9/11: A Day to Serve

How to remember an awful day?

By Brendan Skwire
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 9 | Posted Sep. 7, 2009

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Friday marks the eighth anniversary of 9/11. How will you remember?

It is impossible for me to forget what I was doing on Sept. 11, 2001.

The phone rang very early that morning, waking me from a sound sleep. I heard my housemate pick up the phone and mumble something about letting me know when I woke up. Stumbling from my room yawning, I asked who it was.

"It was your mom," my housemate said. "Something about a plane crash at the World Trade Center." I cocked an eye at him. "Maybe we should turn on the TV..."

And there we saw the images that have haunted America ever since. The plane looping around and then smashing directly into the towers. The people jumping. The chaos on the ground. The smoke.

I remember walking over to Sam's Place, a little coffee shop on 45th Street. No one had heard anything, so I went home, grabbed my little TV, and loaned it to them for the day.

In the weeks and months that followed, I learned how many people I knew had been directly affected.

My friend Ruth's boyfriend escaped the building and ran all the way uptown to the elementary school where she worked. The school had taken pains to keep the students in the dark about the attacks to avoid panic, but that was all over when Josh burst into the classroom covered head to toe in ash and dust, weeping, "Look what happened, look what happened."

My friend Clay's brother worked at the World Trade Center, and had arrived early to prepare for a business meeting. As he stepped out the cab he couldn't help but look up at the two massive towers, just in time to see the plane crash into the building. He began running, and frantically calling his wife. But because the cellphone towers went down with the rest of the buildings, he couldn't get through. No one could. When he finally DID reach his family at 6 pm, everyone thought he was dead.

At the time, I was traveling back and forth from New York for rehearsals with a band that was about to go to Europe for a tour. We spent the day wondering if our drummer, who worked in the World Trade Center, was one of the dead. (He wasn't.) A few weeks later, my friend Neil and I stood on a wharf in Williamsburg, piled high with charred paper that had blown across the East River. We knew what it was, and where it was from. In those days, you could still smell the burning.

And last, but certainly not least, the woman who gave birth to my son was evacuated from the World Trade Center, and ferried across the Hudson to safety.

So it is impossible for me, and anyone else who watched the attacks unfold, to forget. And yet to this day, while proclamations are issued and communities gather for memorial events and services, there is no federal holiday memorializing the attacks of September 11, the people who died, or the people who rushed to the rescue. There is something deeply wrong with that.

One of my favorite holidays is the Martin Luther King Day of Service, which I've participated in for the past four years. It's an incredible event: people from all walks of life, from the wealthiest to the most humble, work on projects that improve the community for everyone. Two years back I found myself talking about FISA with Bob Casey while picking up toys for homeless children. The year before that I was painting the interior of a homeless shelter, much as I did this year. It's inspiring, and really makes you think about your community and your role in it. One of King's statements will always stick with me: "Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve."

A federally recognized day of service would be the best way to memorialize September 11. It's a holiday that would speak to our strengths as a nation, our ability to work together in the toughest of circumstances, to pull through no matter what. It's a message our fractured nation needs more than ever. By designing the holiday as a somber memorial and day of service, it would discourage car dealerships and retailers from hijacking the day as a sales event. And although it rankles my sensibilities, pragmatism says a day of service speaks more to our American sense of optimism than a day of mourning.

That's why I think it is high time our legislators do something about it. After all, one of the four planes went down in Pennsylvania. Senators Casey and Specter, along with every Pennsylvania representative and even Republican senate candidate Pat Toomey, should be advocating that September 11 be a federal holiday.

You can find contact information for the Pennsylvania delegation at the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate web sites. It is well past the time to honor and remember those who died and those who rushed to help in those bleak days and weeks after September 11. To do any less is shameful.

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Comments 1 - 9 of 9
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1. Kinmo said... on Sep 8, 2009 at 10:54AM

“On that day, I was sitting in a cubicle at work. I worked in a physicians group and helped patients with their unpaid insurance claims. My husband called to see if I had heard about the plane crashing into the tower. I had no idea what he was talking about, we weren't allowed to have radio or t.v. at work, so none of my co-workers knew anything about it. As the morning went on, he would call me to update on the tragic events. When patients would call about their bills, I would ask them if they had heard the news, but there was little concern, they just wanted to know why their insurance company denied their claim.
After the second plane hit, my husband called to ask me if I thought he should go get the kids out of school. I didn't know what to say. The whole world could have been on fire for all I knew, but the phones kept on ringing with questions about bills, and life was normal in the office. As if nothing happened. The memory of this day fills me with rage.”

