9/11 heroes deserve own memorial


The decision of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. yesterday to build a single memorial, without distinction, to all the 2,792 men and women who perished on 9/11 will distort the history of the worst day of our lives.

Yes, we mourn without distinction. I have been in contact with many parents and spouses of those who were working in the towers when the planes crashed into them and have witnessed their terrible grief, just as I have felt the profound sadness of the firefighters' families in the many funerals I have attended. I believe that Providence loves and receives all, without status or distinction.

The fabric of history, though, is textured by distinction. Historians record the actions of men and women and categorize them into events. The event of 9/11 has one extraordinary element that must be recognized separately: the actions of the 343 FDNY members, 23 NYPD officers and 37 Port Authority police officers who made an active decision to go into the buildings after the attack.

It was duty that brought the first responders to the World Trade Center, but it was courage above and beyond the call of duty that caused them to go into the buildings and up the stairs.

One of the first arriving fire captains told me he would not have gone up those stairs if one man in his company had objected to placing himself in such jeopardy. But no such objection was voiced. The captain and his company survived the collapse of the north tower only on the run.

There is much evidence that the firefighters knew they were entering the most dangerous situation of their lives. One left a note in a locker in the quarters of Engine 10 and Ladder 10, the firehouse just across the street from the south tower. "This is Pete Bielfeld," it read. "Please tell my mother and father, my wife and my children that I love them." Bielfeld then entered the south tower, never to be heard from again.

Doomed Fire Capt. Terry Hatton, in the lobby of the north tower, met a firefighter he had not seen in some time. He threw his arms around this man, saying, "I might never see you again, brother, but I want you to know I love you."

Firefighter Gerry Nevins, who was lost that day, was heard in the rush of activity in the north tower to say, "You know, we might not survive this."

And Chief Dan Nigro turned to Chief Peter Ganci as they surveyed the north tower from the vantage of the Brooklyn Bridge and said, "This will be the worst day of our lives, Pete." Just 90 or so minutes later, Ganci was killed.

The proposed World Trade Center museum, it has been suggested, can adequately convey the courage of these first responders. But I do not believe that a peripheral honor serves our history or the respect that should be conveyed. Americans, generations from now, as they visit the memorial monument at Ground Zero, must be inspired by the acknowledged heroism of the fallen firefighters and police officers. That inspiration has been hard won for our history.

We must not build a monument that does not convey the brave actions of these exceptional people. Their special heroism deserves special recognition.

Smith is a retired city firefighter and author of 12 books.
His most recent is "Report From Ground Zero."

Karen Hunter has the day off.

Originally published on April 11, 2003