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Tenth anniversary of 9/11: one degree of separation

In this past week, marking a decade since the 9/11 disaster, I have watched several powerful documentaries about that horrific day, including “9/11: Heroes of the 88th Floor.” (This focuses on Port Authority workers Frank De Martini and Pablo Ortiz, who saved the lives of dozens of people trapped in the World Trade Center, only to die themselves in the collapse of the towers.) I find such tales of selflessness, and the pay-it-forward response to those rescued by such heroes, truly uplifting, despite the horrendous circumstances.

But my husband, a New Yorker, refuses to watch such shows. He thinks that they over-hype the event, exploiting tragedy, and manipulating sentiment. He finds reminders of 9/11 too upsetting. For two days, following 9/11, he heard the U.S. military jets continue their deafening flight between Boston and New York, circling the skies night and day, and zooming directly overhead his home in Marblehead, Mass., north of Boston. (Who needed such overkill, when all flights were grounded?) He bears his own connection to what happened that September day, which I share below.

To honor his response to 9/11, and those who died that day, their loved ones who remain, the survivors, and those who worked so generously in the clean-up and aftermath, I include my husband’s article, which originally appeared in the Marblehead Reporter. It was later reprinted in The New York Times. This year, the editor of the Reporter asked him to write a follow-up piece, which I will include next week. Stay tuned.

One degree of separation

Frank L. McElroy


On the 11th day after the 11th day of September 2001, I found myself in escape driving through the heart of New England from Marblehead to southwestern Vermont. It couldn’t have been soon enough or more necessary to try to leave behind, even for a moment, the horror of the destruction in southern Manhattan and in Virginia.

Ellen, Mad and I drove along the winding roads of New Hampshire and Vermont, the names of the small towns passing by – Wilton, Peterborough, Dublin, Dummerston, Newfane, Jamaica, Winhall and Peru.

These are tiny places far away from the island of Manhattan, where I was born and where Ellen produced and directed broadcast advertising. Yet people in these places are more closely connected to New York than one might imagine.

The connection was made obvious in the messages which lined our route. There were innumerable flags displayed, beginning in Nashua and continuing the entire route, the greatest density on the roadside likely being in Dublin, N.H. Sign boards related a supportive or conciliatory thought: “Stand Tall America,” “Pray for those who died on Sept. 11,” and “Proud To Be An American/Proud To Be From New York.”

America is a nation of small towns and New York City just happens to be the biggest of all. People in the little towns have always known this – now New Yorkers have learned the same.

I didn’t think I knew anyone who died in the conflagration. My father was safe, as was my niece who lives on Manhattan. A week after the bombing, I connected to the Cornell University Web site. That early list of alumni dead numbered three, and I knew one. Not well, just an occasional acquaintance in the class below me who was a remarkable lacrosse player.

When I saw that name, all courage drained from me. I couldn’t search for any more friends or classmates that day or for days after, because I knew there would be more. And there will be, for everyone.

When the final list is made, many of us will discover that a lover, friend or classmate has been lost. What we won’t directly observe is that this calamity is so awesome and extreme that the six and seven degrees of separation which supposedly connect us all have been pared to one, maybe two.

When we are able to read the final list of the dead, I fear it is safe to say that nearly every one of us will either know someone who died or someone who knew or was related to a victim. In this there is a parallel to the Second World War. Other parallels include extraordinary acts of bravery and heroism, during the attacks and afterwards and continuing.

Driving along New Hampshire 101 and Vermont 9 and 30, I found no relief from the fear and heartache of the earlier 11 days. Looking at the messages, remembering the images, I cried, Ellen cried, Mad, too. We have grown accustomed to our even existence, won and preserved by so many who have come before us and made immeasurable sacrifice.

That existence is forever changed, but I am calmed by the knowledge that the loss occasioned by the brutal attacks is one shared so directly, by so many.

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September 9, 2011 at 9:38 am
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