Mark Bennett: The spirit of teamwork that brought America through 9/11 is needed again today

Mark Bennett

The teamwork and spirit that pulled America through 9/11 sure is needed right now.

Stories of selfless acts surrounding that dark day forever changed my personal perspective of Sept. 11, 2001. Understandably, millions of people immediately recall what they were doing when they realized a coordinated terrorist attack had sent hijacked airliners hurtling into the World Trade Center in New York City, then the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and finally a hillside in rural western Pennsylvania. Most of us saw it on morning TV news at home, work or school, or heard it on a phone call. My memories centered on my own experience, too.

Then I visited the sites of those plane crashes on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, talked with people who lost loved ones, and learned how their communities responded.

Now, two different images from my journey to Lower Manhattan come to mind when someone mentions 9/11. One is a World Trade Center maintenance worker showing me his silver wrist band commemorating his brother, a computer analyst and new dad who died in the North Tower that day. The other is a third-generation elevator mechanic displaying a tattoo of his brother, a “bigger than life” firefighter who led his colleagues to safety on 9/11 but died nine years later of multiple myeloma — the result of nine months of digging through the fallen towers’ rubble to find bodies.

The elevator mechanic was working at the construction site of One World Trade Center, the new skyscraper built adjacent to the former Twin Towers site.

“Sometimes, it’s hard for me to come here in the morning,” Stephen Chelsen said in a thick New York accent.

For the maintenance worker, it was therapeutic to work near the site long known as “ground zero.” “Working here kind of helped me, because you’re involved with it every day,” said Jerry Gogliormella. “So it kind of eases the pain a little bit.”

Then there’s the memory of visiting the 9/11 memorial at the Pentagon in Washington. A couple visiting the site were both New Yorkers. The wife was walking to her job in the financial district of Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, when the first hijacked plane soared overhead and hit the North Tower. Seventeen minutes later, the second plane hit the South Tower. She fled, running the “40-block marathon” to Grand Central Station. She later took a job far from the city, in Albany, where her husband worked.

Her husband worked in the state crime lab, where the New York City chief medical examiner handled identification of 9/11 victims’ remains. To assist in the process, families would send bags containing toothbrushes, towels and mugs their loved ones used the day before. Also in those bags were photos. “It was very hard to see some guy standing on a beach with three or four of his kids, or standing in the kitchen with his grandchildren,” Dan Myers said. “That was really tough.”

He then added some perspective the world should consider.

“I’m not sure the rest of the country understands as much as people that were directly involved. And I’m sure that I wouldn’t understand as much as someone who lost someone,” he said, pausing to look at the Pentagon’s memorial. “Some of the people — they lost somebody here.”

The country did, though, experience a sense of unity in the hours, days and weeks after the 9/11 attacks. Consider the night President Bush threw the first pitch at the World Series six weeks later at Yankee Stadium. He confidently tossed a perfect strike to Yankees catcher Todd Greene, the crowd roared and fans watching on national TV felt their pulse race. I still get chills watching clips of that moment, and I’m anything but a Yankees fan.

Some — but not all — of the imaginary walls that divide us, especially today, melted as the nation rebounded.

“I think it brought the country together,” Cindy Dickerson told me in an interview in Washington during my 2011 trip to the 9/11 cities. She had been the interim president of the Washington Convention and Visitors Association in 2001. “As horrifying an event as it was, it brought the country together.”

We were standing in front of the 19-foot tall marble sculpture of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial.

I’m guessing the man who steered America through the Civil War would’ve been impressed with the stories of heroism told on my next stop — Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

That crash site is now the Flight 93 National Memorial, operated by the National Park Service near tiny Shanksville. It’s quiet and peaceful, a fitting tribute to the 40 passengers and crew who died aboard that captured airliner on Sept. 11, 2001. After suicidal hijackers drove planes into the Towers and Pentagon, passengers on Flight 93 used airphones and mobile phones to call for help on the ground after another set of hijackers commandeered the jet from the United Airlines pilots.

Through those calls, the passengers learned of the other crashes. Within minutes, they decided to fight back.

I met Ed Root at a Shanksville chapel, dedicated to the memory of the Flight 93 heroes. His first cousin, Lorraine Bay, was among them as a veteran United Airlines flight attendant. He believed the passengers and crew wanted to retake control of that jet to both survive and prevent the hijackers from causing further mayhem and death — most likely by hitting the U.S. Capitol.

Sadly, the struggle inside the cockpit ended with the agitated terrorist pilot ditching the jet into a hillside near Shanksville. All perished. Still, the actions of the passengers and crew likely saved countless lives of members of Congress and others at the Capitol that day, and prevented an unimaginable blow to America’s system of democracy.

Ed powerfully described their selfless deed. It hinged upon courage, but also cooperation and teamwork.

“The physical courage, to me, is amazing and wonderful,” Ed said quietly in that little white chapel. “But it even goes beyond that — that these people, in a half-hour, got information, sat down together, discussed it, shared information, decided to act and then acted. In a half-hour. We all have to think, ‘What would I have done if I was there?’”

They didn’t ask each other about their party affiliations, nationalities, ages, skin color, and political grudges and ethnicities didn’t matter. All that mattered was a dose of unity, summoned in the face of harsh adversity.

America needs that spirit of teamwork today.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.