Ten years ago, on the morning of Sept. 12, 2001, we woke to a world of uncertainty and confusion, danger and sadness. Maybe the images of the day before had been a terrible dream. Maybe the twin towers were still standing, the Pentagon still intact.
It would be days until the terrible truth became clear that only a few people had survived in the rubble of the World Trade Center. It would be months until the fire was put out and the site was cleared. It would be years until rebuilding finally started.
For the families of the victims, there was, of course, unspeakable grief in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but soon something else happened. Many of the families started to come together and work toward common goals.
The community of 9/11 families formed scores of non-profit groups, foundations and informal associations that, in the last 10 years, have taken on a wide range of issues.
Perhaps as a way of coping with their grief and to try to salvage some meaning from the deaths of their loved ones, family groups have attempted to close some of the loopholes that allowed the attacks to happen, to reduce the chances of future terrorist assaults and to make sure that the victims are properly honored and not forgotten.
The 9/11 commission that investigated the attacks, whose bestselling report revealed a number of missed opportunities to foil the terrorists, would not have happened without the determined advocacy of 9/11 families, including the “Jersey Girls,” four widows from New Jersey who help press Congress and the Bush Administration to set up the commission.
The Skyscraper Safety Campaign, also founded by 9/11 families, has worked to improve building codes and enhance the safety of people who live and work in tall buildings.
September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows advocates non-violent options in the pursuit of justice, in an effort to “break the cycles of violence engendered by war and terrorism.”
9/11 Families for a Safe and Strong America views national security as the country’s top priority and works to support the military.
Voices of September 11th is a support group for 9/11 families that, among other things, organizes commemorations, including a recent 10th anniversary conference at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
These are just a few of the groups that I came across in my years of covering Sept. 11 and its aftermath when I was a newspaper reporter, starting on the morning of Sept. 11, when I witnessed the collapse of the north tower and interviewed ash-covered survivors as they made their stunned way north out of Lower Manhattan.
Although it’s hard to single out one person from among so many grief-stricken relatives, Beverly Eckert has been on my mind recently.
Her husband, Sean Rooney, worked in the New York office of Aon Corporation, the Chicago-based reinsurance giant, on the 98th floor of the trade center’s south tower. He climbed the emergency stairs to the top of the tower, hoping helicopters would be able to rescue him and others. When he reached the door to the roof, he found it was locked.
Beverly knew this because she and Sean exchanged voice-mail messages and talked as he tried to make his way to safety. When he realized his chances of rescue were nearly exhausted, he and Beverly said goodbye to each other.
They were high-school sweethearts from Buffalo who had been married for 21 years.
It is a heart-breaking story, one of hundreds from that day, and Beverly choked up as she recounted it to me the first time I talked to her on the phone.
Yet when I met her later and every other time I interviewed her, there were no more tears. In their place was steely resolution. You could see it in the way she carried herself, with her upright posture and quick gait. You could certainly see it in the transfixing gaze of her blue eyes.
She became a co-chairwoman of the 9/11 Family Steering Committee, which pressed for the establishment of the 9/11 commission and, after its report was issued, for the implementation of its recommendations. She wanted no future 9/11s, no future anguished phone calls of parting.
In February 2009, Beverly was on her way back to Buffalo to celebrate what would have been Sean’s 58th birthday and to launch a scholarship in his memory. The Continental flight she was on crashed.
There were no survivors. The cockpit voice recorder later showed that the pilot and co-pilot had spent much of the flight complaining about overwork and fatigue.
I doubt Beverly’s name is listed at the memorial that opened this weekend, and I suspect she would not have wanted it to be. Yet more than seven years after the event, 9/11 had claimed another victim.