"Always Remember" reads the banner on the fire station door. After 10 years, the phrase still evokes an upswell of emotion. But why do we have to be reminded? How lasting will Sept. 11 be?
Almost 70 people who called Maryland home were lost in the Pentagon, in the planes and in the World Trade Center towers. Those of us who established the Maryland Survivors Scholarship Fund have had an unusual and privileged window into the lives of many of the families of these victims. "Unusual" because the families are, with some notable exceptions, a reticent group. Although thankful for the outpouring of sympathy and resources over the years, most survivors have shunned publicity.
Ten years ago today, a heavy burden fell upon each household. Mothers, with little time for their own grief, were suddenly charged with providing support for shocked and disbelieving children. Fathers stepped up to roles as caregivers that most men never prepare for. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends rushed forward to fill the gaps. It was all-consuming and exhausting, both to run a single-parent home and to raise grieving and often troubled children. Families were broken, in full public view. They needed space and time to heal, and the press and public, for their part, respected those wishes.
In 2003, the Baltimore Symphony donated a concert to the Maryland families. At a reception, many of the families met for the first time. A young mother was so thankful to meet the older wife of a fellow naval officer. She knew that her husband was at the side of the more senior officer, and the two women took comfort that their husbands were together in the end. A college student, in the fragile years between girlhood and womanhood, sat quietly on a bench next to her younger brother. Both were lost in their thoughts, unable to mix. When her father tried to engage her, she looked up, not with the glow of youth, but with dark and tear-filled eyes. It seemed as if, since Sept. 11, she had been weeping without end for her mother.
The Maryland victims were ordinary and extraordinary people. Todd Reuben from Potomac was an accomplished lawyer on a business trip, the father of young twin boys. Joe Maggitti from Abingdon, insurance executive and father of two, was attending a quarterly meeting at corporate headquarters in New York. Hilda Taylor, a highly lauded sixth-grade teacher, had come to America from Sierra Leone to make a better life for herself and family. Leslie Whittington, a professor at Georgetown; her husband, Charles Falkenberg; and their two little girls, ages 3 and 8, were on Flight 77 — the entire family lost. Ronald Vauk of Frederick, a Naval Academy graduate on his two-week yearly duty as a reservist, happened to be posted in the Pentagon, leaving behind his wife, a little son and an unborn child. Michele Heidenberger from Chevy Chase was a veteran flight attendant and the mother of the siblings on the bench at Symphony Hall. Michele had arranged her schedule so that she could celebrate her daughter's birthday on the night of Sept. 10.
On Sept. 11, 2001, as we sat transfixed to our televisions, we were overwhelmed with empathy for those in the towers and the planes and the Pentagon. We tried to imagine what was happening to them and waited for news of survivors. As the long week wore on and it became clear that none would emerge, something extraordinary occurred as we turned to the future. Our nation and people from around the world, in a stunning show of compassion, gave freely and generously to benefit the families and the survivors. Many gave who had little to spare.
Why does Sept. 11 persist as a symbol while other disasters fade from memory? There are many answers, but the one that means the most to me is the human one. The terrorists did not just take life; they tried to make life and our civilization meaningless. This was not war. The victims were just people going about their lives: mothers, fathers, sons, daughters and even little children. The horror of Sept. 11, as with all terrorism and genocide, is that someone's political idea becomes more important than human life.
But the human spirit and the American spirit are not so easily defeated. In many ways, the terrorists achieved the opposite of their aim because they awakened the goodness, the unity, the anger and the resolve of a sleeping nation.
Jeffrey and Jason, the Reuben twins, spent this past summer in New York together, interning in law and sports management. They have returned to college for their senior year. Ten years after Sept. 11, the oldest child of Joe Maggitti is a musician with a master's degree. Joe's daughter graduated from college and is happily married in Maryland. She is the mother of a baby boy — a boy whose middle name is Joseph, in honor of his grandfather. Michele Heidenberger's young son, after some difficult teen years, is a college graduate and working on Wall Street, a best friend to his very proud father. And what of the sister with the most sorrowful eyes? She is married and thriving in New York City. Last year, on the eve of Sept. 11, she gave birth to a baby boy. The boy was born within 30 minutes of her own birthday, the same day of the year when she had last celebrated with her mother in 2001. As she told her father, "This has Mom written all over it."
If Sept. 11 is to become part of the American myth and identity, it will do so not because of the unabashed evil of its perpetrators. It will be because of the self-sacrifice of many individuals in the planes and towers; the heroic efforts of first responders as they stared death in the face and did their duty; the months of respect that rescue workers brought to the dead and the sites where they died; the almost unimaginable unity and generosity after the event of Americans and our friends around the world; and, most importantly to our future, the daily acts of courage of the parents and children who have persevered and built good lives for themselves from the dust of Sept. 11.
Douglas M. Schmidt, a Towson resident, is chairman of the Maryland Survivors Scholarship Fund, which provides college scholarship awards to children and dependents of Marylanders who died on Sept. 11. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org