Some years have come and gone—perhaps these years It takes for root to take that this might live: A small tribute to these amazing ones; The men and women of the harried moment— The icons of the hour— The heroes who will always have our hearts For what they did in saving life and soul. Though memory concedes its truth to fact, And others only learn things second hand; We who survived and witnessed must relate How some gave love in blood for others' sake And shone their light on darkest, foulest date.
These less than perfect words make up a sign,
Some means to indicate a gracious praise.
As we devote a sympathy to they
Who fell as victims in the attacks that day
And will remember how deep their price,
Let all the Muses, Angels, and the Spirit sing
Of bravest sacrifice and duty served.
Not for close families or old friends they came,
But for strangers who needed hands of hope
And so received another chance at life.
6:00 AM New York, September Eleventh—dawn came Like any other, nothing strange in that. The sky was blue, serene—the sun was strong; The people rose with it, an eager throng; The life of a city is the life of its work, And so commenced another day of trade. The teeming streets belied the rage to come, For at this time some men began their plots, All set to board some airplanes in the East With vile intent to make them instruments of death.
IV Their goal, so basic in its wickedness,
Was not the masterwork of rival states
Nor some spontaneous fanaticism,
But rather a cold-blooded feat of hate,
Requiring years to plan and execute.
Led by an evil one, disguised in robes of peace,
Fueled by a rising spite, which knew no mercy;
And fashioned by a master murderer,
Who justified such thorough slaughter
As yet another act of holy war.
V From Boston, Newark, and Washington DC* Flew nineteen killers set for infamy.* Onboard four airplanes at different times Four teams of five—or four—attackers armed With knives, surprise, and threats of bombs; No shame they had but readiness for ill. First lunged the muscle men to seize the planes And with the cockpits taken, out came their plan. Their pilots of doom sat down to change the route And aim the planes towards humanity’s heart.
Before that moment of finality, But after the initial thought was born; There stands a telling space of disbelief, As if the very thought which brought this being Were itself but a shadow in a dream. Yet here is where the meaning meets the truth; Where all that’s been prepared presents its worth: Whether as a sign of humanity Or as more evidence of savagery, From here on all becomes inevitable.
“We are flying way too low. Oh my God, we are way too low.” ¹
American Airlines Flight 11 crashed first. It slammed the North Tower, like a giant’s blade That sent a ball of fire, smoke, and devastation Right down the building’s side and beyond. It challenged all sense of what is war, With hundreds dead not from armies nor from weapons, But peaceful means perverted on that day. The world would watch these horrors like a show. But worse than anything most could imagine: Here were the opening scenes, more would ensue.
“We had to try and rescue them.”*
So said the Fire Chief, and others felt the same. Even in the total confusion, When everything the City knew was gone. In spite of this, the heroes rushed to help. They came, not knowing if they could save a soul Or keep their own, yet they had to be there. They had to try and do something. Here began the story of thousands saved: Where police, firefighters, and emergency personnel, Along with countless voluntary saviors United in unbelievable courage.
And so started the exodus below the crash.
At first with calmness, then a growing urgency,
The workers went down those stairs, helped by leaders.
In general order they descended, as right outside
And all around the mangled steel, growing smoke and falling debris
Signaled that things were getting desperate fast.
Not everyone would be rescued that day.
Above the impact zone, the fire kept on swallowing,
Bringing heat and sucking air from everywhere.
Poor souls clung at the edge, between infernal heat
And oblivion below.
X And then they came, like “birds on fire”* from above, These falling angels, tumbling through the air At a hundred miles an hour, they plunged, One after one, sometimes in grisly waves. They claimed their moment in the sky, but as well, They thrust their brief humanity at us: All that terror and freedom, “more than we could bear”* — They bore it from a desperation none ought to choose. But more than this, these souls proclaimed the truth That evil is most real, and hell can be on earth.
From Tower Two, the other twin across the way, People saw the tragedy as being over there. Some took no chances and got right out, But some considered it a sad distraction. After all, the morning trades were soon to start. Business as usual must resume. Even the authorities were split on what to do. The world’s eyes trained on the lone high-rise fire. Down at the lobbies, the bravest and finest gathered, While few saw the second bird streaking in the sky.
Another plane—this time into the South Tower— United Airlines, Flight 175. Another crash, another fireball, more death. The towers, linked in life, would share their fate,* For in the hour would be the first collapse, And then the second—down came the idols. Something else had to rise: a virtue regained. As worlds fell apart, some souls went forward, Into the throat of hell, for the duration of days. Hope came from action; more was redeemed than lives.
So many showed, there isn’t space to give For all their names and the scope of their deeds. Sing of the valiant, like the “Cornish Hawk” Rescorla, brave in Vietnam and once again, Leading his own before he’d save himself. And sing of the firemen who climbed the towers’ stairs: Like iron gods of old, they raced to save; Like Battalion Chief Orio J. Palmer, Who never ceased to search, knowing full well The danger, but readily giving all.
Sing further, blow the trumpets, shout and dance! Praise to the steady ones of calm that day, Like Police Officer Moira Smith, who handled fears And guided others out to safety’s way— While quietly suppressing her real dismay. This courage killed some, but some saved their lives In helping others: people like Brian Clark, Who heard a stranger’s screams, then chose to help, Not knowing the other way lead to death. Here miracles were many and exceedingly strange.
