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Invisible heroes of 9/11


Life has gone on since Sept. 11, 2001. In fact, this Sunday marks the  10th anniversary of a tragedy that seems as if it only happened a short  while ago.

As the nation pauses to remember–10 years away from the cataclysmic events of that morning–there is time to reflect and observe.

And one thing that some people might observe and question is what was the impact of 9/11 on African Americans.

For Atlanta-based psychotherapist Joyce Morely, Ed. D. it was something that is painful and that happens all-too frequently.

“I was watching the television special ‘Children of 9/11,’ and,  ironically, I was seeing that the majority of the focus was on White  families and White children. There was only one African American, (a)  male profiled, and it was from the perspective of how much trouble he  had gotten into over time, before he finally pulled himself together  last year,” said Morely, who remembers many of her African American  clients coming to her office unable to even think beyond what had  happened in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.

The relative exclusion of Blacks from the coverage of 9/11 remembrances  has left their voices, their emotions, their recovery unheard. In fact,  Morely, said she has seen Indian families who lost loved ones in the  tragedy saying the same thing about their stories being ignored.

“A lot of times when people have latent issues, they so internalize them  that if they are not dealt with, they manifest themselves in other  behaviors; negative behaviors . . . when your grief is not seen as  important and when your grief seems to be minimized as opposed so  someone else’s grief, it makes it very difficult.”

Rev. DeQuincy Hentz of Shiloh Baptist Church in New Rochelle, a bedroom  community to New York, recalls many of his members being in shock at the  attack and believing that God had protected them going to work that day  at the towers.

“A lot of people express how they felt God had protected them. Some people were headed to towers, but were delayed.”

He added that there were no members of his church lost, and they don’t  talk about the tragedy much. They sort of relate to it like knowing  where you were when Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy were  assassinated.

“I think, as a people, African Americans have such a history of tragedy  and terrorist acts against us that something within us that is part of  our history and fabric helps us to just move on. Now that may not always  be good,” Hentz said, adding that in some respects 9/11 enabled Black  people to see that contrary to the lynching, cross burnings and other  terrorist atrocities aimed at them over the years, there could actually  be a equalization of terror; and that hate knows no color, and when  unchecked can impact everyone.

There are Black stories to tell. From those to died on the planes, to  survivors who walked away without a scratch on their bodies.

Perhaps one of the most poignant is the three 11-year-olds, who were on Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon.

Asia Cottom, Rodney Dickens and Bernard Curtis Brown II, had been  selected from three different middle schools in Washington, D.C., to  travel to the Channel Island National Marine Sanctuary near Santa  Barbara, Calif., to participate in a National Geographic Society  research project called Sustainable Seas Expedition. They were each  traveling with a teacher, and two National Geographic staff members  accompanied the group. All perished. But in November 2001, the  then-mayor of Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the D.C. public  schools, the Department of Parks and Recreation of Washington, D.C., the  National Geographic Society, the Anacostia Watershed Society and the  Earth Conservation Corp. turned the islands of Kingman and Heritage into  sanctuaries in honor of the children and their adult companions.

The islands are located in the Anacostia River, which flows through D.C.

And then there was a close friend of Pastor Gregory Robeson Smith of New  York’s Mother A.M.E. Zion Church, whose sister was on vacation from her  job at the Pentagon, but stopped in that morning to pick up some papers  before meeting with her husband for lunch. She never made it.

Marcy Borders too had a story to tell. She had been working only one  short month in a bank in one of the towers, when the planes hit. She was  led to the lobby of the second tower, where a photographer captured the  image of her covered from head to toe in ash and cast in a strange  yellowish light.

During the 10 years since the attack, Borders struggled with unchecked  fear and paranoia, drug addiction and the inability to work a day.

In April, she checked into rehab, and is working to regain control of her life.

There is also Genelle Guzman-McMillan who laid trapped nearly 27 hours  in the rubble of the towers. She said she had an angelic encounter with a  man named Paul, who grabbed her hand, called her name and said he was  there for her. Once she was freed, neither Guzman-McMillan nor anyone  else was ever able to find Paul.

As she lay with her crushed leg awaiting help, the young New Yorker  pledged to God, she would dedicate her life to him, if he rescued her.

