ‘I know how bad it is and I understand what you’re doing.’ Her face was full of pain and her eyes said to me, ‘In this horrific situation, this is the best and only thing I can do.’”

As Glynn explained, while what she was doing was ordinary, the horrors and chaos of that day made it stand out because she selflessly protected others from seeing what she had seen. She was guiding people to keep moving, and live. Her husband and two-year-old daughter survived officer Smith.

Rick Rescorla

This Vietnam veteran saved more than 2,700 lives on September 11th. He was the head of corporate security for Morgan Stanley. After American Flight 11 tore into the World Trade Center Tower, the New York Port Authority ordered him to keep all employees in the building. Rescorla replied, “(Expletive) off, you (expletive). Everything above where that plane hit is going to collapse, and it’s going to take the whole building with it. I’m getting my people the (expletive) out of here.”

During his tenure, he understood the vulnerabilities of the World Trade Center buildings. He immediately ordered an evacuation, and because for years he had been making Morgan Stanley employees practice drills, more than 2,700 people were out of the corporate offices when the second plane hit the building where their offices were located.

When he served in Vietnam, he often sang to his fellow soldiers in arms, and on September 11th, Rescorla did it again singing on the bullhorn “God Bless America and “Men of Harlech” so he could keep people calm as they evacuated. On the telephone to his wife, one of the last things he said to her was, “If something should happen to me, I want you to know I’ve never been happier. You made my life.” He was last seen heading up from the 10th floor of the tower to see if he could escort more people out.

In closing, these are but a few of the stories of courage, all done by our fellow Americans. The ordinary became extraordinary, and in all instances, in the face of the worst of humanity, we saw the best of humanity in the actions of these heroes and many others. As I mentioned, on that day, there are countless stories of kindness, heroism, compassion, and thoughtfulness—all woven into the fabric of the day. Of course, we never want to experience a day like that again, but I hope that we always remember the greatness of our nation. These people exemplified our shared values and strength as Americans. Let’s not forget that on this day.

By Wayne Elsey