9/11: One Year
Out of loss, a struggle for meaning
On that catastrophic day, when chance separated those who lived from those lost, Americans began searching for explanations. Those most deeply wounded by Sept. 11 speak with the authority of tragedy.
Talat and Saleem Hamdani hold the American flag given to them after their son Salman was killed while trying to help victims at the north tower. (Sun photo by Nanine Hartzenbusch / September 11, 2002)
And if you peer between the passing buildings at the southern Manhattan skyline, you will see what's not there today.
In the throng boarding the No. 7 train that crisp and beautiful Tuesday morning one year ago was 23-year-old Mohammad Salman Hamdani.
Salman to his family, Sal to his pals, he was all the more insistently American because he had come to the United States from Pakistan with his parents at the age of 13 months. He had caught the Q28 bus from near his home in Bayside, Queens, to the subway station in Flushing, his new routine as he commuted to his month-old job as a laboratory technician at Rockefeller University in Manhattan.
What was he thinking about on that last morning of his life as he bumped and lurched along with the train?
The night before, he'd been polishing an essay for his medical school application. Then Salman, an emergency medical technician, had sat up till 2:30 a.m. with his shopkeeper father, who feared his heart trouble was recurring, checking his blood pressure and offering reassurance.
He may have been thinking about the date he'd set for 5 p.m. across the Hudson River in New Jersey, where he was to meet for the first time a Pakistani-American girl with whom he'd struck up an online friendship. Perhaps he had cracked open one of his medical books or the English-language Quran he carried in his backpack.
Whatever his thoughts, they would have been ended by the shock of smoke pouring from the distant towers. The news, confused at first -- fire? bomb? plane? -- would have raced through the train, rumors coming in on cell phones, passengers switching on portable radios.
And it was then that Salman Hamdani must have formed his plan, the plan everyone who knew him says was absolutely in character: Somehow, though southbound trains and buses were stopped, though thousands were fleeing north, blocking streets, he would use his ID cards as a police cadet and emergency medical technician to hitch a ride to the World Trade Center to help.
"Instead of running away, like everyone else, Sal used all his New York entrepreneurial skills to get there," says William H. Hersh, his professor and mentor in chemistry and biochemistry at Queens College, where he had graduated in June. "It was a heroic act."
Yet it took months for Salman's heroism to be recognized. Someone using the simple-minded logic of profiling -- a young Muslim man, a chemistry major no less, disappearing Sept. 11 -- circulated a flier saying the young man was "wanted for questioning." Newspapers picked up the story, causing untold anguish to his parents.
Saleem and Talat Hamdani began to cling to a cruel hope: that Salman had been caught in the initial sweep for Middle Eastern-looking men and was detained, unable to contact them.
Only in March would a DNA test on body parts found in the rubble of the north tower prove that he was gone. His parents decided then to add a fourth name to honor him. In death, he became Shaheed Mohammad Salman Hamdani -- shaheed, for martyr.
It was a gesture of love, and of defiance. The fanatics who killed their son and 3,000 other people, the Hamdanis believed, had usurped the honor of martyrdom in a grotesque distortion of their faith.
"This is the real martyr, not that bastards that did it," says Saleem Hamdani, 55, an exuberant, mustachioed man whose English sometimes shatters under the pressure of emotion. "That's not a martyr. That's a devil!"
Nearly a year after the death of his son, he still seems lost. "You know, people were jumping from the 102nd story," he says, near tears. "What is that? Is that Islam?"
Looking around aboard the No. 7 train, it is possible to imagine the young men who erased the twin towers blending naturally with other immigrants traveling toward citizenship and a better life. It's hard not to wonder what made them choose death -- what sustained their determination to commit mass murder during all the months they lived in Europe and America among people like their future victims.
They targeted the World Trade Center and the Pentagon because those landmarks symbolized American wealth and power. Yet it is that very wealth and power, built by generation upon generation of immigrants, that still lures a million foreigners a year to resettle on American soil.
This paradox is at the heart of Sept. 11: the way America repels as powerfully as it attracts, often for the same reasons. After the attacks, many Americans were flabbergasted to learn the scale and intensity of anger directed at the United States. They had believed, on the evidence of immigration and the assurances of their leaders, that their country was viewed only as a beacon and a model.