A 9/11 remembrance: Straight on till morning
The journalist Mary McGrory, when she couldn’t bring herself to write about John Kennedy’s funeral, said, “In the presence of great grief and emotion, write short sentences.”
I am always humbled to remember the fallen, those who didn’t come home on the 11th of September, 2001. I was living on the same block as the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home then, and I can still hear the sound of bagpipes mewling in the early morning as another firefighter or policeman was laid to rest.
I hold dear the image of a little boy clutching his dad’s police cap as the coffin was carried out, holding back tears at the realization that he was the new head of the family. The passing of so many was so arbitrary that as a New Yorker, I know that given only slightly different circumstances, I could very well have been among them.
A fireman I had met named Dennis McHugh wasn’t as lucky. I was out early one day, weeping over a guy who hadn’t returned my affection when Dennis stopped to ask what was wrong. When I told him, he said, “Don’t you worry. They’ll be plenty more after him.”
I only learned he was a fireman when I saw his picture in front of our neighborhood firehouse along with his fallen comrades. “There Was a Time When the World Asked Ordinary Men to Do Extraordinary Things” was written beneath it. I later learned he was 34, married and the father of three, who also ran the New York City Marathon.
I often wonder what was on the minds of those men and women during their last twenty-four hours on earth. Were they happy, contented, worried, or sad? Were they plagued by some nagging problem as they lay cradled in the arms of someone they loved? Did a girl my age look in the mirror and think she looked old or fat in her blue jeans? Was she engaged, perhaps, or hoping to be soon? Maybe she was planning a holiday with her family or expecting that well-earned Christmas bonus so she could buy a new car. You can feel their presence: snatched souls caught in the ether, still wondering what happened to them.
I was walking down East 68th Street recently when I noticed a plaque on the front of an apartment building.
I looked him up. He was 34, too, but single, nine days shy of his 35th birthday. It said he had an eye for special things; he liked what he saw.
His photographs from around the world looked like postcards. He called his parents every morning. He agreed to be the godfather of a child of parents he didn’t know. I couldn’t help liking him immediately.
Christopher Hanley was on the 106th floor of 1 World Trade Center at a breakfast conference at Windows on the World when the first plane hit, slicing through the 93rd to 97th floors. He called 911, then his parents, conversations they will forever cherish on tape. He was calm and composed, though unable to get out since the emergency stairwells were destroyed above the 92nd floor. Did he know that or was there still hope in his heart before the first tower fell?
I went back and stood across the street from 315 East 68th, a beautiful pre-war building built in 1931. I envisioned him coming out on that fateful morning, maybe in a suit or navy blazer, gray wool pants and polished Florsheim shoes. Was he wearing a tie or was it stashed neatly in his front pocket? Did he turn around and look back as if he had an inexplicable premonition or did he just gallop to catch a taxi so he would not be late for his meeting all the way downtown?
His mother Marie said of her only child that if he had been late that day, he’d still be here, but her son was an early riser.
He is buried where he fell, at the National September 11 Memorial, Panel N-22. A mass was held in his memory, and a scholarship created in his name
He sounds like a fella with a healthy interest in life, so I’ve decided that there is a good chance he was happy and content on September 10th, 2001 with sweet dreams that went with him all through the long night, straight on till morning.
Susannah Bianchi is a New York City-based author of “A New York Diary,” “Model Behavior: Friends For Life” and “Notes From A Working Cat.” Her essays have appeared in More magazine and Italian Vogue. She writes at: athingirl.com