Most of us have sat through a pointless TV sitcom. Afterward, we utter a familiar complaint …
“There goes 30 minutes of my life I’ll never get back.”
Our time has been wasted. Of course, the fault lies not with shows’ producers, directors, actors or network. The blame falls on us for not getting up and doing something worthwhile.
A summertime journey to New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pa., deepened my appreciation for the preciousness of time. Minutes mattered in each place on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Yes, the placement of hands on the clock are etched into memories there — 8:46 and 9:03, when the Twin Towers in New York were struck by hijacked commercial airliners, and 9:59 and 10:28, when the two skyscrapers collapsed; 9:37, when a third terrorist-captured plane hit the Pentagon in Washington; and 10:03, when a fourth, United Airlines Flight 93, crashed into a field just north of Shanksville. The 2,977 innocent lives lost because of those instances deserve honor and remembrance.
But the minutes and seconds surrounding those clock readings pack an important lesson, too.
Heroism, courage and heartfelt emotion filled each tick of the second-hand in those places. In New York, firefighters raced into the burning towers, hurrying to rescue the injured, dying and trapped people inside the World Trade Center. Many escaped, thanks to the bravery shown by first-responders in the 102 minutes that passed between the first crash and the final tower collapse. Three-hundred and 43 FDNY firefighters died, trying to spare the futures — those hours yet unrealized — of others.
Their sacrifices remain dear to New Yorkers. A decade later, voices still pause while recalling the rescuers’ gesture.
On 9/11, time could not be squandered. A pastor I met in Lower Manhattan recounted another poignant example. Father Kevin Madigan leads St. Peter’s Church, which faces the World Trade Center. Madigan himself narrowly dodged death, having pointed a group of police officers and a fellow priest toward safety in a nearby subway tunnel as the South Tower began to implode. After patiently retelling his 9/11 experiences in a July interview in the lobby of the church office, the pastor handed me an essay he’d written about the day and its impact.
I read his reflections as my wife, daughter and I walked from St. Peter’s toward the construction site of the new World Trade Center and the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum. In his reflections, Madigan noted the city’s “profound sense of coming together” to find survivors and support the families of the missing immediately afterward. “In that light, one thing that should not go without mention were the final phone calls of those trapped in the towers to their family members,” Father Madigan wrote. “Many of these calls were left on voicemail, so we have a record of the last words of those who realized they were about to die. And to a one, they consist of a single theme — telling their wives, husbands, lovers, parents, children, friends simply, ‘Goodbye,’ that they loved them and to remember them.”
To read those words — while walking beside my own loved ones, through that hallowed spot — moved me. I felt fortunate, blessed.
As the three of us stood inside a country chapel 300 miles away on another leg of our July trek, I realized just how meaningful our time can be.
Ed Root carefully explained how minutes mattered aboard Flight 93 on 9/11. Thirty-three passengers, two pilots and five flight attendants assumed this Boeing 757 would fly from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco, as scheduled. After all, the skies were gorgeous blue, “severe clear” in aviation lingo. But four people who boarded that aircraft were actually among 19 al-Qaida terrorists on a suicide mission to hijack fully fueled planes and crash them into symbolic American landmarks. Aside from a few people traveling together, the other passengers sat down as strangers, just as many of us do on work trips or vacations. They were businessmen and women, college students and retirees. The crew included Lorraine Bay, a senior flight attendant and Root’s first-cousin, who “was like the big sister I never had.”
Forty-six minutes after takeoff, the terrorists stood, wrapped red bandanas around their heads, stormed the cockpit, killed or incapacitated the pilots and assumed the controls.
Moments later, through airphone and cellphone calls to loved ones and 911 and airline operators, the attendants and passengers learned of the other crashes in New York and Washington. They realized Flight 93, now turned back east, was being aimed toward similar targets — most likely, the U.S. Capitol, authorities learned later.
In their calls, they said I-love-you’s to family and friends. They prayed. Then they took a vote — sit, as the hijackers ordered, or retaliate? With time running out, they chose the latter.
“These people, in a half an hour, got information, sat down together, discussed it, shared information, decided to act and then acted. In a half an hour,” Root said inside the Flight 93 Memorial Chapel near Shanksville. “We all have to think, ‘What would I have done if I was there?’”
Father Al Mascherino wrestled with that question himself after 9/11. The heroic decision to fight back inspired Mascherino, a 67-year-old Catholic priest who lives near Shanksville, to renovate an empty church and create the Flight 93 Memorial Chapel, just a couple miles from the site of the crash. The quick action by the passengers and crew members stopped the hijackers from fulfilling their twisted goal of hitting the Capitol.
Just a handful of minutes elapsed from the moment when passenger Todd Beamer said, “Are you guys ready? OK. Let’s roll,” until the hijackers — about to be overtaken — crashed the jet in that open Pennsylvania field. “That’s what impressed me,” Mascherino said in a voice roughened through three victories over cancer.
“And I thought of all the times in my life I’d gone into a particularly difficult sequence of things that cost a lot of time, like months and even years of my life — wasted,” Father Al continued. “When I realized that in four minutes flat, they were able to decide what they wanted to do, and in four minutes, they changed the destiny of the world, I said, ‘I’m not wasting any more time,’ and I never have since then.”
As we reflect on 9/11 today, each of us should remember who the trapped and captive people called that day, what they said and what they did.
In just a few minutes.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.