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September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows: Turning Our Grief into Action for Peace

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September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows presents a powerful collection of essays, photos, and heartfelt stories about their deeply personal responses to their very public tragedies.

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Excerpt from September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows

Introduction

As we opened our eyes on the morning of September 11, 2001, few of us realized how many goodbyes that day would bring: to people we loved and places we knew, to our plans for the future and our sense of control over our lives, to the trust we had in our safety and our nation’s institutions. We had no idea how many holes would open up on that day, not just in the terrain of lower Manhattan, or Washington, or Shanksville, but in our hearts and in our spirits. Into those holes went not only the memories of thousands of individuals, but thousands of expressions of love they would have brought into the world.

Those of us who lost family members that morning found ourselves in particularly painful positions. Our losses were not simple murders, but international incidents, symbols, and public events. Billions of people experienced the exact moment of our loved ones’ deaths. And whether we liked it or not, their deaths would become public property. They would be invoked on any number of occasions, for any number of purposes, by people we didn’t know, and in many cases, didn’t agree with or care for.

Most of us chose to turn off our televisions and radios as we dealt with our difficult grief. But some of us, recognizing the public nature of our losses, chose to redeem them by making public statements that frequently were at odds with conventional wisdom about what families of the victims must be feeling. It was through those statements that the people who formed September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows met and organized themselves into a nonprofit group seeking alternatives to war and working to end the cycle of violence.

We had no business knowing each other. We were different ages, came from different places, and had decidedly different backgrounds, personalities, and life experiences. We weren’t saints by any stretch of the imagination, and had frequent disagreements about what we were doing. We had a lot to learn about the world and about each other.

But like disparate people who get stuck together in a doorway during a thunderstorm, we came to realize that human beings pass their days in endless combinations, have more in common than they think, and can work together toward just about any shared goal. Honoring our lost family members has always been that goal, and it is our memories of them that constantly keep us on track in what we choose to do—or not to do—as members of Peaceful Tomorrows.

While September 11 remains for many the genesis of new fears, new suspicions, and a redoubling of efforts to secure themselves and their possessions, for us it was a day that demolished the belief that we could ever be truly independent of each other. It was a day when the walls came down, not up. It was a day when we realized that our weapons could no longer protect us. And that our children would never be safe unless unseen children on the other side of the world were safe as well.

One can look at our public witness—speaking at schools, places of worship, rallies, and conventions in twenty-nine states and eight foreign countries—and ask how it could possibly replace the people we lost that day, or ever set the world straight again. In fact, we have been the biggest beneficiaries of our own work, and have derived from it a sense of personal peace, security, and focus. We refuse to believe in an us-versus-them world, recognizing instead that we can, and must, create the world we want to live in. It is an ongoing process. No one will do it for us.

The deaths of our family members stand not as a legacy of hatred and fear but as a challenge to aspire to better things. September 11 remains as an invitation for Americans to enter the new millennium and to join the rest of the world, accepting the challenge to deal honestly with the global responsibilities that come with being a global superpower.

This book tells the story of how members of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows recognized and rose to those responsibilities; how speaking out connected us with each other; how people around the country and the world extended their hands in friendship to our group; and how we continue to fill the holes in our hearts with new connections, new love, and new possibilities.

From our shared experiences, I’ve written a running history of our group, including my own participation. Along the way, you’ll find personal essays written by a number of our most active members. And I’ve included some of the e-mails from around the world that have been posted to our website’s guestbook, giving a taste of the issues raised—and emotions aroused—by our work. These e-mails, along with press releases, links to media coverage, newsletters, and ways to join or contribute to our organization, can be found at www.peacefultomorrows.org.

In the days following September 11, America had a unique opportunity to transform the deaths of our family members into the birth of a new paradigm for the planet, an arrangement that recognized our mutual humanity, mutual needs, and mutual goals. The hand of friendship that was offered to us by the people of virtually every nation on earth remains extended. We continue to reach out our hands in return, and in so doing, hope that our nation will collectively do the same.

David Potorti
Cary, North Carolina
July 2003

Chapter One

September 11, 2001, 8:46 a.m. A week after Labor Day, summer shows no intention of leaving North Carolina. As birds chirp in a thick canopy of trees, the still air hanging outside of David Potorti’s bedroom window is already warm enough to eliminate the possibility of eating lunch outdoors. He opens one eye and fixes it on his bedside clock. A first-time father in his forties, he spent a good part of the night rocking his 14-month-old son to sleep, earning him the privilege of sleeping in—one of the good things about downsizing his life as a writer in Los Angeles for a life in the ‘burbs. His wife, a college English teacher, works away from home only two days a week, leaving both of them plenty of time for family. He rolls over and sees her peeking through the bedroom door with their son: Daddy’s up! The pair climbs into bed with him for a group hug. It is, he decides, an exquisite little moment.

