Category: Archive

Inside File: Five years on and we’re still there

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Some people have probably changed position. Time does that.
Students of Irish history know this because of the historically fluid capacity of Dublin’s General Post Office in 1916.
A few years after the Rising, when disaster had turned into the birth of an Irish state, it was a question of who wasn’t in the building as British troops lobbed artillery shells into Sackville Street and its cobble stoned tributaries.
The GPO’s miracle of personal bi-location — which became a well-worn Dublin joke with the passing of decades — didn’t stop with the defining moment for 20th century Ireland.
Years later, at least half the population of the city was claiming to have been in the Adelphi Cinema on the now O’Connell Street for another momentous, though rather more peaceful event — that being when the Beatles made their one and only Dublin stage appearance on November 7, 1963.
The seating capacity for the cinema was a not inconsiderable 2,300. It sometimes seems that at least 23,000 have claimed in the intervening years to have cheered and applauded the four lads from the “real capital of Ireland.”
But who would want to claim to be any closer to the events of 9/11 than they truly were? There’s simply no need.
In the age of instant news we were all up close and personal to what will remain one of the defining moments for 21st century America.
It didn’t matter where you were, or what the information medium that brought you the terrible news. 9/11 was like a punch in the gut. And if you think about it enough you will feel the pain still.
You didn’t have to be in the shadow of the towers, staring at the sky over Pennsylvania or gazing at the burning Pentagon.
We were all there, there and there. We were all targets that day, tickets to heaven for madmen.
We mark seminal events in chronological clumps: a year, five years, ten of them. It’s an artificial concept, our habit. We say that the pain fades with the passage of time but because this year is the fifth anniversary it’s a standout. The implication is that somehow the memories will be more painful than a year ago, the mere year four.
That’s for those who have memories to consider. Millions of kids have been born in the last five years and they have no memory of 9/11 at all.
The pain for those with the memories does not ease over time as much as it is soothed by the emergence of a new, untouched generation.
The vast majority of people alive today have no personal memory of Pearl Harbor. It’s an event in the history books, or on the History Channel, though one still living through its official infamy.
The difference between Pearl Harbor and the 2001 attack on America is that the former triggered participation in an event that was all over and done with five years after it occurred.
With the war on terror, or terror’s war on us, who can tell? It might be over soon or be without end. Uncertainty, the difficulty in measuring the kind of progress made so clear by the capturing of land, makes this struggle all the more disconcerting.
9/11 destroyed all too many lives and dreams. Unlike buildings and planes, these can never be replaced
We should never forget Ruth Clifford McCourt and her daughter Juliana, or the almost three thousand other dead.
Ruth and Juliana died in total innocence. The death of others carried an additional tinge of irony.
One who carried such was John Patrick O’Neill, a native of Atlantic City who carved a top level and at times turbulent career for himself in the FBI.
O’Neill worked the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and, as chief of the counter terrorism section at FBI Headquarters in Washington, was central in the investigation and arrest of the ’93 attack’s mastermind, Ramzi Yousef.
More than once during the mid and late 1990s, O’Neill seemed to predict an attack on the scale of 9/11. In July of 2001, after a career that more than once pitted the hard charging O’Neill against the bureau’s top office holders, the Jersey man retired from the FBI and took up a new job: head of security at the World Trade Center.
On 9/11, O’Neill was in his office on the 34th floor of the North Tower when American Airlines Flight 11 was crashed into it.
O’Neill left the building to see the damage from the outside but then made his way back inside to a command post in the South Tower. He was still inside doing his job when the tower fell.
Before taking the post of head of security, O’Neill had told a friend that he believed that the people who had carried out the ’93 bombing would try again.
John O’Neill could have landed a top security job anywhere in America. Instead, he chose one in a place he believed to be vulnerable and where his knowledge, experience and prescience might be best applied.
Rick Rescorla and John O’Neill having a beer together would have made for some interesting eavesdropping.
Rescorla, a Vietnam veteran and a self-described Celt from Cornwall, was head of security for Morgan Stanley on the day of the ’93 bombing and was literally the last man out of the towers that snowy February day.
He was at his post again on September 11, 2001. He sang songs through a bullhorn to keep people calm, a tactic he had used during combat in Vietnam.
Rescorla made it out with the estimated 3,000 people he had shepherded to safety but, like O’Neill, went back into the doomed South Tower to rescue even more. His remains were never found.
O’Neill’s body was found in the rubble some days later and he rests today in his hometown.
We are saddened by tragedy but intrigued by irony. Each helps us not to forget the other. So far though, we need little aid in recalling a day in September with an impossibly blue sky and a soothing late summer, early fall, warmth.
Five years is but the blink of an eye. And none of us need change the story as to where we were on that day. We were all close, so heartbreakingly close.

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