Sunday, September 11, 2011

Friends and Strangers

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I’ve been thinking about two stories. First, there was Abe Zelmanowitz, a worker at the World Trade Center. His co-worker and best friend, Ed Beyea, was a quadriplegic. As the building burned and people streamed down the stairwells, Abe stayed with Ed on the 27th floor landing. Because Ed weighed nearly 300 pounds, they were waiting for a rescue team to safely carry him.

Ed had a health aide, Irma, in the building. Although she found the two men, Irma was having trouble breathing from the smoke. Abe told her to go, that he would stay with Ed.

Both men called their families to say they were okay. Abe’s mother pleaded with him to get out while he could. He stayed.

Abe and Ed died in the building that day.

A family member recalled of the two, “If Ed was going to make [dinner] arrangements, he’d make sure it was kosher, and if Abe was going to make the arrangements, he’d make sure it was wheelchair-accessible. They always had each other’s best interests at heart.”

The second story is about Mike Benfante, who was also working in the World Trade Center. During the evacuation, he found wheelchair-bound Tina Hansen. He was a stranger to her, but Mike and colleague John Cerqueira carried Tina down 68 flights of stairs, often in darkness and smoke, sloshing through areas flooded by building sprinklers. It took 90 minutes. The building collapsed five minutes after they got out.

As the tenth anniversary of that day approached, Mike deflected attention from his heroism to the larger lesson of what 9/11 summoned in friends and strangers alike: “I’ve learned that 9/11 showed us that there are enormous, untapped reservoirs of extraordinary human kindness and generosity just waiting for a trigger, that this trigger should be pulled daily as most of us are basically good people.”

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