September 11 has a different meaning for me than for a lot of people. It was my dad’s birthday. He would have been 114 this year — not a fate that I would wish on anyone. I’m sure that for many of us 9/11 has a different meaning than the one most people think of. This is somebody’s wedding anniversary, birth of their child, the day they started their first job or some other significant event. Disaster isn’t necessarily the first thing that comes to our minds.
However, it was and always will be a day of mourning in the minds of most Americans — a day of terrible loss and tragedy.
I was working at the U.S. Attorney’s Office at the time — I was Victim-Witness Coordinator and my job was to help people who were victims of crimes and to assist witnesses who had been subpoenaed to come to court. It was a job of mostly helping people and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
And it was because of my job that one day over a year after 9/11/2001 I received a phone call from our main office in Washington with an unusual request.
“Robin,” our national coordinator asked, “would you be willing to assist with notifying victims of the World Trade Center tragedy about the trial of the defendant?”
“Uh, like what do you mean, exactly?”
“Well, after the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma, relatives of the victims complained that the federal government did not keep them informed about the progress of the case. We’re trying to be proactive and let the relatives of the victims know as much as we can.”
“So I would be passing on information and updates?”
“No, no, nothing like that. What we have is names of people whose relatives died in the World Trade Center. You would call and see if they want to be kept appraised of the progress of the trial.”
“Who is being tried?”
“The government has identified one defendant — Khalid Shaikh Mohammed*– who helped to plan the attack. All we want to know from the families is if they want to be put on the witness notification list and to verify their address and phone number. (This is in the days before e-mails and texts.) You know that ordinarily the Victim-Witness Coordinators in New York would do this, but there are too many people to call. We’re asking Coordinators in other parts of the country to help out.”
“Listen, let me ask my boss and get back to you.” It sounded like a pretty major task. I went to the office next door where Vickie, my fellow Victim-Witness Coordinator and partner-in-crime as we liked to call ourselves, was finishing up a phone call.
“Listen to this,” I said as I related the gist of the phone call from Washington.
“We’d have to ask Kurt,” (our supervisor). “It could be pretty time-consuming. Did they give you a time-frame?”
“How many people would we be calling?” Vickie was always the practical one.
“I guess it depends on how many people pitch in to help out.”
After some discussion and clearance from the boss, I called Washington back and told them Vickie and I would do it. They sent us a list of about 100 names and we divided it up.
It was with some trepidation that I made the first call. The response was one of disbelief followed by a lot of questions. Most of the people I talked to were glad that somebody in the nameless/faceless government actually was reaching out to them. Some of the people wanted to talk; many of them had questions; some of the them cried, but they all thanked me for calling.
We took it slow, Vickie and me, fitting the calls in around our regular work, and doing only a few a day. The emotions could be pretty stressful — on both ends of the line. Two calls in particular remain with me today. The first was to a woman with a distinctly middle-Eastern name. I didn’t know how she would feel about our country prosecuting someone who could possibly be her relative.
“What do you mean? Who is this Khalid Mohammed?” she asked in heavily accented English.
“He is charged with plotting to fly the planes into the World Trade Center,” I told her. “The government plans to put him on trial.”
“No trial! No trial!” she shot back, her voice rising. Oh boy, I thought — this is going to be messy. “Stoning! Stoning!” Her voice was harsh and then she started to sob.
“Ma’am, we don’t stone people in this country.”
“He should be stoned,” she said again in a voice I could barely hear. I heard a conversation in the background and then a softer, younger voice came on the line.
“This is Adiba’s * daughter. You must understand, my mother is very emotional. My brother was killed on 9/11.”
“I’m so sorry. I can certainly understand how she feels. I’m very sorry about your brother.” I wanted to say, but didn’t, that if I had my way, Khalid Mohammed would be taken to Ground Zero and publicly stoned.
The other call that I remember was a woman whose husband had been killed. “It’s been over a year,” she said, “but I still wait for him to come home. I’ll be fixing dinner, and glance out the kitchen window and for a split second I expect to see him come up the walk.” Her voice got very soft. “Then I remember.”
It took me a minute to get past the lump in my throat. “I’m sorry about your husband,” I told her. “I’m sorry.” I was saying that a lot these days.
I said there were two calls that stood out in my mind, but really there were three. The last one was to a man. When he answered the phone, I told him who I was and then said, “I’m calling about Franklin Abernathy.” *
“This is Franklin.” I looked at my paper. Franklin Abernathy was listed as the victim who had been killed.
“You’re alive?” I said rather stupidly.
“Yes, I am.”
“Wow!” I said. “That is good news! That’s great!”
I explained briefly why I had been calling and he said, “Well, you don’t have to notify anybody about me. I’m right here.”
“Vickie!” I yelled as soon as I got off the phone. “I got one! I found someone who is alive!” You would think I had dug him out of the rubble myself. “He’s actually alive!” I said racing into her office and waving the paper.
We sat and looked at the paper together. “That’s good,” Vickie said. “That’s really good.”
“Damn straight.” After all the days of hearing sad stories, heartbroken sobs and going home feeling totally drained, it was beyond wonderful to have a beam of sunlight shine down.
For all the ones who had their lives shattered that day, there will never be enough tears to assuage that hurt. But today I’m going to give thanks for the ones like Frank Abernathy and hope that they are celebrating the anniversary of the day they didn’t die.
* After all these years, I don’t remember the actual names.