Today is September 11th, the 19th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of 2,977 victims.
Most years, I mark the occasion by sharing a story of compassion, empathy, courage, or ingenuity that came from that day. You can read some of those in my archives. There’s the community which gave all it could to victims halfway across the globe. There’s the man who made the call to ground the planes. Or the story of the squeegee that paved the way to safety. And a few others, too.
Today, though, I’m not sharing anything like that. Instead, I want to share something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and that, unfortunately, is as true today as it has been in recent memory.
If you haven’t heard of the musical Come From Away, let me first pause to give it my highest endorsement. I had the pleasure of seeing it a few years ago and I’ve listened to the soundtrack so many times since that I’ve committed most of the songs and lyrics to heart. It’s a great story, too — one that I would have turned into a Now I Know if the show hadn’t done an impossibly good job, and one I could never compare to.
Come From Away is the story of Gander, Newfoundland, Canada, on 9/11 and the subsequent days. The U.S. closed its airspace after the attacks, effectively leaving a lot of American travelers unable to get home. But those planes, and the passengers on them, had to land somewhere. Gander’s airport, which had been a major one when planes couldn’t make a trans-Atlantic flight without refueling, was one of those “somewheres.” According to the musical, a total of 28 planes landed there, effectively doubling the population of the town in an instant. Come From Away is based on the true stories of the people who lived there and who were stranded there over those few days. It’s an emotional look into the sadness and anger of that week, but also into the compassion and joy that came from a shared human experience during unprecedented times.
The story of Come From Away is a silver lining, so to speak. So are the three stories I linked above. Tragic, awful times often have the benefit (for lack of a better word) of creating situations where great things can happen. And I think it’s human nature to gravitate toward those stories, and that’s a good thing; we should share them, yes, and we should learn from them, too. But these silver linings should take a back seat to the loss we collectively suffer.
There’s a song from Come From Away titled “Prayer” — you should listen to it here, especially as the spoken lyrics below do not do it justice. The entire song is incredible, but in particular, as someone who shares stories with a list of thousands of readers, there’s one part that really resonates with me. It’s a brief conversation between a resident of Gander and a rabbi whose flight left him stranded there in Canada, below:
[Stranded Rabbi]: There is a man here in town. He’s lived here nearly his entire life. He heard that there was a rabbi diverted here and he came to find me and tell me his story.
[Gander Resident]: I was born in Poland, I think. And my parents — they were Jews. They sent me here before the war started — I still remember some of the prayers they taught me. As a boy, I was told I should never tell anyone I was Jewish. Even my wife. But after what happened on Tuesday — so many stories gone, just like that. I needed to tell someone.
So many stories gone. Just like that.
Today is the anniversary of 2,977 stories lost. It’s an anniversary recognized during the middle of a pandemic which has officially claimed another 900,000 stories around the globe, and with certainly many more to come. If history is a guide, we’ll look back at this time with sadness but with hope — we’ll find ways to share some of the unique, inspirational tales of people coming together in the shadow of tragedy. And we should tell those stories.
But today, let’s remember the stories lost.
The Weekend Long Reads
1) “Those We’ve Lost” (New York Times, 5 minutes to 5 days, last updated September 10). In April, a New York Times obituaries writer wrote a column, here, talking about what it’s like to do that job during a pandemic. Obituaries alone didn’t seem to be enough, so the Times put together this incredible, regularly-updated series “designed to put names and faces to the numbers.”
2) “9/11 Lost and Found: The Items Left Behind” (History.com, 6 minutes, September 2018). The subhead: “From a bloodied pair of shoes, to IDs to jewelry, here is a look at some of the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s more than 11,000 artifacts—and the heavy stories they carry.”
3) “The Falling Man” (Esquire, 30 minutes, September 2016). This is a very, very hard article to read. If you were around on 9/11, you know that some people lept from the burning World Trade Center buildings, perhaps as a last-ditch effort to escape their deadly fate. This is the story about one of those people.
See you on Monday,