Daniel Rubin: Relaying 9/11 heroism to those too young to remember

Chris Suprun speaks at Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School in Kensington about 9/11.
Chris Suprun speaks at Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School in Kensington about 9/11. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 13, 2012

The 10th anniversary was a big deal. Chris Suprun got to throw out the first ball at Anaheim Stadium before 42,581 Yankees-Angels fans, with two fellow 9/11 responders and three Navy SEALs at his side.

Not every Sept. 11th would command such attention, he said afterward to two men he met that day, Joe Torillo and Bob Schiavone, who as New York City firefighters had raced to the twin towers.

Who knows where they'd be for the 15th or the 20th? What would people remember? How much would they care?

The three men made a pledge that day. They'd find some way to make sure some of the lessons from the 9/11 terror attacks wouldn't be lost.

What they came up with is a speakers bureau called the Never Forget Foundation. They use the status the tragedy afforded them to talk about some things that at first might not seem so heroic.

"Clap once if you hear my voice," Suprun said Tuesday morning, softly, as he stood before a room of snickering seventh graders.

They were cackling at the photograph he projected in the cafeteria at the Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School in Kensington. The photo showed a haggard man - collar askew, hair wild, face blackened.

Suprun, who has three children of his own, understood why the students were laughing. They had no context for what they were seeing.

And they must have been discomforted by what he'd just shown them - a video of the second jet slicing into the World Trade Center's second tower.

"Yeah, his face is dirty. He was probably breathing in smoke."

When Suprun had asked for a show of hands, none of the 200 seventh graders in the room said they had any memory of what happened that day 11 years ago. Most were 2 years old at the time. He could have been talking about the French and Indian War.

A trio of 10th graders sat by themselves. They're mentored by Big Brothers Big Sisters Southeastern Pennsylvania, which had flown Suprun in to speak. The sophomores were 4 or 5 during the attacks. Their memories are faint as well.

Christopher Jimenez lived in Manhattan. His mother called the house where a friend was babysitting for the boy and said, "Don't let him watch TV." The family was so shaken, they moved back to the Dominican Republic for a while.

Cidmarie Perez just remembers her mother's reaction - shock.

Janairis Perez's mother just said "Oh, my God" over and over.

Suprun's own 9/11 story began with a decision that runs counter to everything he has taught in disaster management classes - he dispatched himself.

He was 27, a volunteer paramedic at the Dale City fire company in Northern Virginia, and he was teaching emergency medical response at George Washington University.

When his beeper sounded after the first jet struck in Manhattan, he drove with a buddy to the fire station, where he always kept a fresh uniform.

As they dressed, preparing to drive to New York, they watched a TV report from the Pentagon, where a third jet had just smashed into the 30-acre building.

They roared up I-395 toward the thick, black smoke, which they could see from five miles away.

"It's not like the movies," he said. "People weren't screaming. But you could smell burning Jet A [fuel], burning paper, burning material. . . ."

He and his partner were put to immediate use. In a parking lot, they administered basic first aid until 6 that night, then were deployed to a recreation center, where they treated the first responders for six hours more.

His experience has given him a platform, he knows. He uses it to spread an old-fashioned message, about teamwork, practice, and perseverance. In the case of his audience, that kind of dedication might involve doing homework and test-prep, he said yesterday to some groans. He kept going.

"Don't think of me as a hero," he said. "I responded to a call for help. How are you going to respond to someone who needs you? I want you to find the hero in the mirror."


Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @danielrubin or Facebook at http://ph.ly/DanRubin.

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