The wrenching choices of 9/11

Posted: September 11, 2011

Looking back over the last 10 years, what stands out most are the excruciatingly difficult choices people were forced to make.

Set aside decisions made by the great and powerful, though they had their crosses to bear. Think more about the ordinary Americans thrust into extraordinary situations.

The first, and perhaps the most heartbreaking, images that come to mind are of the people who leapt from the twin towers that morning. There's no way to ever forgive the evil that forced people into choosing between two such horrific deaths, amid the heat and flames within the towers or by leaping 1,000 feet or more into the smoke- and debris-filled streets of Lower Manhattan.

It's estimated that 200 people jumped that day. Some went alone, others in pairs holding hands, still more in groups. One firefighter was killed by a falling body. But jumpers may have saved lives. When people in one tower saw bodies falling from the other, they began evacuating their building even before it was hit.

Then there was the decision to enter the burning towers to save others. Of the 2,819 people killed on Sept. 11, 343 were New York City paramedics and firefighters. Better communications might have made a difference, but perhaps not.

Lee Ielpi lost his son and fellow firefighter Jonathan that day. Ielpi has said that even if there were warnings, "do you think the firefighters would have stopped trying to save people? We have tapes from firefighters who were in the towers. They knew they were in danger. They went up anyway."

Over Pennsylvania, more life-and-death decisions would be made.

Amid prayers, calls to family, and reports of other hijacked planes being crashed into landmarks, the passengers of United Flight 93 initiated the first counterattack against what was then an unidentified enemy.

The 9/11 commission reported: "At 9:57, the passenger assault began. Several passengers had terminated phone calls with loved ones in order to join the revolt. One of the callers ended her message as follows: 'Everyone's running up to first class. I've got to go. Bye.' "

The terrorist pilot tried rolling the plane, then pitching it, all to knock the passengers off balance and end the assault. To no avail. Five minutes into the attack, apparently fearing the passengers were about to break into the cockpit, one hijacker tells another: "Pull it down! Pull it down!"

Even with the Boeing 757 streaking through the sky upside down, the sounds of the passengers' attack could be heard on the flight recorder right up to the moment Flight 93 crashed into the field at 580 m.p.h.

That's just one day. Multiply that by millions to reflect the tough calls since 2001, both by civilians and those in the all-volunteer military.

More than 2.3 million service members have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. And a look at some of the citations of the nine men awarded the Medal of Honor underscores the choices made daily.

Marine Cpl. Jason L. Dunham smothered a grenade with his helmet and body, saving at least two other Marines. Navy Lt. Michael P. Murphy exposed himself to enemy fire to call in the location of his besieged SEAL team. Army Sgt. First Class Leroy A. Petry lost a hand when he grabbed a grenade and threw it away to save his fellow Rangers.

Seven of these medals have been awarded posthumously.

These actions are above and beyond, and properly recognized as such. But medal recipients will tell you that they hold the medals in trust, for all who display valor and sacrifice daily for comrades and country.

There will be tributes and memorials for many of the actions mentioned here, and countless others. But only one that I know of gets to the heart of how agonizingly difficult so many of these choices can be.

Auguste Rodin's Burghers of Calais captures the moment in 1347 when six leading men of a town under siege offered their lives in the hope that their fellow citizens would be spared.

Look at these six massive figures and you feel the awful weight of the choice they make. They are in the plainest of cloaks, nooses around their necks. One seems resigned, sorrowful, eyes to the ground. Another is torn, body facing one way, his head another. The heart breaks for the man so clearly in agony; his body is bent almost double, his head bowed into his gnarled, massive yet powerless hands. Still another is stoic and resolute, head held high, ready for whatever awaits.

Rodin's Burghers sums up these last 10 years, excruciatingly difficult times filled with heroic, often agonizing decisions made by people thrust into situations not of their making. Let us mourn those lost, celebrate the survivors, and take heart in the example they have all set.


Contact Kevin Ferris

at kf@phillynews.com or 215-854-5305.

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