She kept her promise by joining a church and travels the world telling  her testimony through speaking and in her book “Angel in the Rubble.”

Brent Watson literally walked away from his experience at Ground Zero  with the same understanding that Guzman-McMillan had developed–life is  not promised and must be lived to its fullest and with a profound  reverence for God.

Watson, who was then an employee with Merrill Lynch, now Bank of America  Merrill Lynch, had gone into work early for a company meeting in World  Financial Center 2, a 43-story-high structure that was about 100 yards  from the World Trade Center Towers.

“I was in our conference room (which seated about 200 people) that  morning, when I heard this sound like a piece of heavy equipment had  been dropped on the floor right outside of our conference room,”  recalled Watson.

“There was a former Army officer in our management at the time, and he  started moving to investigate. I said to myself, ‘if he’s moving, I’m  moving . . . .’ All my instincts started to kick in.
“Someone said a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers. We assumed it was a  single-engine plane or a helicopter because there had been a number of  close calls with small planes.”

“Then our risk manager came in, and I’ll never forget her face. She said we are evacuating the building.”

Watson remembers that a ridiculously practical thought about refusing to  wait for hours at the New York Department of Motor Vehicles for another  license popped into his head. So he went to his desk, retrieved his  jacket, wallet, laptop and other personal belongings and headed for the  exit. He and his colleagues debated taking the stairs or the elevator, and decided on the elevators.

Had Watson taken the stairs, he like his son’s godfather (who was also  in the World Trade Center in 1993, when dynamite exploded in the garage,  killing five and wounding at least 1,000), would have seen people  falling from the towers. Instead, he and others gathered in a plaza that  was about 50 feet from his building and the Hudson River.

“We could see the building burning: white flames, jet fuel. I said that  building is not going to be able to sustain itself with that intense  heat. I could tell it was going to melt. I felt it might tip over and  fall toward us. A few minutes later, here came the second plane. It cut  through almost like a knife. That’s when everybody scattered out of  fear. My spirit said to me, get as far away as you can.”

Taking about five of his colleagues with him, Watson began walking toward the Westside.

“I kept telling them to stop looking back, and I talked to them about  Sodom and Gomorrah. After walking about 18 blocks, the group heard the  first tower collapse.

Watson said he knew that the next thing that would happen would be F-16s arriving on the scene.
“Sure enough, shortly after the collapse, you could hear the F-16s  traveling at mach [speed]. They were trying to see if another plane was  coming.”

Continuing to walk, Watson and his group arrived at Grand Central  Station, but the trains were not running because of a bomb scare. He  decided not to try for a cab, because he said cabdrivers were gouging  people and exploiting the situation by charging people $500 to get out  of Manhattan.

Watson eventually ended up in Harlem at a relative’s house after a  four-and-a-half-hour walk. “Ain’t no terrorists coming to Harlem,” the  wealth management adviser remembers thinking. He also remembers a woman  he encountered remarking that he looked like he could walk to Canada.

The 15-year financial veteran credits his strength to an inner spirit  honed by a lifetime of growing up in the church and believing in God.

Watson described the first few days after Sept. 11 as a time of shock  and questioning how you go on, particularly if you’ve lost someone close  to you, and he had.

” . . A colleague of mine, who had spent time mentoring me, David Grady;  he was trapped at the top in Windows of the World. He was there for a  breakfast appointment. He only had enough time to call his father and  wife to say goodbye. His remains were never found. We have a conference  room in our company in his memory. He always had inspirational things to  say to me . . . he was one of those guys who believed in what Charlie  Merrill said: ‘Put your client’s needs ahead of your needs, and you will  be successful.”

Rather than let himself be paralyzed and prevented from reaching full  potential in a space where he knew that seeing a Black man working was  rare, Watson said he decided to work harder doing things that benefited  others.

But he also relied on conversations with members of the male chorus at  his church, people in his investment club, a cousin who was a church  deacon, discussions with pastors and his own personal relationship with  God to sustain him.

“You focus on things bigger than yourself. You dream big,” Watson said.  In his case, he is also more aggressive toward things he wants to  achieve. “It’s galvanized me to know that tomorrow is not promised and  to not be afraid to go it alone.”