Stories like these would make the legends now: Strange tales of those who woke up late, missed flights Into New York, or were delayed from being there. And then there is the case of Josephine Harris, Who saved the lives of firemen helping her As she went down the stairs Of the North Tower. In spite of trying, she could not go on. When everything fell, she and the men of Ladder 6 Were spared the crushing weight around them. Unlikely bonds were formed in the ruined heaps.
But as the President responded and The leadership awoke, the day tested more. The evil plots continued as more planes Were taken: one diverted to the capital And one delayed but also set for there—
Washington, a plane hit the Pentagon: American Airlines Flight 77— Again more devastation and more response. The war was joined as fighter jets came out. But this day’s heroism would be on the scene.
It seemed the scale of horror might have no limit. Yet things would turn as soon as word got out. On United Flight 93, the fourth plane hijacked, The passengers heard and made a choice to fight. They stormed the cockpit with a brazen bravery— And a true American defiance. These heroes in the air were the first to strike back.
Flight 93 crashed, but this time, the plans failed. A quiet field and not a seat of power Would be the resting place for this flight.
Though half a day, it was a world away From the calm of dawn September 11th Was now a day of tragedy and of hope. The President and the New York Mayor spoke And showed the resilience of a strong society. But they were only the symbols of what was there. The grit and character lay in the rubble As day after day the spaces were cleared And bodies were found, and with dignity, The workers paused and honored the souls Who deserved a better death than this.
A cross uncovered from the ruin: Two metal beams, which once supported a tower, Would serve as solemn witness to the loss And as a remnant of so many dreams. Now it is an expression of a faith That terror will not win, nor malice reign, And curséd chaos will be ordered again. Yet following that faith is will applied By stubborn souls that won’t let justice be denied But see the `righteous might` ² come through the tide.
Some will hate these words, and why should they not, For how should the unspeakable be shown? For some their wounds may never heal and this Is just an exploitation of their pain. They have reason to feel as such—who would object? The urge to grieve is normal in this loss, The urge to hate emerges sometimes from this: A wild, anguished fury, not easily cooled; An all too normal, all-too-human response. Pray that some peace can reach their heavy hurt.
But we must not reside in grief, succumb to pain,
We are meant to rise, rise above the worst
In all of us, the varied hates are only part
Of who we are, they will not be our final way.
Somehow life goes on, even in the face of death.
We are not meant to die without living first.
Just like the immortals of that day, let words and deeds
Help us to fully live our meanings from now on.
Like new towers which must rise from inchoate dreams,
Let us rise and stand and greet the later dawns
And show that death alone be not our destiny.
But to live it all, we must remember those Who saved so many when so many could only flee. Those who when others went down, went up. Those who came to fight the fires, save others and keep the peace. Who never asked to be heroes, but simply were. Let us as long as there is decency and memory, Let us pay them all the tributes they deserve. And—Heaven forbid—there again should be such a need, May other icons come and earn their place of fame, Through love guard us in the ages to come.
In order to complete this poem properly, I am indebted foremost to the following sources:
National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. The 9/11 Commission report: the attack from planning to aftermath: authorized text/with an afterward by Phillip Zelikow. New York. W. W. Norton. 2011.
(This edition of the 9-11 Commission Report formed the frame of much of this poem. The poem’s overall timeline and two outside quotes were taken from the Report’s pages:
The first quote—“We are flying way too low”—was from flight attendant Amy Sweeney, who was onboard American Airlines, Flight 11 as recorded.
The second quote—“We had to try and rescue them”—was from FDNY Division Chief for Lower Manhattan, Peter Hayden, as recorded.) President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Address to Congress, December 8, 1941, was delivered in response to the surprise assault by Japanese forces on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (as well as other islands) the day before. It was the last time an American President formally asked Congress to declare war. Many have noted the similarities of the Pearl Harbor attacks with those committed on September 11th, 2001. I have used two stirring terms from FDR’s speech in two of this poem’s inside quotes. One is its famous reference to “infamy” towards the beginning, and the other is of “righteous might” towards the end.
(“Leap” is an extraordinary poem by Brian Doyle, featured at the end of the online version of the PBS Frontline Special: “Questions of Faith And Doubt At Ground Zero” [which is itself very thoughtful and moving]. In his poem, Mr. Doyle freely mixes prose with poetry, his own reflections with quotes and observations of eyewitnesses of that day. In that sense, this poem is a descendant of that one.
I paraphrased a description he records of those who leapt from the towers: “A kindergarten boy who saw people falling in flames told his teacher that the birds were on fire.” Doyle’s imagery is ghastly, grotesque, eerily beautiful, but also precise and necessary. Suffice it to say, this was the hardest part to write.)
http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-500609_162-310811.html (This poem has paraphrased a significant quote of that day. This one was from New York Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani: “The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear, ultimately.”
102 minutes: the unforgettable story of the fight to survive inside the Twin Towers/Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn—2nd paperback ed. pc. New York. Times Books. Henry Holt and Company LLC. 2011.
(This powerful work recreated as much as possible the compressed atmosphere and speed of events from the first impact to the fall of both towers. It fleshed out so much of the sacrifice and struggle of that day. I admit freely to versifying the authors’ observation that the towers both rose and fell together, as if by fate. I also shamelessly versified their detailed accounts of the heroes of that day.)
Written and edited in New York and Newark. Last version September 9, 2021.