OPINION: RUBY: A Day That Changed America

·4 min read

Sep. 9—Twenty years ago, the "New York Times" published a book called "Portraits, 9/11/01," which included stories they had published prior to Sept. 11. A total of 1,910 "snapshots of lives interrupted as they were being actively lived." Not obituaries, but glimpses of individuals whose lives were unexpectedly and violently ended on that Tuesday morning.

Today, our memories may have faded, or we may have a clear mental image of where we were and what we were doing when the news consumed our airwaves in the following hours.

Either way, I think it's important to remember that real people leading real lives were violently taken from us that day. So each year, I open that book again and randomly scan the lives represented on its pages.

The portraits present executives and window washers, the Harvard-educated and the cafeteria cashier: Irish and Italian, Chinese and Polish; German, Mexican, Russian, Indian, Ivory Coast; Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Islamic, Buddhist . . .

Their by-lines say things like: "The 48-hour-a-day man," "Kept his British habits," "Barbecue in the snow," "Bible stories and dinner."

1,910 by-lines; 1,910 stories. Here are a few of them:

—Zharetta Tsoy, 32, an accountant from Kazakhstan, arrived in the U.S. on Aug. 23; Sept. 11 was "Day one of a new job in a new country."

—Edward Beyea, 42, a quadriplegic who was a computer programmer, and his friend and colleague Abe Zelmanowitz, 55, who waited with him on the 27th floor of the World Trade Center for rescue workers who would not get there. Abe's brother said, "Had it been a casual acquaintance, he would have done the same thing. He could never turn his back on another human being."

—Sisters Lisa and Samantha Egan, who worked on the same floor. Their father said, "They would have been seeking each other out immediately . . . I know they were together."

—Frederick J. Hoffman and his youngest daughter, Michelle, who both worked for Canton Fitzgerald. A son-in-law who was out sick and a nephew, safe because he was late, had also worked there.

—Carolyn Beug and her mother, Mary Alice Wahlstrom, who boarded American Airlines flight 11 to return to California after settling Mrs. Beug's twin daughters into the Rhode Island School of Design.

—Leonal Morocho, a sous chef and undocumented immigrant from Ecuador who was using his job at Windows on the World to legalize his status in the U.S.

—Michael Egan, 51, an insurance company executive, and his sister Christine, 55, who had come to visit her brother that morning on the 105th floor of the Tower so she could share a cup of coffee and peek out the windows.

—Brothers Peter and Thomas Langone, both rescue specialists who were at the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. On Sept. 11, "They arrived separately not long before the twin towers collapsed."

—Charles Kasper, 54, Deputy Chief of the Fire Dept. Special Operations Command. Sept. 11 was a day off, but he "scrambled into a spare fire engine parked near his home on State Island" and sped to the towers.

—Father Mychal Judge, the first official casualty, a New York City Fire Department chaplain who was killed as he was giving last rites to a firefighter at the scene. Police officer Steven McDonald said, "Give the Father a cashmere sweater and it would wind up on the back of a homeless person. He went where he was needed. On Sept. 11, he faced the inferno with the firefighters."

Open this book to any page, and you see a vast cross-section of what it means to live and work in America. People who trusted the strangers around them, the people who looked or acted or believed differently. Today, have we surrendered ourselves to the goal of the terrorists, to live in fear of those who are different? To live intent on building political and religious and racial walls?

It's a little difficult for me to realize that we are now observing the 21st anniversary of this catastrophic event, but it seems appropriate to remember that we are still one people, one nation, in spite of our diversity.

It is important, especially now, not to let our differences drive us apart, but to remember that, underneath, we are all Americans, with rights and freedoms sacred to our identity. This, it seems, would make us victorious over the tragedy of 9/11.