A reflection on tragedy, and triumph
The changes that began on 9/12 have stretched into weeks, months, and years
By Art Hsieh
Anniversaries are very arbitrary dates, created by humans to signify meaning into an event. Birthdays, death days, weddings, the beginning of a business venture….we use the anniversary date to celebrate, mourn, acknowledge and reflect upon not only the event itself, but what has happened since that date, and at times, its impact on our lives.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that occurred in New York, Washington, D.C., Shanksville, Pa., and in the hearts and souls of good people all over the world. The changes that began on 9/12 have stretched into weeks, months, and years. We have sent American men and women into battle, and waged political and economic war with not only other countries and groups set on hurting our country, but also among ourselves. We have spent billions of dollars to prepare and protect our home soil against future attacks, and we are now required to train in the principles of mass casualty events and weapons of mass effect. Yet, at the very core of any anniversary are the raw emotions that are as indelible as any permanent marker of that day.
What were you doing when you found out? Unless you were a toddler, you probably remember. I was preparing to speak in front of an EMS educator conference audience in Pittsburg, Pa. when my hotel room phone rang. I said, "Hello?" and there was a brief silence. Then, "Turn on your TV. You're not going to believe what's on."
The caller's anxious tone made me turn on the television. The image of the North Tower of the World Trade Center on fire appeared as if it was a scene from a movie. Except, it wasn't.
Born in New York, I had grown up watching the Towers rising above the city during their construction. As a teenager, my first love and I exchanged a childhood kiss on the observation floor. As a father I had brought my wife and two young sons to the WTC so that they could also marvel out loud at how amazing it was to stand on top of the world.
Now it was on fire. And really, truly, in a heartbeat I knew that life would be different. I knew that many of my fellow EMS providers would be responding to what would be the worst day of their careers. For a few, very long minutes, alone in my hotel room, I prayed for their safety and for the safety of the individuals who were in the building. I cried. Then, the second plane hit the South Tower. I could hear people screaming out loud in the room next door. I remember feeling…numb, uncomprehending of what was happening.
That morning turned into a long day. We worked on getting New York-based conference participants rental cars so they could hurry back to their communities. We planned how to manage the hundred plus attendees who suddenly were stranded because all planes were grounded. The hotel staff rolled a large television into the conference hall; throughout the day we watched the events unfold and felt the world change.
On that day we lost 42 EMS personnel, 343 firefighters, 60 police officers, and a total of 2819 individuals. Since then, I've tried to keep things in perspective, to give some sense of reality to the staggering, sudden loss of so many lives in so little time. Still, in quiet moments of reflection, my emotions still run the gamut.
I still mourn the loss. I feel for the survivors who have had to cope with the loss of a child, spouse, parent, or friend. I mourn for my fellow rescuers, who went to work that day, answering the call to respond, and never came back to the station. They weren't trying to be heroic– they simply did their jobs to the best of their ability, against an impossible situation.
I am still angry. I still haven't forgiven the individuals who killed nearly 3000 people in a myopic attempt to prove something. I'm not sure if I ever will. To cloak this event in the robes of religion or culture is an insult to those who cherish religion and the diversity of culture.
I am still motivated. Motivated to continue training those who have come into our profession so they may serve others. Motivated to make sure we know right from wrong. Motivated to contribute to the knowledge of the profession so that we are acknowledged to be professionals among our public safety peers.
And not least of all – I am proud. Proud at a couple of levels:
Proud to be in this profession. To our brothers and sisters who gave their lives that day, we'll never forget you. Thank you for your service.
Proud to be an American. In the days following 9/11, we came together in ways that I've not experienced before, or since. Yes, we have big issues to overcome, and we will never agree on everything. But, we do stand for freedom that allows us to innovate, debate, create, adapt and overcome. We are a resilient group. Hopefully, we can learn as well, so that the lessons of the past prepare us for the future.