Marking the twentieth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., City Journal is re-publishing selected stories from our archives. This story originally appeared in our Autumn 2001 issue.
From the very first moments of the World Trade Center horror, the valor and élan of New York's firemen, together with that of the city's police and emergency forces, have transfixed the whole nation—especially us in rural America who rarely see the real Gotham. Danger was nothing to them, courage and honor everything. They responded instantly to the explosion and fire, all drawn to, rather than repelled by, the inferno—and without regard to their own safety or the consequences of their possible incineration upon their loved ones at home. We now know their last radio cries: "Move away from the towers! Everyone move away from the towers!" Silence. . . .
As the ghastly rubble gets turned over, we find their remains in clusters—four incinerated here, ten buried there, 14 caught en masse in a stairwell, where they had guided the panicked down as they themselves ascended to their deaths: "All nonessential personnel move away from that building!" The antithesis, left unsaid, is obvious: "All necessary rescuers get into that building!"
So many of them disappeared—at least 388 firefighters—because in a heartbeat they chose to race into the flames and smoke rather than to hesitate and accept the obvious: that the towers were already death traps. In the tradition of all great American armies in battle, officers—47 lieutenants, 20 captains, and 21 chiefs—died alongside the rank and file, heroic death requiring no prerequisite of class or color. Indeed, the magnitude of the terrorist-inflicted disaster rivaled that of a fierce battle, where the enemy overruns and annihilates an entire military unit—paramedics, a fire marshal, even the fire department's chaplain were engulfed. Remarkably, moments after the buildings collapsed, there were even more rescue workers on the scene than before. It is human to flee from a place of death; the firemen and the police were almost inhuman in mounting so quickly the rubble that buried their brethren.
As terrible as their loss was, however, we must never forget how successful the rescuers actually were. Nearly 30,000 people escaped before the towers fell, in large part because the omnipresent cops and firefighters made sure that their own sense of calm and order guided the evacuation. Some of the saved made it out just seconds before thousands of tons buried their saviors on stairs and in hallways.
Now, for these past few weeks, the nation has watched these brave men and women, joined by construction and sanitation workers, as they search for the victims, always overturning the debris and moving beams with care to avoid harming potential survivors or further violating the deceased. Finding one of their own dead, they carry him out on flag-draped stretchers, with ceremony and protocol. Then they return to the rubble, paying less attention to collapsing concrete, unexpected bursts of flame, and razor-sharp twisted steel than to their powerful sense of fraternal obligation.
It is impossible not to admire their selflessness. Inhaling what was once the World Trade Center, both human and inanimate, they do not bother to debate—as many fearful people have done in the wake of the attacks—what might be the best brand of gas mask to don. They are not calibrating their chances of survival in threatened future gas attacks, because they're already breathing a sort of awful gas in the here and now.
The rescuers' selflessness is always evident in their interactions with the press and media. As television crews shove cameras in their faces and microphones under their blackened chins, they respond with tact, worrying mostly that their Herculean efforts are not enough—that they won't bring the dead back to life. We catch an occasional "Good work, brother," or a "Don't worry, we are going to get everybody out," or a polite "We can't talk now, just work until it's over and we've brought them out."
Sometimes the contrast between the brave rescue workers and their occasionally hysterical observers among the chattering classes is glaring. Nightline's Ted Koppel listens to the last radio transmissions of those caught in the collapse and asks: "Why were they so confused, why were the radios so bad?" We wince and sigh: "Because a million tons of concrete and steel were showering down on their heads!"
The rescuers' simple patriotism offers another favorable contrast with some of their elite observers. We do not hear from New York's heroic firemen and police any sophisticated nonsense that we brought the two towers crashing down upon ourselves because of our arrogance or imperial political ambitions. They do not tell us that we must change our sinful ways and abandon our friends. I don't think most of them give a damn what a Frenchman or a Palestinian says about our ordeal. Most seem to accept that a magnificent city such as theirs, in a nation as free and humane as their own, naturally invites the envy of lesser people and thus must be defended from those who hate what we are rather than anything we have done. Seeing the rescuers display their patriotism at Ground Zero, where they have carefully displayed American flags and patriotic slogans, swells one's own national pride.
These selfless, patriotic men and women project a physical presence that harks back to an earlier age—one largely unseen on the national scene for the last half-century. Muscular, tireless despite constant movement, a quiet confidence in corporeal strength—it is as if they stepped out of depression-era post-office murals or faded watercolors in long-defunct magazines.
Their robust physicality seems less the product of the health club or plastic surgeon's office than of hard and dirty work. The younger workers look like—no, look better than—athletes, their biceps built not for play but for carrying hoses and scaling ladders. Their ongoing labor seems to magnify their physical presence; in comparison, the ripples and contours of professional athletes now look oddly artificial. Some working in the rubble—overweight, smoking, sweating profusely—hardly look fit, of course. But using ample bellies as wedges and levers against the stones and steel, they remind America that you can be tough as nails and still be deemed out of shape.
Even their unit names seem to belong to a different, older era—"Ladder 28," "Squad 41," "Rescue 1." They remind one of the first wave of torpedo bombers, wiped out nearly to the man at the Battle of Midway, whose planes, bearing names like "Torpedo 6" and "Scouting 8," drew fire from Japanese Zeros, so that U.S. dive bombers, flying above them, could attack unmolested the now vulnerable enemy carriers below. These days, we might have expected the nomenclature of the rescue units to be something like "Integrated Systems Protection" or "Specialized Reaction and Control." That the unit names are so old-fashioned suggests that the rescue workers remain in some profound sense faithful to custom and tradition.