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2. phillygrrl said... on Sep 8, 2009 at 01:14PM

“Well said, Brendan.”

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3. Captain Kaos said... on Sep 8, 2009 at 02:37PM

“I remember you setting up the TV at Sam's. I had slept in on that beautiful morning and knew nothing of the events. As walked into Sam's Place I first noticed the cover of the Daily News with a picture of a Rams fan with a black eye he received at the Eagles game. I then noticed you setting up the TV and asked you what was going on, figuring you were just providing more entertainment for us Sam's employees.

I still recall your grief ridden expression when you told me that we were "being attacked" and "that planes had crashed into the WTC". Seconds later the TV was on showing the now all to familiar images. So if nothing else I will always remember you as the person to inform me of "9/11".

It was surreal working later that day, serving coffee, blunts and bagels to customers as the TV looped the horrific images of the day.”

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4. Amy said... on Sep 8, 2009 at 05:41PM

“My best friend escaped from the south tower with about 15 minutes to spare. My brothers and cousin, all FDNY, were responders. They survived, but all paid a heavy emotional price. My family knew at least 50 men who gave their lives that day. I think the least we could do is to make 9-11 a day of service. Check out the National September 11 Memorial on the web. They have a great way you can share your story. Remembering and talking about the attacks is the first way we can pay tribute. Follow that up with some elbow grease every September 11th and we're talking about a real tribute.”

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5. Jade said... on Sep 8, 2009 at 06:03PM

“I Remember where I was on 9/11, just as my parents remember Kennedy being shot, and my grandparents remembered Pear Harbor. That is an incident that defined who we were and what we would become.

It is a day that changed lives forever; We stood Mourning those who died, For our rights lost with the passage of the Patriot Act, for our way of life as it had been.
There were personal stories of courage and selflessness and a need to reach out and connect with those who we were lucky enough to still have in our lives.
A day of service would be a great Idea. I think I'm going to do it, even if nobody else does.
Thanks Bren!”

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6. brendancalling said... on Sep 8, 2009 at 07:56PM

“thanks for all these comments. i know all of you and I really appreciate that you shared your stories.
jade, i didn't even mention mike gould, who died in the attacks: http://www.rhsalumni.org/news/articles/2002/11/class-of-1990-remembers-classmate-michael-gould.html

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7. Eric said... on Sep 8, 2009 at 11:20PM

“Probably one of the worst days yet best days we as Americans could share together. It was a day where hundreds and thousands of people were killed and some risked their lives to save others. However, it was a day where we all looked at each other and no matter what ethnicity you were, we embraced each other and helped each other out no matter what. Is it unfortunate it takes something like this to "wake up"? Yes it is, but we mustn't drag on, we can only learn from our mistakes and pray this will never happen again.”

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8. crimekate said... on Sep 10, 2009 at 11:38AM

“Well-said, and timely. As that day recedes into history, we are in danger of September11 devolving into the family-picnic-and-mattress-sale mode that defines Labor Day and Veteran's Day. The tendency to "re-live" and open the wounds afresh (by thoughful media outlets recycling images of people falling from the buildings and the like, in case we had forgotten them) seems to have diminished over the last few years; in the absence of an alternative, I think the likelihood of 9/11 becoming another BOGO-consumer holiday is pretty strong.”

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9. Alex said... on Sep 11, 2009 at 09:23AM


I like the sentiment- try to make 9/11 something worthy, rather than a cheap backdrop for hucksters or another day off.

At the risk of being maudlin, a few memories of that day still play back clearly.

I rode my motorcycle from New Hampshire to Philly that night. I wanted to be with my girlfriend (now my wife). I stopped somewhere in Westchester County for gas. I noticed that it was snowing. Dirty, greasy snow was sticking to my bike's headlight. I wiped it off, not thinking about what it actually was.

The image that still gets to me was the ride through New Jersey. The only traffic was a long line of ambulances from almost every fire department in New Jersey. They were driving at a constant 50 mph or so, single file, emergency lights off. They felt as useless as I did.


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