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Reporter looks to the experts to assign some meaning to 9/11

My Sept. 11, 2001, happened, in part, on Sept. 12, 2001.

And Sept. 13, 2001.

That’s when I began talking to experts in earnest — after everyone was frozen in the amber of that new Day of Infamy.

I had to get some words in my notebook. I had to try to assign some meaning to the enormity of all.

Well, check that. That probably sounded insufferably pretentious, just now.

What I really meant was that I needed some experts to explain some things, so they could assign some of the meaning.

In those immediate chaotic days after, I was thinking about structural horror — and profound courage.

I was awed by just what those first responders did, or tried to do, and I still am.

Sept. 12 was when Dr. Peter Mucha, then the director of the Jon Michael Moore Trauma Center at WVU’s J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital, told me all about the wrenching pragmatism of the mass-casualty triage.

The triage is where a first responder makes the call no first responder ever — never, ever — wants to have to make.

It’s at the triage where the decision has to come down.

That is, which victim will get fully tended to, and which victim (hopefully, mercifully), will be made comfortable until the time comes.

Because of injuries that are simply too far gone.

And Sept. 13 was when Dan Della-Giustina, a feisty, internationally known professor of public safety at the university, delivered to me an equally wrenching lecture.

He detailed the physics and drafting table ramifications of just what happens when a combined 20,000 gallons of molten jet fuel goes coursing down the elevator shafts of two monolithic office buildings in lower Manhattan.

Of course, we saw what happened.

But, like a roller coaster ride in Hell’s not-so amusement park, there was a grotesque, nasty surprise waiting after the first drop.

The trade towers went up one story at a time, and they gave up the structural ghost the same way.

And each of their 110 stories collapsing unto the other sent off singular explosions to rival the ones generated by the hijacked Flight 11 and Flight 175.

Glass, dust, pulverized conference tables, paper fragments and — grimly, horribly — people fragments, too, Mucha said, shaking his head.

Burns, to the bone.

Crushing injuries.

And the mangled, sidewalk tragedies of the office workers who chose to jump, if it could even be called a choice.

“Look at the debris you’re forced to breathe,” Mucha told me then.

“That’s what got those first firefighters, I’m sure. That’s what kills most people in earthquakes. They aren’t crushed to death. They suffocate. It’s like cement going down your throat.”

‘I woulda got there quicker’

Lt. Joe Torrillo can tell you all about it.

I interviewed the scrappy Brooklyn firefighter at a speaking engagement in Fairmont a few years back.

He was one of the handful of immediate responders to Ground Zero from his company who survived.

 Sept. 11 left him with a fractured skull and other broken bones, along with scratched corneas, a tortured trachea and numerous internal injuries, after being partially buried.

In the shadow of the ruined South Tower, he was pummeled like an outmatched boxer by all that metal and concrete generated, as the dying building began to fall.

For three days, his wife and kids feared him dead in the tumult, which, like the lethal dust, refused to settle.

At the hospital in New Jersey, where they did the emergency surgeries that saved his life, a nurse asked him in the recovery room, “You doin’ OK, Tommy?”

Everybody thought he was Tommy McNamara, you see.

That fireman had the day off on Sept. 11, and Torrillo, going on hyperdrive to respond, grabbed his helmet and coat by mistake.

Talking to Torrillo, I had to ask, even though I already knew the answer: Would he go back and do it again?

“Are you kiddin’?” the lieutenant said, setting his mouth hard from underneath his Super Mario Brothers moustache.

“I woulda got there quicker.”

We the People

Here’s what I wasn’t thinking about back in those immediate days, after that achingly clear-skied morning when terror came calling on America:

I wasn’t thinking about an act of war, although one, I guess, had just been made.

I wasn’t thinking (not yet) about any failings in diplomacy, security or military intelligence — despite lapses in all of the above that left a scar just like in that field in Somerset County, Pa.

Besides those first responders, and given the kind of reporting I’m lucky enough to be able to do at The Dominion Post, I was really thinking about … people.


After all, it was us — we — who were in those airplane seats and office chairs.

We were the first responders, running in the direction of the smoke and flames.

We were the citizen-soldiers of Flight 93, who decided the fourth plane wasn’t going to complete its mission (a suicide crash into the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., it was presumed) that day.

Sept. 10, 2011, was the opening of the Flight 93 Memorial at Shanksville.

I had gone there the week before, in a walk-through open only to media.

That’s where I met one dad, a Somerset County native who now lives in northern Virginia.

Leaving on a jet plane

Sept. 11, 2001, for Gary Paxton, was smoke from The Pentagon and angst about his daughter and granddaughter getting on a plane –— of course, the flight was grounded –— to go back to Seattle, where she lived and worked.

He didn’t have the clearance to get down to the actual memorial, and he wasn’t sure when he’d be able to get back home. He wanted to at least see it from a distance.

Paxton hooked his fingers through a cyclone fence, a couple of links over from where someone had earlier threaded a set of Rosary beads, and made a confession.

He said he never stared harder at an airplane taxiing down a runway — than he did at the one carrying his precious cargo, when flights were resumed a couple of weeks later.

‘But I was proud of him every day’

Jerry Bingham, the second dad I met during my second visit to Shanksville on Sept. 10, 2011, can tell you all about precious cargo.

His son, Mark Bingham, was one of those passengers who said no on Flight 93.

The elder Bingham and the other Flight 93 family members were there for the memorial’s official unveiling, which coincided with the 10th anniversary of the attacks.

After the ceremonies, which included remarks from former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and then-Vice President Joe Biden, Mr. Bingham and I talked a bit.

We watched as a couple of cars mired in mud had to be towed out. It rained heavily that week, but the sky was again blue on this day.

It would have taken a 100-year flood to cancel, one U.S. Park ranger told me.

Ten years can take a guy’s tears –— all of them — so Jerry Bingham was able to smile, as he regarded the memorial and its surrounding field, where wild flowers were slowly reclaiming what was theirs in the first place.

Mark was out there, he said. So were the other heroes.

“We were pals,” Bingham said.

“I’m proud of Mark because of that day, but I was proud of him every day he was alive. He was a good son and a good man.”

I’m a dad, too.

Both my kids are now busily and happily (damn it) setting about leaving the nest.

I can’t fathom what Jerry Bingham and the other dads and the other moms went through, and I don’t want to find out.

He honored me as well on that day, his son’s day, by allowing me to jot some of his words down in my notebook.

If he still harbored anger or bitterness, I didn’t know about it.

As said, he smiled, and didn’t mind musing about his son when he was a kid, no sir, not one bit.

He was awed by his son and the other passengers, who made the ultimate first response.

 It was light and love and courage on a dark, terrible day.

Sure, he was talking to a reporter, but this reporter found his overture to be a pretty sizable act of amazing grace.

And maybe that was the meaning of Sept. 11 that I’d been looking for the whole time.

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