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  • Writer's pictureBill Stauffer

Gratitude Friday, September 10th, 2021 – Grateful for the 911 Helpers

My thoughts today roll back twenty years ago to the tragic events that unfolded in our nation twenty years ago. September 10th, 2001 was the final day of an era in America. We all woke up with no knowledge that it was the end of a time, at least until mid-morning the next day. There was a sense of safety and innocence that disintegrated in a cloud of dust and flames on the 11th of September. Most everyone alive can recall with clarity where they were on 9/11. I certainly can. Our neighbor across the street had a daughter who watched the World Trade Centers come down from her grade school classroom across the Hudson. Another neighbor at the end of the street lost a brother who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald on top of One World Trade Center. He died simply because he went to work. All 658 employees in that office lost their lives in that building on that day. Not one made it out.

Today, I am also sharing a personal story with the permission of my wife that I have never put into written form before. Julie had a September 11th premonition, I was with her the whole day as she experienced it on Monday, September 10th, 2001. In my memory, it is all etched in together as if it were engraved in stone.

The whole Miller clan had just started a vacation in a rented house in Wellfleet, Cape Cod. We had arrived the Sunday afternoon before. That Monday morning, when Julie woke up, she was inconsolably upset in a way I had never seen her before nor since. She had filled a small garbage can with tissues laden with tears, and she could not stop crying. She was not able to verbalize what she was upset about, other than to say she felt like something horrible was happening. Her sisters became aware of how upset she was, and I recall them looking at me and me telling them I had never seen her like that before. The closest had been a few years earlier when she had a premonition that something was wrong with one of her sisters. We subsequently learned that sister had been hospitalized at around the same time she woke me up and told me she felt something was wrong. Her sister was a few hundred miles away with no capacity to communicate in those pre cell phone times. Neither of us pretend to have an explanation.

On that last day of an era on September 10th, I decided to get her out and about and to try and get her mind off what she was experiencing. She wrote these fun travel logs back then, and she flipped it over and wrote upside down in the journal that something terrible was occurring she could not name. She didn’t want to have her thoughts ruin the rest of her travel log. We spent the day out on the Cape Cod National Seashore. I drove her around to see the sea and the dunes and the sights. As evening approached, we had dinner at a place called Bayside Betsy’s. It was a nice meal at our table overlooking the water as the sun set, but she was elsewhere.

After dark, I drove out into the dunes behind the town on Race Point Road and pulled the car over. We sat on the hood and talked. It was eerily still and there was a cloud bank on the horizon illuminated in orange from the lights of the local airport. The sky above was clear, the stars were bright and twinkling in the night sky. She turned to me and said that she felt like a terrible and evil thing had been unleashed on the world. She did not know what it was, but she felt it and feared that nothing could stop it. Out on those dunes on the evening of September 10th, I felt it too. The next morning, the terror attack unfolded, and America and the world watched the towers come down, Julie turned to me and said that this is what she had felt the day before.

September 11th was a horrific day in America and yet the weather was perfect. We stood on the beach and watched F-16s scramble south at high speed from Otis Air Force Base in an otherwise plane less sky. It was easy to see that other people on the beach did not yet know what was going on. By the morning of the 12th, we were on information overload. We went on a whale watch to get a respite from the unfolding horror covered unrelentingly by the media. It was the most amazing spectacle of nature I have ever experienced. The entire time our boat was out, whales were breaching close to the boat and as far as the eye could see in all directions. The boat naturalist was at a loss of words, he had never seen such a thing before either. As we returned to harbor, Julie and I stood in the bow and watched the sunset behind the breaching whales, it was the first time in days I felt peace, replicated a night later as the family watched shooting stars from the deck on top of that vacation house. We realized that whatever else, we had each other.

I wished I could help, I wished I could do something. Months later I was trained in disaster response as part of a federal effort to support communities in the event of additional attacks. It is how I ended up serving in the COVID Vaccination response with my local health Department two decades later. I had kept my information in the SERVEPA system up to date in the event there was a community need. I took training for a terrorist attack and used it two decades later in a pandemic.

As the vacation ended, and we drove home from Cape Cod and every single bridge had American flags on them. Countries in the free world declared unity with us and against terrorism. For those too young to remember, in the days that followed, there was a coming together of our nation and the world. America changed that morning, some of what happened was good. Another memory from that time was when we went to Celtic Fest a few weeks later in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania as the bag pipes played our national anthem. I think the whole audience choked up as we put our hands over our hearts and sang along with those pipes as best we could through the tears. We were one people. A lot of that energy could have been harnessed more constructively, but that is an entirely different topic.

This gratitude Friday, I am thinking about all the people we lost on that day, the families impacted by that horrific attack, the helpers on that day and the days that followed. I have friends who “worked the pile” or helped in other ways, and it cost them, in some instances it is still costing them. I will never forget what they did. There is a whole lot wrong with our world. Just when it all gets you down and you begin to feel hopeless, you see that there are people all around who will drop everything to help another human in need. I am so very grateful for people who are like that. They give me hope for the future.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I don’t have any answers in regard to our experiences as accounted here, but I would suggest that we humans have the capacity of profound destruction and deep, selfless acts of service. We are at our best when we tap into the later rather than the former.

I honor the helpers this day, I am grateful for them, they mattered. I will never forget them.

What are you grateful for today?

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