John C. O'Connell

‘No day shall erase you from the memory of time’


Next week is the 17th Sept. 11 since Al Qaeda terrorists attacked the United States, flying airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and crashing in a Pennsylvania field. Schools and villages will, I hope, commemorate those events, reminding us all and educating the young about the infinitely sickening evil that men can do — and about the gloriously selfless good that men can do.

We remember the thousands who lost their lives: husbands, wives, children, parents, siblings and friends. We recall reading the long lists of those killed — office and service workers, executives, tourists and first responders — and seeing the names of people we knew from school or with whom we used to work. People we knew from the community.

We remember how stunned we were, for days and weeks, and how a pall of enormous weariness came over us, one that only great grief can cause.

I remember the flags on most every lawn, porch, door or window. Only the prayerful were taking a knee in the autumn of 2001.

As the editor of the Valley Stream Herald then, I went to dozens of funerals, at Holy Name of Mary and Blessed Sacrament in the village, and in Franklin Square, Lynbrook, Rockville Centre, Brooklyn and Queens. The funerals continued for weeks — months — after the horrible day, as more remains were found and identified. The agony was cruelly prolonged.

I listened to homilies from clergy and eulogies from tearful family members. I remember seeing then New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani at many of the services, especially for firefighters and police officers, often saying how the loss was almost too much for us to bear. It was.

Sitting, solemn, in those pews, along with local firefighters by the hundreds, we’d hear a baby cry or see a fidgety child squirming in a seat. I clearly remember wondering what those kids would think years later, when the tears of their parents had dried and their lives had moved on, as lives must. They are now young adults with hardly a memory of what happened.

Many city firefighters and police officers couldn’t attend the funerals in the weeks right after the attack. They were working at the pile, the massive mound of humanity, concrete, metal, jet fuel and highly toxic materials fused by the pressure of the falling towers. As they searched for their comrades day after day among the sacred, pulverized, carcinogenic stones, few guessed that many of them would become future victims of the evil done that day.

Retired FDNY Firefighter Michael McDonald, 64, just died, having been diagnosed with a 9/11-related illness. His wake and funeral took place in Lake Ronkonkoma on Aug. 29. According to an article by Thomas Tracy in the Daily News, McDonald died of lung and brain cancer. He had retired in 2012, after 28 years of service.

“Michael’s long, illustrious career as a member of the FDNY was matched by few, and this warrior will be mourned by all in the 9/11 community as we offer our shoulders to our brothers and sisters in the FDNY,” survivor advocate John Feal told Tracy.

While 343 firefighters were killed in the attack, another 181 members of the FDNY have died since. And the Officers Down Memorial Page reports that 72 police officers died on 9/11.

As of June, there were 86,740 people enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Program, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to Feal, a first responder who toiled at ground zero dies of a 9/11-related illness every 2.7 days.

Thousands of courageous Americans joined the armed forces soon after 9/11 and in the succeeding years. Many have been killed and wounded, physically and mentally, in the wars the attacks provoked.

The novelist William Faulkner wrote a line I love to quote: “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.” This profound insight is certainly true of that horrible day 17 years ago next week. Long after the 3,000 died that day, the death toll mounts; the evil continues. But God be praised that bravery and unselfish heroism continue, too, in the daily deeds of those who respond to disasters, in the generosity of family and neighbors in times of desperate need, in the deep patriotism and sacrifice of those in military service, and in the caring and skilled medical professionals who put patients before themselves.

Next Tuesday, pause to remember that day. The mourning and the profound sadness, the flags, the praise we had for firefighters and cops. If you’re too young to know about these things, then study, watch videos of what happened, ask older people to tell you. Because, as the poet Virgil urged, we should let nothing erase those who died from the memory of time. And because the past really isn’t past at all.

O’Connell retired as the Herald’s executive editor in 2016.  Comments about this column? Al D'Amato returns next week.