Fifteen years and the tears have not dried
I remember sitting in my office in Grand Rapids, MI on a cool September morning, working on rewrites for a novel I was crafting. A phone call. A plane crash into one of the twin towers in New York.
I just figured it to be a freaky, “oh that’s interesting” story, when I heard the words that took me from the pages of my passion to the front page of America. “Another plane just hit the other tower.”
I was thrown face first into history with the rest of the country as we all began to rewrite the memoirs that would be forever remembered simply as “nine-eleven.”
It was a day that would forever connect every American to the same page of remembrance. A moment in time that shoots every lucid thought back to a morning when, just a hint of autumn had come calling.
At the Dodge County Fair here in Kasson, thousands of people came and revisited that page in our history as the Stephen Siller 9/11 Never Forget Exhibit arrived last Tuesday in the midst of great pomp and fanfare.
Watching people lined up at the exhibit all week, I saw first hand a people who would never forget and as they exited the exhibit, I realized that although it’s been 15 years, the tears have not yet dried. Perhaps they never will.
On Saturday, my profession afforded me an incredible opportunity to sit down and speak with one of the firefighters who was there on the day we all remember. He told his story of a time that he will never forget.
We all had an agenda for the day. Nobody remembers what it was. It was a day that took control of every schedule, every task and every thought. Certainly it changed not only the day, but the destiny of Jimmy Lanza.
We must remember that to share again and again, the events of that infamous day, takes a special heart beating inside of a hero. To be willing to relive that day is a mantle that carries a weight that I can not comprehend.
I wrote in my column this week, “I listened to his story and for someone who had only experienced the tragedy from the safety of the Midwest, fifteen years ago, I finally understood the scope as I saw the reflection of that day in his stoic eyes.”
Lanza is not a tall man. He is not a muscle-bound caped crusader from Metropolis. He doesn’t have a booming voice. But he exemplifies and solidifies the very fact that heroes come in every shape and size.
Lanza worked as a New York City firefighter for 28 years and on September 11, 2001, he worked in ladder 43. Stationed in East Harlem.
On that morning, he was outside and off duty when he heard from a neighbor that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. As I ask him about that morning, he looks away from my eyes and squints slightly as he looks back into the distance.
“It was a beautiful, clear, sunny day, without a cloud in the sky.” He begins his descent into the disaster area. “And I knew that with visual flight rules and even without the instruments on, there’s no way a plane would hit that tower.
“Unless they had mechanical trouble. And the news kept showin’ it over and over and to me, it looked like it was intentional.”
Lanza went on to explain the fact that the city has major air traffic from LaGuardia, Newark and Kennedy and most air traffic is not over the city. He stated very clearly that planes that make that kind of a drastic change in path are duly noted and flagged.
He fully believed that in the moments before impact and at the time of the crashes, the FAA had already known what was happening. They all began to brace for the worst while hoping for the best.
“I went down to the firehouse and met up with 13 other firefighters.” Lanza said. “We got another fire truck as my own company had already left to go to the Trade Center. We got down there and they held us back until the second building came down.
“And it was like a nuclear winter with the smoke, the debris, asbestos… who knows what was in the air. Unfortunately some of it was the smell of human remains.”
When finally released to go into the belly of this hell, Lanza’s crew was assigned to go into the stairways through the A tower and the B tower. What they encountered was something horrific. With Lanza’s words or my writing and recounting of those scenes, if you let your imagination read between our lines, I still feel hollow and inadequate to fully describe the carnage.
Lanza describes finding and aiding in the rescue of firefighters like Captain Jay Jonas from 6 truck and guys from 39 engine like Jimmy McGlinn who had fallen down floors when the tower collapsed and trapped below floors.
“We also found Chief Amante, unfortunately he was passed away.” He said. “And after that it was like a recovery effort because everyone you found was dead or a body part.”
As Lanza began to describe delicately the handling of the body parts found, he mentioned that a fortunate part of finding something like that was found in the faces of the thousands of people who were standing outside for days with pictures of their loved ones. Waiting for news. Waiting for confirmation. Waiting for closure.
After days of waiting, checking hospitals and piles of human remains, it gave a sense of purpose in recovering anything that could lead to some peace of mind in those who waited. And waited. And cried. And waited.
“When we found a body part or a body, we would put it on a stretcher, cover it with an American flag, march it out with honor to a temporary morgue that the city had set up.” Lanza recounts with an inflection of great pain. “They had gathered hairbrushes, toothbrushes and DNA samples from family members and tried to quickly set up a DNA database. The rewarding part of that which may sound crazy to somebody else was that we knew we were giving closure to a family or a parent or a daughter.”
Lanza, who was a steamfitter after his military experience and college career, explained his ideas behind the actual collapse of the buildings. He explained that above the impact, most likely people had been incinerated due to the explosion. Below the crash where the jet fuel began to pour down the main elevator shafts, the fire was so intense that it caused the steel to expand.
“When they put the horizontal beams to the vertical beams,” Lanza explained, “they bolted them together. When the heat from that jet fuel came d