In Memoriam: The Heroes of 9/11

Cable channels yesterday ran a marathon of documentaries about 9/11 while news networks covered the memorial services held at Ground Zero, New York; Pentagon at Washington DC and Shanskville, Pennsylvania.

Photo from scientificamerican.com

I realized last night that this day deserves to be written about. In my history as a human being, this is one of the most important stories in my lifetime. While my grandparents had the holocaust, my parents had the outrageous 60s and Martial Law — our generation had 9/11.

Photo from topusapost.com

But how to begin? How does one write about a day that brought unimaginable terror to thousands of people who did nothing to deserve their fate, save show up for work like they always do every morning? How does one begin to even put into words the emotions brought about by an event of this magnitude and the thousands of stories on why and how this even came together?

If we think about it, what is an act of terrorism, if not an act meant to dispel all the hope and valor in the human heart?

But on that day, hope and valor were not dispelled.

Discovery channel’s “The Heroes of the 88th Floor“ tell the story of 2 such people: construction manager Pablo Ortiz and construction inspector Frank DeMartini. Everyday folk just making a living and doing their jobs the best way they could.

Frank De Martini with his children Sabrina and Dominic. Photo from courierpostonline.com.

In the midst of one of New York City’s most terrifying hours, they found a way against all odds to find an open stairwell for the occupants of the 88th floor so they could make their way out of a building on the verge of collapse.

After evacuating their colleagues, they searched what remained of the floor with an area of over 40,000 square meters amidst smoke, fumes and debris to ensure no one had been left behind.

Photo immediately after the crash in the North Tower. From hitfix.com.

And when they were done with the 88th, they decided to keep looking. When everyone else was scrambling to get down, they made their way up to the 89th when they heard banging on the stairwell doors. Using a crowbar to pry apart the plastered walls, they eventually freed the stairwell door and got more than a dozen other people out of the building.

Still it wasn’t enough. Up they went to the 90th and rescued even more people who were just waiting with bated breath to be given instructions to evacuate.

They probably would’ve kept going up, taking them closer and closer to the crash site… Except the way was already far too blocked. From the 91st floor onwards, no one would survive.

So they started on their journey going down. An ordinary person would’ve kept going. They didn’t. They stopped at almost every floor to see if anyone had been left inside. Eventually they made it to the 76th floor, the sky lobby where they were able to free a man trapped inside the express elevator. Where many had failed to pry open the door, Frank and Pablo succeeded.

That was the last anyone had seen or heard from Frank and Pablo for within minutes of rescuing the man inside the elevator, the World Trade Center North tower had finally collapsed.

Pablo Ortiz with his family. Photo from blog.chron.com.

More than 75 people have a second chance at life today because of these two selfless acts of heroism.

In the same documentary, a few minutes before the North Tower collapses, a middle-aged man sits by the 12th floor stairwell holding the hand of his colleague — a distraught woman struggling with asthma from the trip down 72 floors, the smoke, fumes and her own body weight.

Some ways down their trip, she had taken long pauses to try to catch her breath. At the last few minutes just as they were getting closer to freedom, she tires and despairs.

The rest of their group had long since reached safety.

One man sat by her side refusing to leave her alone. He stayed until firefighters had finally located them and he was forcibly ushered to go on down (otherwise he would be thrown down the stairs), with the reassurance that they would carry his friend down to safety.

He finally exited the north tower just as the building began its final collapse. His friend, and the firefighters inside never made it out.

Thousands of firefighters lost their lives that day. The first ones to arrive when the call was sounded braved their way inside the growing wreckage of the World Trade Center to scour every corner of every floor to find people who needed to be saved. As time went by and it was imminent and certain that the towers were on the verge of collapse, they didn’t flee. They continued in, on and upwards in the attempts of scaling 110 floors to do what they could to find as many survivors as possible.

When the towers finally collapsed, no firefighter managed to even reach the floors above the 50th. There just wasn’t enough time.

Hundreds were saved by the courage and valor of these firefighters, all doing what they could in the call of duty.

Firefighter Dustin Stevens from Franktown Fire and Rescue and his fellow firefighters observe a moment of silence Read more: Metro firefighters remember responders lost on 9/11 - The Denver Post.

On the ground, inside the building and on the air, there were heroes all around.

The passengers of Flight United 93 was the flight that fought back and thwarted the attack on the White House. A handful of passengers took it upon themselves to try to regain control of the plane to whatever end. Perhaps none really knew what would really happen when they had regained control, they just knew they had to try something.

The struggle and distraction provided by the attempts of the passengers to get inside the cockpit made the hijackers lose control of the plane. Instead of making it all the way to the White House, the plane crashed at a 45-degree angle in a reclaimed coal strip mine a few miles from Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Motorists on the ground witnessed the plane falling rapidly and at an angle right above their vehicles as many prayed the crash would spare the school that was just a few miles away from that coal mine.

The crash site in Pennsylvania. Photo from thewebfairy.com.

None survived the crash. United Flight 93 fragmented violently upon the crash.

While speculations still abound about whether the target was indeed the White House, what we know is that their efforts spared any further deaths on the ground.

Yesterday we grieved, remembered and honored the victims and all our heroes. Whatever the purpose of the attack that fateful day 10 years ago was, it left an entire world devastated. I saw the footage last night and the cries, the expressions of utter despair on the faces of those who were on the streets of New York that day are etched in my mind.

But in the midst of that, many of us are also humbled by the courage and valor exhibited by these true-to-life heroes.

Lives that were irrevocably changed by acts of kindness and humanity to remind us all that in the midst of tragedy, the human heart still prevails. Let them be an inspiration to all of us who are fortunate to still be here with the chance to make a difference.

And maybe then, we can truly say that we’ve confronted terror in its face, and have finally defeated it.