As we approach the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, I wanted to share the story of one of our neighbors named Luke who has asked that I not use his full name.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Luke was in the South Tower in the World Trade Center.
The night before, he had checked into the Marriott Hotel that stood in the shadows of the World Trade Center. As the general manager for a telecommunications provider to the federal government, Luke had a meeting scheduled for 8:30 the next morning on the ninth floor of the South Tower, otherwise known as WTC 2. At 8:46 a.m., he heard what he said was a "loud boom" and asked a secretary, “Do you have flyovers here in New York?” When he walked over to the window, it looked like a ticker tape parade coming from the North Tower. Like so many others, he didn’t realize that American Airlines Flight 11 had just made a suicidal plunge into the building.
Luke rushed up to the 13th floor to check on his other colleagues and they were already evacuating the office. As he joined them, a “warm feeling” suddenly came over him and he took the elevator back down to the ninth floor to encourage everyone on that floor to start walking down the stairwell. Shortly after arriving in the lobby, an announcement was made telling everyone it was okay to go back upstairs, but Luke was uneasy and he remained in the lobby. At one point, he heard a woman screaming that her child was in the day care center in the North Tower and a policeman looked at Luke and asked him to “take care of this situation." Luke held her in his arms until a friend of the woman’s relieved him. Meanwhile, the police were telling the crowd that they could not leave the building because the falling debris made it too dangerous. It was either go back upstairs or stay in the lobby.
Luke says that he never heard the second plane crash into the South Tower - but he smelled the jet fuel. Since the impact of United Flight 175 was captured live on television, everyone in the lobby knew instantly what had occurred just 80 floors above them - and the exodus began. When Luke finally got out of the building, one of the first clues that he was in the midst of an apocalypse was when he saw a lone airplane seat next to a pool of blood.
Ironically, while these horrific events were unfolding in New York, Luke’s sister was at her job at the Navy Annex, a stone’s throw from the Pentagon. American Airlines Flight 77 flew over her building and then crashed into the Pentagon. Luke recalls that when he finally talked to his father in Texas that day, his father, knowing where both children were that morning, thought he had lost them both. Then, to compound matters, when Luke heard the reports that United Flight 93 was possibly heading to the White House, he had to deal with the fact that his company’s headquarters in D.C. were just a block away from that potential target.
We all remember that day as Hell on Earth and our neighbor was in the middle of the horror. But, as he sat with me in my living room, Luke was quick to add that “a lot of good stuff also happened that day.”
Upon leaving the South Tower, Luke walked a few blocks to another building with his office companion and, a short while later, both towers fell. He said he didn’t hear anything but he soon saw the white cloud of dust making its way through the cavernous downtown area. Once the dust started to settle, he and his friend decided to walk uptown to meet his companion's friend. As they were leaving the building, Luke remembers a cleaning lady who, despite the cataclysm blocks away, continued to mop the floors of the lobby. Before they opened the lobby doors, however, the woman handed them two wet cloths to put over their faces. Then, a short while later, they walked past an old church and a homeless man was handing out cups of water to passersby.
That night, Luke stayed at the home of the person they had met uptown. The next day, like so many others, he was anxious to get home to his family but the airports and train stations were shut down. So, this friend of a friend, someone Luke had never met until the night before, offered him his BMW, and told him to “go home and return it when you can.”
Over the next few weeks, Luke and his colleagues labored long and hard to put the communications systems in NYC and the Pentagon back together again. Unlike the firefighters and policemen, who deservedly got much of the attention, these folks didn’t get much recognition. Neither did the construction workers who removed the cement slabs, the spiritual leaders who worked with too many traumatized families and the thousands of government workers who had to put so many pieces back together.
My friend Luke is the salt of the earth. He and I go back to Little League days when our boys played with and competed against each other. Our kids are products of Mount Vernon High School. We differ politically but it’s a respectful divide. And, as usual, when he came to my house to talk about that day in September, he was wearing his Nationals cap and t-shirt.
And to this day Luke insists he is not a hero. Instead, he will point to the soldiers who months later were sent overseas “to get the bastards that did this.” Perhaps, in the true sense of the word, maybe he isn’t a hero because he didn’t carry people out on his broad shoulders or he didn’t give mouth to mouth to someone in front of a press photographer. Indeed, he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But out of the rubble, like so many other Americans, Luke and his co-workers shook off the dust and helped put this country back together again.
I’m sorry, Luke, but you are indeed a hero.