9/11 heroes soothed and inspired a wounded nation

When volunteer John House shows people around the National Infantry Museum, he pauses next to an exhibit in the Vietnam-era section and points to one of the lifelike mannequins posed in a combat stance.

A hero fought in this battle, House tells the visitors. His name was Rick Rescorla, an Army platoon leader who saved many of his men in Vietnam.

A bronze statue of Rescorla looms just outside the National Infantry Museum. The bronze monument depicts Rescorla fighting in Vietnam — but the pedestal describes Rescorla's final battle on Sept. 11, 2001.

As the head of security for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, Rescorla evacuated 2,700 of his company's employees from the World Trade Center. After everyone in his company got out safely, he rushed back inside to help more people. He died when the south tower collapsed.

"He was a patriot," House tells people, "a hero, until the end."

On Sept. 11, 2001, most of the men and women who saved the lives of others on that day were ordinary citizens thrust into the role of a soldier — of a hero — without direction or orders. And in the decade following the terror attacks, Americans have draped those men and women with praise normally reserved for soldiers awarded the Medal of Honor. Sept. 11 produced many heroes, and stories about their lifesaving deeds have been inspirational during a decade that's been haunted by terrorism, wars and recession.

"The hero was a key part of the Sept. 11 narrative," said Brian Monahan, a sociology professor at Iowa State University who has written a book about media coverage of the terror attacks.

The stories of heroism have played a role in our understanding of the attacks, Monahan said. Reducing the stories to snippets and slogans — for instance, "Let's Roll," which was the rallying cry of a man on the hijacked Flight 93 that day — have imbued many Americans with a sense of patriotism, sacrifice and bravery.

"'Let's Roll' looks so cool on a bumper sticker, doesn't it?" said Monahan. "Remember when President Bush said, 'On a day when buildings fell, heroes rose?' It's like a movie poster."

There were the New York firefighters, police and paramedics who first responded to the burning towers. There were people like Welles Crowther, a 24-year-old equities trader who helped dozens of people to safety in the south tower before dying in the tower's collapse. Construction manager Frank De Martini and construction inspector Pablo Ortiz were also heroes: they saved 77 people on the 88th floor of the north tower.

There were also the 40 passengers and crew aboard Flight 93, which crashed in Shanksville, Pa. — a group of people whose actions on that day, like Rescorla's, have come to symbolize bravery during the worst possible moment.

"On a grand scale, Sept. 11 provided us with a heroism of humanity," said Al Mascherino, a former Roman Catholic priest who runs a chapel in Shanksville. "It showed that many people are capable of profound qualities of heroism and self-sacrifice. It is really the content of the human spirit."

Mascherino and many others contend that the best of the human spirit was found aboard Flight 93.

According to the 9/11 Commission, the four terrorists who had hijacked the plane likely wanted to crash the Boeing 757-222 into the White House or Capitol building but downed the jet in the bucolic Pennsylvania field as passengers fought back. Tales of the passengers' heroism — culled from transcripts of their in-flight phone calls — fill every Flight 93 memorial found in the small town, from a chapel dedicated to the 40 men and women to the $50 million memorial at the crash site.

"It's not inconsistent with the heroes and bravery that has been woven into the fabric of our country," said Gordon Felt, whose brother Ed perished on Flight 93. "They chose as a group to act. They prayed. They fought. They were not going to go down without a fight. They wanted to survive, and their actions certainly helped avert another great disaster."

Inside the Flight 93 Chapel, visitors look at photos of the 40 men and women aboard the flight, while at the crash site memorial, people read the chilling transcripts of phone recordings and cockpit conversations during the plane's final moments.

Mascherino, who performs non-denominational services at the tiny chapel some three miles from the crash site, thinks that remembering the 40 people who died aboard Flight 93 as heroes also helps the living.

"We are inspired by their courage and we are impressed and in awe of their sacrifice," he said. "Sometimes heroes die. But death is not the earmark of heroism."

Honoring those heroes as a society has also provided a measure of healing for a grieving nation. Take Thomas Ullom, a firefighter in Westerville, Ohio.

He worked for seven years to get a piece of the World Trade Center steel for display outside of his community's firehouse. Ullom didn't know anyone who died in the attacks, yet was profoundly sad afterwards. Bringing the twisted steel to town was his way of saying thank you to the New York heroes.

"This was my therapy," Ullom said.

In the decade that followed the attacks, other heroes emerged, people like the soldiers fighting in the Middle East.

It's at the National Infantry Museum in Georgia where the 9/11 heroes merge with the military.

There's a gallery called "the Hall of Valor," which displays the photos of nearly 1,500 Army infantrymen who have received the medal of honor for their military service. A few steps away, there's a room that includes photos of the burning World Trade Center towers, an explanation that ties the attacks to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and artifacts collected by US soldiers from those wars.

Many of the museum's visitors are Army recruits who are training at nearby Fort Benning, and their families. House, the volunteer and former Army colonel, can spot the newly minted soldiers who visit because they are wearing blue pants and white shirts — and because they have a laser-like focus on the museum's depiction of battle scenes.

Those soldiers may be soon fighting in the war on terror, House said. Which is why he tells them about Rick Rescorla, and about 9/11.

"There were a lot of heroes on 9/11," said House. "And most of us don't even know their names."


EDITOR'S NOTE — Tamara Lush is traveling the country writing about the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tamaralush.