Most of my articles discuss lessons from famous leaders throughout history. However, under the right circumstances all of us are capable of exceptional leadership. 9/11 revealed that remarkable capacity for heroism. In the face of tragedy, selfless men and women behaved in extraordinary ways to help others. Their actions represent the best of humanity and continue to inspire us.
When the Twin Towers became blazing infernos, New York’s emergency personnel put themselves in harm’s way to save lives. Police and firefighters bravely entered the burning buildings. Others served by planning rescue operations and keeping order amid the chaos. On 9/11, 343 firefighters and 60 police officers (of the NYPD and Port Authority) made the ultimate sacrifice.
Battalion Chief Orio Palmer of the FDNY led his team up to the 78th floor of the South Tower to rescue workers trapped inside. Outside the North Tower, Chief of Department Peter Ganci coordinated evacuation efforts. After hearing about the attacks, NYPD veteran Ramon Suarez took a taxi to the World Trade Center. He raced inside to help people escape. Their stories are just a glimpse into the heroic acts that took place.
Ordinary civilians also showed tremendous leadership and courage in the face of terror. Welles Crowther, a 24-year-old trader, returned to the upper floors of the South Tower to shepherd others to safety. In the air, passengers on Flight 93 fought back against their hijackers. As their plane headed towards Washington, Todd Beamer turned to his fellow passengers and said, “Let’s roll.” Then, they stormed the cockpit and thwarted the terrorists’ plan to hit another target.
First responders worked around the clock and pulled nearly two dozen people from the wreckage. Across from Ground Zero, St. Paul’s Chapel, which had been miraculously spared, opened its doors to these tireless men and women. Other nearby buildings became impromptu rest and aid stations for emergency personnel and victims.
Ground Zero was covered in 1.8 million tons of debris and the site burned until December. In the months that followed, thousands of workers descended on Lower Manhattan to assist in the cleanup. They were joined by an army of volunteers, including the actor Steve Buscemi, a former firefighter who spent days helping his FDNY brethren with rescue and recovery.
Sadly, toxic chemicals released by the towers’ collapse caused later health problems for many first responders. The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act seeks to benefit those suffering from the long-term effects of exposure. Zadroga was an NYPD officer who spent weeks in the rubble of Ground Zero.
People across the world opened their hearts. Blood banks and aid organizations were swamped with donors. There was nearly a day’s wait to give blood in Madison, Wisconsin. Hundreds of American communities sent supplies to New York and Washington. In Canada, the town of Gander housed nearly 7,000 stranded passengers whose flights had been diverted. Gander’s hospitality inspired the recent Broadway hit, Come from Away.
Within three weeks of the attacks, relief organizations had raised over $600 million for victims, first responders and their families. Many companies matched donations from their employees and customers. Individuals and governments in over 100 countries also provided aid.
In New York and Washington, volunteers gave of their time as well. Doctors and nurses offered medical services. Clergy and counselors provided spiritual and emotional comfort. Artists and musicians organized concerts and benefits. Each group did their part to help the healing process begin.
Nearly two decades later, America and the world have changed significantly, but the events of 9/11 remain with us. Even on that darkest day, the remarkable heroism of countless men and women shone through. In every selfless act, in every expression of kindness, we can keep the memories of those heroes alive.