9/11 happened. It wasn’t a few paragraphs in a history book or a script for a bombastic political speech. It was exactly what it was, a terrorist attack on our nation twenty-two years ago tomorrow.

I learned long ago that what we see on TV of disasters like floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and fires doesn’t and can’t come close to conveying the reality, the true depth of the destruction and suffering that lands so heavily on people and places. The reality is orders of magnitude worse than can be conveyed on TV. Ten times worse. One hundred times worse. So, six weeks after the 9/11 attack when I was in New York City for business I went to Ground Zero so that I could understand the reality of what had happened.

There was a ten-foot fence around the entire area, but by standing on a perch I could see over the fence into the carnage. I saw the massive cloud of choking dust that was like a smothering blanket over and around the workers. They were breathing it, learning only later that what President George W. Bush’s people called safe, was actually carcinogenic. Then later congresses would cut benefits for the 9/11 workers.

Rescue workers at Ground Zero

There were big front end loaders dumping debris into huge trucks which drove off to dump their loads onto barges which would then convey them across the Hudson River to New Jersey. The people there were doing the grisly job of sorting by hand through the mountains of concrete, glass and rubble looking for anything to identify those who had died. They found jewelry, wallets – and body parts.

The side of one of the remaining buildings was blown out. It had a huge, heavy orange drape hanging down its entire side. It was there to protect the workers below from falling debris. Nobody knew if or when other structures would collapse. This was a terribly dangerous place.

On the streetlight posts and traffic sign posts outside the fence and all around the surrounding area hundreds of people – maybe thousands – had posted signs with pictures of missing people. They bore notes imploring someone – anyone – to call if they saw their lost loved one. Perhaps they hoped their missing were wandering around the city in a state of profound amnesia. The desperation for finding the missing was palpable. There were candles burning on the ground all around as memorials in what was now a sacred place.

Later that evening I was walking through Times Square, where the huge, over-done screens still showed their advertisements. My New York friends told me that those garish screens are required by city ordinance. But this night the Square was very different from its ordinary raucousness. It was quiet.

There were thousands of people on the sidewalks and streets, perhaps still in something of a state of shock over the reality of what had happened six weeks earlier. They were just milling about, going nowhere and throughout the area were first responders. The patches on the arms of their uniform shirts said they were from all across the country and even Canada. They had come to the aid of their brothers and sisters in the city, using their vacation time or even sacrificing their pay to lend themselves to a cause much greater than themselves.

I had flown many missions for AirLifeLine, an organization that pairs people in medical and financial need with private pilots to help the patients get to critical medical treatments. The organization had called me days after the attack asking if I could fly six Chicago firemen to New York. All planes had been grounded then, so I wasn’t able to help. So, the firemen loaded themselves and their gear into a van and drove to New York. That same thing was happening all around the country.

These first responders were being treated like heroes by those in Times Square that October evening, as well they should be. I’m confident not a single one of them would have called themselves a hero, but what they were doing at Ground Zero, day after arduous day, was the stuff of heroism.

Today that word has been cheapened, sometimes used frivolously, even to describe a ball player who hits a winning home run. We toss out the title of hero so freely, but here’s the true meaning.

Our first responders are people who rush into burning buildings to save people. They run toward gunfire to stop killers. They risk their own deaths plucking people out of horrendous floods. They stop speeders on dark highways in the dead of night not knowing if they will survive just asking for a driver license. They risk doing things most of us wouldn’t dream of doing, all this and more to protect us.

That’s the stuff of heroes and heroism.

Toxic dust clouds at Ground Zero

9/11 happened 22 years ago tomorrow and so much has happened since then to distract us from the reality of it. But the courage and dedication of the men and women who showed up and served, many of whom died trying to rescue others, lives on.

The Engine 54/Ladder 4/Battalion 9 Midtown Firehouse is just blocks from Ground Zero and they lost 15 firefighters that day, the most of any firehouse. I assure you that those now serving haven’t forgotten those heroes.

Shanksville, PA

Neither have the families, colleagues and friends of the 23 NYPD police officers, the 37 Port Authority police officers or the 343 NYFD firefighters and paramedics who died that day. Many of these first responders were rushing up the stairs of the towers hoping to save people dozens of stories above them when the buildings collapsed, killing everyone inside and some outside them.

The Pentagon, 9/11/01

So, too, do the families, colleagues and friends of those who died in the crash of American Flight 77 into the Pentagon remember them. It’s the same for those connected to the passengers on United Flight 93 who can still hear the haunting last words of passenger Todd Beamer, “Let’s roll” just before he and fellow passengers rushed the cockpit and made that airplane crash in a field near Shanksville, PA instead of crashing into the Capitol Building.

The survivors remember all of them and so, too, must the rest of us remember. And we must remember the hundreds – maybe thousands – who came from all over North America, as well as the construction workers. They all breathed that toxic air day and night to rescue survivors, then to recover the dead and sort through and clean up the devastation. It took eight months, 24 hours a day.

I went to Ground Zero that late October day to better understand what had happened. It turned out I was really there to stand humbly and pay my respects and to honor those honorable people.

Profound gratitude goes to our first responders who volunteer to do what they do to protect all of us. They are the ones standing a post to protect us every day. They are the true heroes.

Today is a good day to be the light


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2 Responses to Heroes
  1. Kirk Landers Reply

    Great job of recalling the best and worst of that horrible episode in American history, Jack. The outrage I felt at the sight of the airliners hitting the Towers was rekindled when Congress voted to end support for stricken first responders. If we were watched over by a fair and interested deity, all those who voted to abandon the people who had literally given their lives and/or health for the cause would have been hung, and their bodies left to rot for all eternity.

  2. Jim Altschuler Reply


    I’m sure that I am not the only one whose eyes start to well up with tears every time I think about that day (I fervently hope that I’m not).

    I was in my office early that morning after hearing about the first plane crashing into the 1st tower on my car radio. I had turned on the TV in our conference room when I got in. Little work was done that day since most of us were glued to the TV news reports. I can still recount, virtually minute-by-minute, all of the events we saw that day. I hope that none of us who witnessed those events and none of those who only know those events as history will ever forget – not only those events but the real heroes of that day.