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Remembering 9/11 in the Wake of a Global Pandemic

Note to readers: The original version of this essay was published over a decade ago. Each year, I revisit and refresh it with new memories and insights, ensuring that it remains a living document that connects me with what we lost and must never forget. This year, I am deeply grateful to attorney and former […]

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Note to readers: The original version of this essay was published over a decade ago. Each year, I revisit and refresh it with new memories and insights, ensuring that it remains a living document that connects me with what we lost and must never forget. This year, I am deeply grateful to attorney and former Special Master of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, Kenneth Feinberg, for helping me put 9/11 in the context of the pandemic. Photo Credit: Tom Wurl, Shutterstock.com

9/11/2001

“Where were you on 9/11?” That question gets asked less and less of me as time passes. However, once asked, it changes the mood of the conversation, evoking memories and pain from 19 years ago. As the Pandemic of 2020 has subsumed so much of our daily consciousness, recalling 9/11 and what happened before, during, and after that day remains a vital point of reflection and a beacon for every American.

I was sitting at my desk in Cambridge, Massachusetts, working on a proposal with my colleague, John Devanney, when the first strange news arrived. A young coworker had called from Lower Manhattan moments after the first plane hit the first tower. She would be late to the office, she told John, and debris was falling all over the place. John told her to be safe, not to worry about getting to work.

Trying to process what he was saying, I turned to my web browser and hit refresh over and over. It was not impossible for a plane to hit such tall buildings, but was it a simple accident or something much more sinister? CNN.com revealed that a commercial airplane had struck an NYC skyscraper. We rushed down to the lobby restaurant that always had a television on. We saw the towers collapse and the Pentagon burning. The CEOs of my company huddled with us, deciding to shut the company down and inquire into each employee’s safety. I went home, bringing with me two colleagues who could not return to their own homes in NYC because all flights had been grounded.

Remembering the Twin Towers

In the 1980s, my father was a successful real estate lawyer who held the corner office on the 100th floor of the North Tower. For a child, coming up from the subway and entering the towers was fascinating. Energetic New Yorkers were everywhere, scrambling to begin their workdays. My dad would hold my hand and navigate so I wouldn’t get trampled. He would stop to buy gum at a subway station newsstand. Flags from around the world hung in the lobby, making me feel important as I walked toward the elevators. We had to take two elevators to reach the top. “They move really fast,” my dad would say. “And your ears will pop, so chew this gum as we ride up.”

Upon arriving at the 100th floor, I remember shaking hands with secretaries and partners he introduced to me. “This is my youngest son, Danny,” Dad would say. Looking out of his office window at Brooklyn, I could feel the building subtly sway in the wind. I would sit at his desk, with my feet up and a notepad in my hand, trying to pretend I was a lawyer. While he attended important meetings, I would “work” in the firm’s mail-room. We would sometimes eat lunch at the Windows on the World restaurant, sitting next to Ron Darling, Keith Hernandez, and other famous baseball players during father/son events with the NY Mets. Somehow, my father always made sure I was sitting at the head table. (Thank you for that, Dad.)

During the 100th anniversary celebrations of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1983, dozens of people packed into my father’s corner office. The view was spectacular. My sister Lynn and I sipped Shirley Temples with extra cherries as the Grucci family fireworks unfolded. A radio was tuned to an FM station because they had set the fireworks to music for the first time. The office was loud with many voices, cocktails firmly in the adults’ hands, though it quieted when lights from the fireworks reflected in our eyes. Sparks streamed down like a waterfall from the bridge into the river. One of the partners commented that this would likely be the only time we would experience fireworks from above.

Years later, on a cold, snowy Saturday afternoon in the winter of 2000, I stood outside the twin towers in Tobin Plaza. The space was empty and draped in yellow construction tape. I dropped to one knee and asked Nancy Harvier to marry me. She paused dramatically before saying, “Yes.” We went inside to have drinks at Windows on the World; we sat at the bar with two British tourists who were the first to hear the news that we were engaged. No cellphones were there to capture it all, but I don’t mind—every moment is etched in my mind, including the millions of lights staring back at us from across New York as we looked out the windows, 110 stories high.

Nancy and I have been married for nearly 20 years now, and we have been joined by two beautiful children with whom we slowly and carefully share the story and lessons of 9/11. They read about it in school but know more than most, given the personal connections with the two buildings and the record of this essay.

We must continue to learn from 9/11

The Congressional report commissioned after 9/11 to try to make sense of what happened called the events that led to the fateful day “a failure of imagination.” Our failure to imagine such a thing could happen made it possible. To this day, I am haunted by that line and what it means to our leaders now.

Whereas 9/11 was a day of fear manufactured by the sadistic minds of terrorists, 2020 has brought forth a year of fear triggered by the global pandemic. America writhes from the unthinkable pain of nearly 200,000 deaths linked to the COVID-19 virus. We are also confronting racism and economic collapse for millions.

Unlike 9/11, none of this year’s events should have been hard to imagine; we could have finally confronted our history, listened to the siren warnings of great scientists, and used the power of reflection to imagine a better outcome for all of us. The Civil War and tumult of 1968 have been invoked as the historic touchstones to analogize the confluence of crises that wash upon us. Dare I mention two political parties in the background who act like children incapable of simple compromise and system-level thinking and policy! And yet, there is hope and resilience built into the DNA of America, which cannot be ignored—some of that resilience was forged nineteen years ago today.

September 11, 2001, remains a touchstone we must embrace and never forget. I asked attorney Kenneth Feinberg, with whom I had the pleasure to meet when writing my first book, to share his thoughts on this year’s anniversary in the wake of the pandemic. Ken was chosen by the Attorney General to administer the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. He worked as a pro-bono volunteer for 33 months and interacted with every family who lost a loved one on 9/11. He had the impossible task of independently calculating what each lost life was worth. Ken knows the power of reflection, empathy and perspective in the wake of tragedy and uncertainty.

This was Ken’s response:

The 9/11 terrorist attacks brought our nation together as one. The 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund was bipartisan in spirit and apolitical in implementation. It was a unified, national community response to an unprecedented national tragedy. Surely, it is not too much to hope that the nation’s response to the pandemic will exhibit a similar communitarian spirit with all citizens rallying around a unified effort to combat the virus. Politics and posturing should be replaced by a recognition on the part of all Americans that we are one nation and one people when it comes to combating the tragedy of the pandemic. We did it after 9/11—and we should do it again.

Kenneth Feinberg

Thank you, Ken. And in response I say, “Amen to togetherness, community, unity, oneness, and a rallying spirit!”

May God bless all who have lost their lives in this pandemic, through decades of racial unrest, on 9/11, and in the wars that followed. We will never forget you, and may we learn all that you and history need us to learn as we seek to heal this incredible country we all love.

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