As we approach the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, some have forgotten what occurred, some have moved on, some still struggle and others have yet to even know what occurred.
The attacks altered the course of not only US history, but the world’s as well. Such an impactful event has already made its way into history textbooks, but textbooks end up as summaries of information rather than an in-depth exploration of the actual event’s experience.
Damon DiMarco, author of Tower Stories, An Oral history of 9/11, lived in New York City during the time of the attacks and saw that textbook future, so rather than letting it occur he went to record peoples voices. “I wanted to give voices to those that don’t have them. So many history books are just summaries, but I through my book someone can look back and see what it was like through their voices.”
DiMarco works as a writer, so he was constantly working on books to make a living, but he and Santa Monica press came together to release a 20th Anniversary Commemorative Edition of his book this year in remembrance of the 9/11 attacks. One of the first things he noted when working on the project was that he “couldn’t believe that it had already been 20 years since then.”
In this new edition he has included a new foreword by Governor George Pataki, introduction and six retrospective interviews done within the past year. DiMarco found specific importance in the retrospectives of Alice Greenwald, Father James Martin and Tom Haddad.
Greenwald currently serves as the president and CEO of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, and brought with her important lessons on why we remember things, why oral histories matter. Gaining a first-person perspective on what happened is just the first step of the process, with the next seeing how the tragedy has connected us globally. “People from over ninety nations were killed that day.”
Father Martin, a Jesuit since 1988, priest since 1999, best selling author and consultant to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communications, worked tirelessly after the attacks to provide aid to the victims and rescue workers at Ground Zero.
“My experience of Ground Zero was one where the Holy Spirit was present. It was a place of generosity and love, community and union. Charity, concord, and service,” he recollected. “So while, for many, Ground Zero was a place of Good Friday-the suffering, dying, and burial of Christ--I saw a different aspect. I saw it as a place of Easter Sunday. Because there was a sense of new life there. Both these things present at the same site.”
Everyone was there aiding each other, from the random street walker to women from the Midwest who’d set up a candy stand.
Finally was Tom Haddad an office worker on the 89th floor of Tower 1 who had American Airlines Flight 11 impact two stories above his head during the attacks. Twenty years later he is now the loving father of three sons who had moved on from his bouts of anger and sullenness, someone that DiMarco happily calls a friend.
“Tom nearly stopped and died that day,” DiMarco said, “but he remembered that he made a promise to his wife and he thought ‘I can’t die like this. I can’t die in the streets, in some crazy accident. I need to check on my wife and make sure she is okay.’ So he forced his body to keep moving.” This aspect of acting for others is what DiMarco also found in Haddad when he interviewed him for the Commemorative Edition.
“He put himself through experimental PTSD therapy designed for soldiers returning from the Iraq War run by the New York State psychiatric therapy. That’s incredibly brave to me, because he ran at what was troubling him head on.” DiMarco continued.
“His therapist told him to go down to Ground Zero and physically retrace his steps on 9/11. So he got as close to Ground Zero as he could and ran down the streets of New York until he got to Au Bon Pain, the same cafe he ended up in on that day. It’s like his body knew how to release the trauma if he gave it free rain and I find that incredible,” he said.
He chose to not let this moment define him, he did this not just to help himself, but to help his family. Every person that DiMarco interviewed gave him this same lesson, acting to help others rather than just helping themselves.
DiMarco finally commented on his thoughts on what we should take out of the attacks: “9/11 is about what we choose to remember, what I choose to remember is that we chose to serve, to help the others around us in some way whether its giving them a sandwich, walking them home, maybe it’s just giving them a hug. When we do that, human beings are at their best and I’m very interested in where that can take us.”
During this time of panic and strife caused by the pandemic and conflict around the globe, he found that: “It’s more important now than ever that we listen to these voices. Because everything that they are telling us is that in this age where it seems like we have so many problems, and we do I’m not discounting that, but we really are here for each other. And if we remember that then we tend to cut through all of the stuff that tends to get us all bound up.”
9/11 will always be a time for remembrance, but, as DiMarco has shown, it is what we remember that is the pivotal point to this tragedy. What humanity can achieve when banded together and helping each other is incredible, so listening to these voices, listening to that lesson, is what DiMarco wants out of us more than anything.