Turning 9/11 grief into action

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(Credit: Janet Hamlin Illustration)

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Dennis Smith, a former New York City firefighter, is the author most recently of "A Decade of Hope: Stories of Grief and Endurance from 9/11 Families and Friends." His daughter, Deirdre Smith, served as editorial associate for the book.

Anniversaries provide a useful convention. We mark the first, the fifth, the 10th, the 25th year after significant events. They usually serve to recognize endurance or professional longevity, often with a celebration. But commemorations are a little different. For 9/11 families, milestones aren't counted in years. The milestone date is always tomorrow, for the absence they suffer can only be measured day by day.

When we decided to publish a book of interviews with 9/11 families, we didn't realize what a monumental job it would be, or how life changing. We anticipated the process would involve conducting the interviews, sending them to a transcriber, and then editing them for clarity. We thought it would be perfunctory work.


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But there is nothing perfunctory about Sept. 11, 2001, especially not the memories of people who lived through it.

Their stories are not just narratives of that terrible day and its aftermath, but a vital record of anguish, joy, pain and the passion of decent men and women who have been through more than anyone could ever be expected to endure.

The deaths that occurred in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001, differ in one very great sense from the passing of loved ones in everyday life -- these lives were taken suddenly, brutally and publicly at a turning point in the nation's history. And so it is right to accord to each lost life a special honor, the expression of a heartfelt national sympathy. It is a uniquely American honor and extends to those many from other countries who perished that day.

There were 2,974 families directly affected by the tragedy, and no single person, or book, can represent them all. But we sought to interview a group as diverse as our society. These family members may live within a special agony, but they continue -- like most Americans -- to make the world a little better through their actions.

 

Jan and John Vigiano of Deer Park lost both of their children: John, a firefighter, and Joe, a police detective. Now John regularly visits the Walter Reed Army hospitals to sit with those soldiers and Marines who left part of themselves back in Iraq or Afghanistan -- to joke with them, to reassure them that they are loved because of what they have given up for our country after they were sent to fight in response to the 9/11 attacks.

Lee and Ann Ielpi lost their son Jonathan, and there are memorials in their community of Great Neck remembering his short but heroic life. Lee went into the future with resolve, to educate the young about 9/11, to have them understand the horror of those attacks, so that they can know how important peace will be in their futures. Lee created, with the help of friends, the Tribute Center, a little gem of a museum at the south side of the World Trade Center that offers tours by people who experienced 9/11 firsthand.

Talat Hamdani, a New York City schoolteacher living in Lake Grove, lost her son Mohammad Salman at the Twin Towers, where he had gone to help because he was a certified emergency medical technician. Salman wanted to be a doctor. Hamdani has since worked with a Christian church, distributing food and clothes to those in need because she wants the world to see how Christians and Muslims can work together toward a common cause.

Just a week before 9/11, Brooke Jackman informed her parents, Barbara and Robert, that she was giving notice at the financial firm Cantor Fitzgerald, because helping others was her true passion, and she wanted to become a social worker. Although 9/11 took away her chance to fulfill this passion, her family wanted her memory to last in a way that would reflect on her life. And so, with the help of her sister, Erin, the Jackmans founded the Brooke Jackman Foundation to honor their daughter and her love of reading and helping others. Their foundation now annually donates more than 35,000 knapsacks filled with books to homeless shelters and selected schools. Each knapsack is emblazoned with Brooke's name.

Zack Fletcher and his twin brother, Andre, were volunteer firefighters in Freeport. They both joined the New York Fire Department, and Andre worked hard to realize his dream of an appointment to a rescue company -- Rescue 5 in Staten Island. Every member of Rescue 5 who responded on 9/11 was lost. Zack, now a member of Brooklyn's Ladder 132, is an adviser to the Fire and Emergency Services Exploring Program -- part of the Greater New York Councils Exploring Program, which comes under the umbrella of the Boy Scouts of America -- and does volunteer work for Meals on Wheels.

The Siller family of Staten Island co-founded the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, which works with the families of firefighters and veterans whose lives have been affected by line-of-duty losses and injuries. On 9/11, firefighter Stephen Siller ran through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel in full gear to join the rescue efforts at the World Trade Center and was lost. His life and this heroic effort are remembered every year at the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Run/Walk, which follows the path he took that day. Thanks to the relentless dedication of a large, close-knit family and friends, Tunnel to Towers runs are now held in cities and towns across the country.

 

The emotions of these and other 9/11 families have remained raw for many years. But their examples of extraordinary strength should make us all pause in awed recognition of the power of well-molded character. As a nation, we should look to these families for inspiration. There is always the possibility of a tomorrow where hope and respect for others will prevail.

Ten years ago our country made a promise to never forget -- words written with a finger in the pervasive dust at the World Trade Center, words that went on to enter the American psyche. And on this, the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we honor that promise. We recognize the good work of these families, and we will continue, always, to remember.

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