It is the last one he will experience for a while.

Because at that exact hour, in lower Manhattan, his oldest brother, Jim, is getting hit by an airplane: American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center. A few minutes later, as Potorti stands in his backyard drinking a cup of coffee, the phone rings. His mom says, “I’m very concerned about the kamikaze attack.” Kamikaze attack? “On the World Trade Center.” The World Trade Center? And then, to drive the point home, “Your brother works there.”

His wife turns on the television and he sees the images—the burning tower, the second plane, and the fireball—that will come to run like a film loop in his head. His brother works on the 95th floor of the North Tower. He knows its 110 stories tall. And as he estimates the point of impact by counting down floors from the top, he realizes that the gaping hole and billowing smoke are coming from exactly where his brother should have been sitting, and his stomach turns. Is he there at this hour? Is he on a stairwell, screaming in the middle of chaotic evacuation? Potorti continues to watch—and as he sees the first, and then the second tower collapse, he wonders: Am I watching my brother die, right now, on live television?

* * *

In New York City, the skies are postcard blue: It is an absolutely gorgeous day. Rita Lasar, a widow in her seventies, rises in the rent-controlled Lower East Side high-rise she shared with her late husband, Ted, and pops a cigarette into her mouth. They raised two sons here, running a small electronics business around the corner, and one winter day Ted sat down on the recliner chair that still sits in her living room, and didn’t get up. But she still lives here, and has a life befitting a woman of her stature, a life of plays and museums and books and old friends.

As is her fashion, she starts her day at the kitchen table in her nightgown, with a cup of coffee—the strong kind, from San Francisco—and listens to WBAI-FM, the listener-supported Pacifica Network radio station. That’s when she hears it: A plane has hit the World Trade Center, only two miles from where she’s sitting. She rushes into her den, flips on the ancient portable TV, and sees black smoke pouring out of the North Tower. Still wearing her slippers, she hustles down the hallway to her friend’s apartment at the other end of the building, the one with a southwest view encompassing the Twin Towers.

Together they step out onto the balcony, where the TV image she’s just seen is playing out in real time against the crystal blue sky. They arrive just in time to see the second plane hit the second tower. At that moment, she realizes that whatever is happening is not an accident.

And at that same moment, she realizes that her kid brother, Abe, is working in one of those burning buildings.

* * *

A world away in the North Bronx, Colleen Kelly has the distinct feeling it’s going to be a great day. Kindergarten started the week before, and her daughter cried every morning on her way to school. But on September 11, her daughter isn’t crying. And for this mother of three young kids, that’s a victory worth savoring. A nurse practitioner, she lives with her social-worker husband, Dan Jones, and their two boys in a former residence for Catholic priests, a gabled three-story house that stands like a relic amid the brick apartment buildings that surround it.

Kelly works at a high school health clinic about two blocks from where she drops off her daughter. She’s on the phone with Sister Suzanne, a nurse in East Harlem, when the nun says, “Did you hear about the plane hitting the World Trade Center?” The clock on Kelly’s desk reads 9:23 a.m. She turns on the radio—where the news is still frantic and confusing—and asks her co-workers if they know that something serious is going on downtown. She gets a sick feeling in her stomach, the same feeling she gets whenever she flies, because she’s deathly afraid of getting on airplanes.

Kelly spends the morning fielding calls from her mother and two sisters, who are concerned about her brother Billy. She reassures them that Billy works at Park Avenue and 59th Street—miles away from the chaos. She returns to her radio to hear a live report from a Brooklyn rooftop: The reporter starts screaming in mid-sentence that one of the towers is collapsing. Kelly is overwhelmed with compassion for the people there. Her high school, an enormous urban institution with 4,200 students, begins to make plans for counseling kids who might be touched in some way by the loss of life downtown. At 11:15 a.m., Kelly’s phone rings. It’s her sister Mimi, and she’s got bad news: Billy was at the World Trade Center for a breakfast conference. Kelly starts screaming, “No!” She screams it over and over again. The nightmare she’s been listening to has just become her own.

* * *

In Hartville, Missouri, September 11 is shaping up to be a carefree day for Ryan Amundson. A University of Missouri grad with a degree in sociology, he woke up early—which was not typical for the 24-year-old—to start his first day as a substitute teacher at his old school, a gig he’s taken while waiting for his Peace Corps nomination to go through. He’s living with his parents, and his mom is kidding around, snapping his photo like it’s little Ryan’s first day of school.

