As America continues to reel from the damage, both physical and emotional, caused by Tuesday’s attacks, no group finds itself harder hit than the New York City emergency services. Not only must they attempt to clean up New York after the largest bloodletting on American soil since Antietam in 1862, but they must also grieve for the hundreds of their colleagues who were lost when the World Trade Center towers collapsed.
Many groups lost tremendous numbers of employees—Morgan Stanley had more than 3,500 employees in the towers, and the leadership of the New York Port Authority was virtually wiped out. Yet although the emergency workers were not in the buildings when the planes hit, they too were going about their business when they were killed by the terrorists. But unlike the regular tenants of the World Trade Center, these brave Americans were well aware of the risks they faced.
As most people were running out of the Twin Towers, the rescue personnel were sprinting in. These firefighters and police were not innocents—they are paid and expected to go out and put their lives on the line, in situations like this, every day. But that only makes their sacrifice more impressive and sublime. They consciously and deliberately offered their assistance to those trapped inside, well aware of the potential consequences for themselves and their families. They did so without duress; they did so without hesitation.
Both the terrorists and the firefighters ploughed into the World Trade Centers knowing that they could well die. But while the hijackers entered in the height of callous selfishness, hoping to kill innocent people to fulfill their goals, the rescue workers demonstrated the ultimate selflessness in risking their lives to save others. It is with this sense of unity and common purpose that Americans must proceed over the next days, months and years.
Even when these bold people have been raised from their steel and concrete tombs and reburied beneath the earth, their legacy will be an example to all who cherish the American way of life.
Regardless of the New York Police Department’s checkered past, we must all now rally to the support of the courageous individuals who rushed to assist their fellow citizens—not only in New York, but also in Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania and nationwide. The hundreds of emergency personnel who lie dead beneath the World Trade Center are a testament to their bravery and generosity of spirit.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) cited the response of New Yorkers to the tragedy as evidence that terrorists “cannot stop New York [and] will not stop New York.” He was only partially correct. The emergency services would have responded in the same way across the country. It was not their love of New York that made them do so; it was their dedication to helping others in need.
At a time when rhetoric can seem empty and trite, ordinary Americans’ response to this crisis is more heartening than any presidential speech or retaliatory attack. As a New York firefighter grabbed his hat and prepared to dive back into the dust and debris, a reporter asked why in the world he was returning. He replied that he was not trying to be a hero but was simply trying to save his friends and colleagues inside the disaster zone. “I think you’d do the same,” he said.
As the United States recovers from the attacks, this unnamed and unassuming firefighter is a poignant reminder of what it means to be American. Whether we follow his courageous lead by giving blood, sending food or providing comfort to our friends and loved ones, we are all helping to speed the recovery process. Consequently, we can say with certainty that the deaths of these emergency personnel were needless, but they were not in vain.
—DAVID M. DeBARTOLO
and ANTHONY S. A. FREINBERG