There is a lesson that the heroic dead and their courageous brethren at Ground Zero can offer to the elites and intellectuals who often look down on, or simply ignore, the concrete, physical world that forms the rescuers' daily milieu. What strikes many of us from outside New York who visit the city, after all, is how it all works. How do tons of water, food, and fuel enter the city every day, along with millions of commuters? Where do the sewage, trash, and litter all go? And in such cramped confines, how do people not kill and maim one another by the hour?
Now we have proof of what we've suspected all along: that "regular" New Yorkers like these, showing enormous versatility, make it all work. The concrete canyons of the city have not enervated their audacity, strength, and cunning, but have sharpened them in ways we could scarcely imagine. Any of us on America's farms or in its factories or mines who thought New Yorkers soft now realize how mistaken we were. The rescuers, it turns out, could easily drive tractors, ride horses, or dig in mines, if their duty was not to brave flames and catch criminals.
Indeed, many of the rescuers exemplify a Hellenic balance. These firemen and cops, like the Greeks, innately understand that muscles matched with mind are essential to our collective flourishing and safety. This balance, I think, underlies the steady confidence that the surviving rescuers show when they speak of responding to the September 11 attack. Their voices remain calm, never frightened; they are not crying out blindly for revenge for their brothers. They talk—often incisively—of a slow, growing, and enduring response that accords with their own very American sense of fairness, righteous indignation, and humanity: "They will pay for this, you'll see."
I would not wish to meet people such as these in battle. Yet I think the Taliban and their henchmen face in our military forces just such people. Everywhere, we hear warnings to be cautious and afraid; but I think it is our enemies, not us, who have real cause for worry, for until now they have only struck at the innocent and unaware. Now they must confront the spiritual kin of the rescuers.
Brave, selfless, patriotic, strong, and versatile—no wonder these public servants seem to bring out the best in those who cross their paths. Where do such marvelous people come from? Doubtless part of the answer has to do with the clannish ties of many of the rescuers, who, like farmers and miners, often feel more comfortable living among their own (frequently near their parents) and working alongside siblings and cousins. A striking number of them were Catholic. One Staten Island Catholic high school lost 23 alumni on September 11—about half of them cops or firemen. Such benevolent tribalism—that one should not be a walking and transient résumé but find worth instead among family, community, and a grandfather's profession—can be a powerful force for good, whatever its potential limitations. Military historians tell us, for example, that the key to group cohesiveness and fighting spirit in any good army is the regimental system, based on the idea that soldiers—and these firefighters and cops are surely that—battle better together when arrayed alongside neighbors and friends in a common purpose.
The existence of these virtuous men and women, however, also owes much to the universal genius of American—Western—civilization. We are seeing in this tragedy and in these firemen and police, alive and dead, the flesh and bones of our entire culture laid bare: what it means to be both American and Western at the moment of our peril and need.
Consider the ease with which the workers operate the huge cranes and bulldozers that remove the World Trade Center rubble—and consider the machines themselves. Only a civilization like that of the West, steeped in the rationalist tradition and protected by freedom of inquiry, could invent and use such remarkable equipment. The busy activity at Ground Zero reminds us how the Hoover Dam arose so speedily, how in World War II the wrecked Yorktown was made as good as new in mere hours, and why both earthquake and hurricane fail to level our cities permanently.
The rescuers are also free men and women, exhibiting all the associational skills that have made civil society so vibrant in Western history. The rescue workers do not first look to central government authority before plunging into their daily toil. Ingenuity, improvisation, and spontaneity are everywhere—the wonderful fruits of a free society. In addition, the police who ring the site owe allegiance to civilians and elected officials, not self-proclaimed authorities who hang and hector as they see fit. Our enemies brag of the brutal order of the chopped hand and stoned face: let them come to New York and see how much better and more humane are free guardians than thugs obeying the ravings of a mendicant fanatic.
Could New York's free rescuers be any more different from the city's attackers? New York's suicidal enemies demand adherence to their religious creed and are more likely to be of a regimented mind and even hue. The firemen and cops, conversely, are of all colors and faiths. The names of the dead—Michael Weinberg, Manuel Mojica, Paddy Brown, Joseph Angelini, Gerald Schrang, Tarel Coleman—sound scripted from corny World War II movies. Yet the diversity is not corny but real—far more real than Hollywood fantasies or the resentful multiculturalism of the politicized campus. By all accounts, these men worked in relative harmony alongside one another even as they expressed pride in their ethnic heritage—a fertile, and particularly American, tension of the universal and the particular.
We are discovering, ultimately, the West's powerful advantage of having three, rather than two, classes—the critical presence in society of men and women who are neither terribly rich nor abjectly poor, who own property yet struggle mightily to acquire and keep it.
This middle class is not the norm of the world, either today or in the past, which was and is likely to remain pyramidal: a small elite tottering at the peak, dictating to an impoverished and restless mass below, as one now finds in Afghanistan and Iraq. The independent and resourceful of New York are what we would expect of a hallowed tradition that goes back to the Greeks, whose civilization arose on the backs of the mesoi—the "middle ones," who were neither rich nor poor, neither dispossessed nor royalty. As property-owning, voting citizens, the mesoi created and sustained our culture, which explains why their descendants, on their own initiative, rushed into the flames and now find and care for our dead—and will quickly rebuild what the terrorists destroyed.
Make no mistake: a horrific catastrophe has struck New York. A trillion dollars has vanished from its markets, and repairing damage to the city's structures will cost at least $40 billion. The loss of human treasure is incalculable. And like it or not, we are in a real war. But the firefighters, police, and other rescue workers have proven an invaluable asset. Their heroic conduct in the present crisis will change the nature of New York, teaching many in the city's vast offices that hefty salaries don't mean much if one does not help one's kin and do so with honor and courage. What has gone on in the rubble should be as reassuring a sight for our friends as it is ominous for our foes.
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images