Remembering 9/11

September 11, 2011

On September 11th, 2001, my wife and son were in Logan Airport waiting to board a flight to New York. I was almost 4,000 miles away working in Mostar, Bosnia.

At the time I was a war crimes investigator working for the United Nations and I was in Mostar to take a statement from a former Bosnian Prisoner of War who had been tortured by his captors.

When we finished for the day I went next door to a small café and my eye was drawn to the television in the corner, which was running footage of emergency crews responding to some kind of major disaster.

It took a few minutes for the full story of what had happened in New York to unfold and, as it did so, my blood ran cold.

Planes hijacked from the same airport I knew my family was flying from; 100s of New York firefighters killed; My brother-in-law serves in the FDNY; Lower Manhattan covered in ash; My in-laws lived in Chinatown less than 10 blocks from the World Trade Center.

Global communications were not as good in 2001 as they are now and it took several hours of mounting panic to get through to my sister-in-law in New York. Her first words – “everyone’s OK” – were the most welcome I have ever heard.

Of course, it didn’t take long before the bad news started pouring in. The crews of two fire trucks I had recently spent the day with had been wiped out. Friends and acquaintances reported other lost and missing loved ones.

I remember sitting down with my Bosnian witness again on September 12th, after a long night spent watching the television coverage of the attacks in my hotel room. While I set up my equipment, my interpreter told the witness about my personal connection to the tragedy unfolding in New York.

The previous day I had asked this man to relive some of the most traumatic memories a human being can have. It had been a difficult, emotional, day for him and he had come back to our office on the morning of September 12th facing another long day of picking painfully through the past.

You cannot imagine the toll this takes on a person unless you have been through it.

Yet, when he heard about my family connection to the attacks in the United States, the witness leant forward, laid a hand on my forearm and, with a voice full of concern, asked me if I felt up to continuing with the statement.

It was a gesture that I will remember until my dying day.

That generosity of spirit, that instinctive sympathy of a fellow human being four thousand miles removed from events in New York, is my abiding memory of September 11th.

As we mark the anniversary today of the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, our thoughts are with the families and loved ones of those whose lives were changed forever ten years ago. That is as it should be.

But on September 12th we can’t just move on.

The events of September 11th, 2001, cast a long shadow. Many first responders and local residents have suffered long-term health problems as a consequence of living and working in close proximity to the sites of the attacks.

Unfortunately, they have not received the support from the government that they deserve.

Politicians who are all too happy to pose outside firehouses to gain a little reflected glory, have been missing in action when it comes to making the funds available to help first responders and residents get the best possible care they can.

So this September 12th take a moment to honor the sacrifice made by those who rush towards cries for help by taking action to urge political leaders in Washington to ensure that all those affected by the 9/11 attacks get the help they need.

The passage of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010 was a great first step but it simply does not go far enough. Neither cancer – the signature Ground Zero illness – nor post-traumatic stress disorder is covered by the Act. We can do better than this.

And we must.