Saturday will mark the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York City, the Pentagon and Flight 93, which crashed into a field near Shanksville in southwestern Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people died in those attacks, including Dennis Cook, 33, a 1986 Lancaster Catholic High School graduate and bond trader at Cantor Fitzgerald, which lost 658 of its employees at the World Trade Center. This week’s Sunday LNP | LancasterOnline news pages and Perspective section were filled with reflections about this tragic anniversary.
Everyone who was alive and old enough to understand what happened on 9/11 experienced that terrible September day differently.
But there are certain unassailable facts about that day, confirmed by the independent, bipartisan commission that investigated the terrorist attacks. Because we’ve been alarmed by the conspiracy theories that this week’s 20th anniversary has resurrected, we’ll quote here directly from the 9/11 Commission’s report: “At 8:46 on the morning of September 11, 2001, the United States became a nation transformed.
“An airliner traveling at hundreds of miles per hour and carrying some 10,000 gallons of jet fuel plowed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. At 9:03, a second airliner hit the South Tower. Fire and smoke billowed upward. Steel, glass, ash, and bodies fell below. The Twin Towers, where up to 50,000 people worked each day, both collapsed less than 90 minutes later.
“At 9:37 that same morning, a third airliner slammed into the western face of the Pentagon. At 10:03, a fourth airliner crashed in a field in southern Pennsylvania. It had been aimed at the United States Capitol or the White House, and was forced down by heroic passengers armed with the knowledge that America was under attack.
“More than 2,600 people died at the World Trade Center; 125 died at the Pentagon; 256 died on the four planes. The death toll surpassed that at Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
“This immeasurable pain was inflicted by 19 young Arabs acting at the behest of Islamist extremists headquartered in distant Afghanistan.”
Those are the bare, proven facts of Sept. 11, 2001.
‘Could have been yesterday’
What they don’t tell us is that Dennis Cook had two little girls who grew up to attend his alma mater, Villanova University. Or that his mother, Judy, sees this anniversary as indistinguishable from any other.
“Every year is the anniversary,” Judy Cook told LNP | LancasterOnline’s Dan Nephin. “It’s not like I forgot my son in between those years. I think of him every day. ... (For) me, it could have been yesterday.”
The 9/11 Commission's report doesn’t detail how Mark Hershey of Manor Township saw, as Nephin wrote, “the fireball resulting from the first jetliner ripping into the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m.” from the vantage point of his tugboat, which was in dry dock on Staten Island. Or how he boarded another tugboat to help evacuate traumatized people from Manhattan.
It doesn’t tell of the nine days that firefighter Gregory G. Noll, of Manor Township, spent at ground zero after the Sept. 11 attacks as a member of Pennsylvania Task Force 1, searching the rubble for bodies and body parts so they could be returned to grieving family members for burial.
It doesn’t tell of how Nazli Hardy — then an immigrant graduate student and now an associate professor at Millersville University — learned how to be American on 9/11 from “the people who shared their water with strangers while walking across a bridge connecting Manhattan to Brooklyn.”
As a Muslim, she wrote Sunday, “I felt anger that my faith was hijacked by terrorists who used the banner of Islam to unleash mass murder.” Still Muslim but now also a proud American, she wrote of the “particular brand of freedom” that the terrorists tried, but failed, to kill on 9/11.
The memory of 9/11
Dennis B. Downey, professor emeritus of history at Millersville University, wrote in Sunday’s Perspective section that the “events of that tragic, mournful day upset America’s sense of being in the world, and the memory haunts us still, two decades later. ... (That) otherwise bucolic morning created a terrifying moment of unequaled and unimagined dread and loathing.”
That day, Downey wrote, “redefined our nation’s global foreign policy and our system of governance, and it reshaped popular culture in fundamental ways.”
To recall its terrifying moments is not easy, but the memory of 9/11 must not be allowed to fade. Downey cited the Holocaust survivor and writer Elie Wiesel, who said: “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness. For not only are we responsible for the memories of the dead, we are also responsible for what we are doing with those memories.”
So we laud teachers such as Penn Manor High School’s Todd Mealy, a historian and author who told LNP | LancasterOnline’s Mike Andrelczyk that he attempts to convey the historical significance of 9/11 in a relatable way to his students. He believes that one “of the duties of the school system is to ensure that students have the knowledge about what happened in the past.”
McCaskey graduate Andrew Dixon served as a U.S. Army sergeant. He was deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan, and served this nation from 2003 until his retirement in 2020.
Dixon told Andrelczyk that it’s important to remember 9/11 — just as it’s important to remember Pearl Harbor and the 1921 massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where a racist white mob killed hundreds of Black residents and destroyed businesses owned by Black entrepreneurs.
“We have a whole history of America that we can’t forget about,” Dixon said.
We couldn’t agree more.
David E. Wood, of Manheim Township, is a retired U.S. Army National Guard brigadier general who now works for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. In the Sunday Perspective section, Wood recalled his first mission after 9/11 as a reservist: to fly then-Gov. Tom Ridge to the Flight 93 crash site on the field near Shanksville. He spent the rest of the week — “one of the longest weeks of my military career” — “flying support sorties and deploying Guardsmen to both New York and Washington, D.C.”
Later, Wood was deployed to Afghanistan, where he commanded a helicopter unit for 14 months.
We thank both Wood and Dixon, and all the U.S. military members who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Wood wants more than our gratitude.
He noted that our nation “has been through a terrible time” — the COVID-19 pandemic, a “contentious presidential election that ended with an outrageous attack on the U.S. Capitol,” the nation’s exit from Afghanistan and the killing of 13 members of the U.S. military “as we rushed to depart Kabul,” the return to power of the Taliban.
Wrote Wood: “I believe now more than ever that our nation’s leadership needs to step up and work toward binding the wounds that fester across our land. ... More than ever, this year’s 9/11 remembrance must be about how we get back to becoming a resilient nation. How we move our country forward in the face of adversity and challenge.”
We must work together, Wood wrote, to tackle the challenges of our time, including the COVID-19 pandemic.
Similarly, Benjamin Pontz, a Strasburg native and Fulbright postgraduate scholar, believes, as he wrote in Sunday’s Perspective section, that Americans need to work together to reclaim “a sense of national purpose ... to form bonds with one another across race, class and political affiliation; and to do hard things together.”
In his interview with Andrelczyk, Andrew Dixon recalled the unity among Americans after 9/11 and expressed the hope that we can come together to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. “To be together we have to really be together,” he said.
Can we work together? Must our enemies be external in order for us to unite? Will the kind of unity we saw after 9/11 continue to elude us? This seems as good a time as any to ponder those questions.