He’s teaching his first class—which as a substitute teacher is more like steering Jell-O—and when he walks down the hall to make some copies, he notices that television sets are on in every classroom. He asks himself if this is what kids do in school all day, and when he jokes with the school superintendent, he picks up on a pervasively somber mood. As he walks back to his classroom, he encounters teachers congregating in the hall, who tell him that both towers of the World Trade Center have been hit by airplanes, as well as the Pentagon, where his older brother, Craig, works.

Standing in front of a television, he takes in the images of smoke and flame in Washington. It’s such a small hole, he decides, in such a huge building, one with thousands of workers. What are the odds that Craig could have been in the line of fire? He calls his dad at work and learns that nobody’s heard anything. They’re beside themselves with worry, but they think Craig is probably fine.

Ryan tries to pick up the hopeful vibe. But as far as the carnage he’s witnessed on television, he concludes that this is the beginning of World War III. And he’s horrified.

* * *

It’s 9:30 a.m. in Washington, DC, and Eva Rupp, a program analyst with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, can’t get on the Internet. She picks up the phone, and that’s not working either. She looks up from her desk and notices that, oddly, no one seems to be around. An emotional co-worker comes down the hall with the news that a plane has accidentally hit one of the Towers in New York. Rupp wonders how in the world a pilot could make a mistake like that, until others come with the news that it wasn’t a mistake.

Everyone gets scared—after all, they work in a thirteen-story, well-marked federal building in Washington—but it isn’t until ten minutes later, when they hear that the Pentagon has been hit, that they really panic. Still, no one’s supposed to leave the building until the order comes to evacuate. Five minutes later, Rupp takes off, deciding it isn’t worth waiting on protocol, not when it feels like the country is being attacked.

She tries to call her mom in Stockton, California, but all the phones are dead. There are helicopters over the city as she makes her way home to downtown Washington, and she hears rumors that twenty-two other planes are unaccounted for. F-16 fighter jets scream over the city and she thinks they’re going to intercept them. She wonders: Who’s next? Why has this started? Is this ever going to end?

By noon, she gets through to her mom and learns the bad news: Her stepsister, Deora Bodley, might have been on United Flight 93, which crashed at 10:10 a.m. near Shanksville.

The F-16s she heard had been headed for Pennsylvania.

* * *

In the Oakland, California duplex shared by Barry Amundson, Craig’s brother, and partner Kelly Campbell, September 11 has yet to begin, leaving them to enjoy their first good night of sleep in days. They were in Chicago the past weekend for Campbell’s brother’s wedding, and after celebrating, flying home, and heading into work on Monday morning, they hadn’t had so much as a minute to catch their breaths.

The phone rings at 7:15 a.m., and Craig’s mom is crying: Planes are flying into buildings and one of them has hit the Pentagon. Campbell hands the phone to Amundson, pulls their little TV out of the corner, and plugs it in. They watch as the North Tower collapses. The coverage switches to the Pentagon, and numbness sets in as Barry tries to connect what he’s seeing on the tiny screen with real life. They see where the damage is, and after visiting Craig’s office the year before, they know it’s on the other side of the building. But his office had moved since then—where would he have been sitting?

Barry and Kelly call in to work—a San Francisco ad agency and an environmental nonprofit—to tell them they won’t be in till afternoon, till they get word that Craig is all right. He called his family after the World Trade Center was hit, but he hasn’t called since.

They learn a lot of people are staying home from work that day. Nobody wants to take the BART trains, which go under San Francisco Bay. And all those helicopters flying over the city are making people nervous.

* * *

In White Plains, New York, a suburb just north of the city, Phyllis Rodriguez is taking advantage of the splendid weather to initiate a new exercise regime. An artist and teacher of homebound children, she imagined her walk would get her home by 9 a.m., but when she arrives at 9:20, the doorman tells her that one of the Twin Towers is on fire. Rodriguez runs up the stairs to her fourth-floor apartment, turns on the TV, and hits the button on her answering machine, where messages are waiting. There’s one from her son, Greg, who works on the South Tower’s 103rd floor. “There’s been a disaster at the Trade Center, but I’m okay,” he reports. “Call Elizabeth”—his wife.

As Rodriguez listens to the message with one eye on the television, she sees a replay of the second plane hitting the South Tower. She calls everyone in the family, and they all ask her the same question: Where was Greg when he made the phone call?

“He must have called from outside the building,” Rodriguez replies. “Who would have called from a burning building?”



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