On this day 19 years ago, America woke up to unimaginable news. Nineteen members of al Qaeda had hijacked four fuel-loaded U.S. commercial airplanes. One crashed into the Pentagon. Two more hit the World Trade Center. The final plane was destined for the White House, but thanks to the heroic efforts of the passengers and crew, it never made it. That day, a total of 2,977 lives were lost; killed in New York City, Washington, DC and outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
September 11, 2001, showed us the very worst of humanity, but it also showed the very best. Nineteen men set forth to destroy our country, while thousands more stepped forward to heal it. We were reminded of what Americans are capable of; incredible kindness, selflessness and unity. The 11 figures below are just a few of the remarkable individuals who put their lives on the line that day, and gave us exactly what we needed: Hope.
Father Mychal Judge
While thousands lost their lives on that dark day, the first recorded casualty was Father Mychal Judge. The Roman Catholic priest and NYFD chaplain chose to walk into the burning World Trade Center to bring comfort to wounded firefighters and others injured in the attack, listening to their final confessions and blessing them in their last moments. He gave his life just to bring others peace.
Flight 93 passengers Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham, Tom Burnett and Jeremy Glick
What would you do if your flight was hijacked? We’d all like to think we’d be as brave as these four men who fought their hijacker and helped prevent an even greater tragedy. When Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham, Tom Burnett and Jeremy Glick boarded United Airlines Flight 93 that morning, they had no idea what was about to happen. In a stroke of “luck,” the flight was delayed slightly. Because of this, when the hijackers took over the plane at 9:30, the other attacks had already taken place. When the four passengers called their loved ones, they learned of the hijacker’s intentions for the plane — to crash directly into the White House.
To prevent this from happening, they worked with members of the plane’s crew to fight back against the terrorists. When the hijackers realized the passengers might successfully breach the cockpit, they opted to crash the plane into a field in Pennsylvania, killing all on board. The efforts of Beamer, Bingham, Burnet and Glick saved hundreds of lives that would have been lost had the plane reached its intended target.Before the plane went down, Burnett spoke to his wife on the phone, saying calmly, “I know we’re all going to die. There’s three of us who are going to do something about it. I love you, honey.”
Betty Ong and Amy Sweeney
One thing all these stories have in common is quick thinking and calm resolve. Two flight attendants on American Airlines Flight 11 could easily have panicked when the plane was hijacked. A passenger had already been stabbed, some crew members were murdered, and the air was filled with something similar to mace, but they calmly notified their colleagues on the ground of the scene unfolding.
Those on the receiving end were astounded by their unwavering professionalism, listening carefully as they provided details about the hijackers throughout the flight. The information they shared helped the FBI uncover their full identities.
Wells Crowther, a 24-year-old equities trader, was working on the 104th floor of the South Tower when it was struck by Flight 175. He called his mother and left her a voicemail, calmly telling her, “Mom, this is Welles. I want you to know that I’m ok.”
He had no obligation to help anyone escape other than himself, but the former volunteer firefighter chose to anyway. He helped over a dozen people get out before running back into the building alongside firefighters to save even more. He carried one injured woman out on his back, directing disoriented and terrified office workers to the ground floor. Survivor Ling Young told CNN, “He’s definitely my guardian angel — no ifs, ands or buts — because without him, we would be sitting there, waiting [until] the building came down.”
His body was recovered in a stairwell, his hands still holding a “jaws of life” rescue tool. He is remembered as “the man in the red bandana,” a commanding, brave figure who worked to save all he could.
Stanley Praimnath was trapped on the 81st floor of the South Tower when the second plane, Flight 175, struck. He was close enough to see the plane approaching, yet he survived the impact. Terrifyingly, he still had no way to escape the teetering tower. Luckily, Brain Clark heard his calls for help and talked him through a challenging escape route. As it turns out, by stopping to help Stanley, Brian also saved himself. Before he heard Stanley’s cries, he was headed to the upper floors to wait for help. The building collapsed within the hour. Those who had continued up the tower never made it out.
Michael Benfante and John Cerqueira
Two colleagues, Michael Benfante and John Cerqueira, were in the North Tower when the planes hit. Most people would be desperate to get out, but when the two men ran into a woman in a wheelchair on the 68th floor, they didn’t hesitate to stop. Together, they strapped Tina Hansen to a lightweight emergency chair and carried her down endless flights of treacherous stairs. Thanks to their selflessness and determination, all three of them survived.
Frank De Martini and Pablo Ortiz
Construction manager Frank De Martini and construction instructor Pablo Ortiz were both in the North Tower when it was hit. Instead of scrambling to safety, they took it upon themselves to rescue as many people as they possibly could. Many were trapped on the tower’s 88th and 89th floors, so the two men went into action. They opened jammed elevator doors, cleared debris, and directed people to safe escape routes. The North Tower collapsed while they were still inside. Before it did, however, they saved over 50 others.
Jason Thomas and Dave Karnes
Although members of the military eventually retire, their dedication to their country does not. Former Marine sergeants Jason Thomas and Dave Karnes had both been out of the military for some time. Yet, when they heard about the attack on the World Trade Center, they put their uniforms back on. Karnes was all the way in Connecticut when he sped off to New York at 120 mph to help.
He ran into Thomas at the site of the collapsed towers and together they began searching through the rubble. They identified two New York Port Authority police officers, William Jimeno and John McLoughlin, trapped 20 feet below the surface. Both men were seriously injured, but after a total of 11 hours they were both successfully rescued. Karnes later reenlisted, serving two tours of duty in Iraq.
Cyril Richard Rescorla was born in Britain, but his dedication to the United States is unmatched. A Vietnam Vet with a Silver Star, police officer, and private security specialist, Rescorla had frequently warned the Port Authority that the World Trade Center was vulnerable. At the time of the attack, Rescorla was working as head of corporate security for Morgan Stanley in the South Tower, and when his fears were realized he dove in to help.
When the first plane hit the tower across from his, Rescorla was directed to keep his employees at their desks, but he ignored this order. Instead, he issued an evacuation order, walking employees through the emergency procedures he had made them rehearse time and time again. He had evacuated over 2,700 employees and visitors in just 16 minutes when the second plane struck the building they had just escaped from. Throughout the tense evacuation, his steady voice singing “God Bless America” and “Men of Harlech” rang out through a bullhorn, giving people strength and calm.
According to The New Yorker, he called his wife during the evacuation to tell her, “Stop crying. I have to get these people out safely. If something should happen to me, I want you to know I’ve never been happier. You made my life.”
He was last seen on the 10th floor of the South Tower on his way to find any who had been left behind.
Maj. Heather Penney and Col. Marc Sasseville
When Major Heather Penney and Colonel Marc Sasseville learned of the initial attacks, the two National Guard pilots prepared to intercept United Flight 93, the fourth and final hijacked plane. They aimed their two F-16s directly at the wayward Boeing 757…except they were completely unarmed. The only way for them to stop the plane would be to ram into it- essentially a suicide mission.
“We had to protect the airspace any way we could,” Maj. Heather Penney told The Washington Post in 2011. “We wouldn’t be shooting it down. We’d be ramming the aircraft. I would essentially be a kamikaze pilot.”
Fortunately, the passengers and crew of Flight 93 took on the job themselves. While Penney and Sasseville never had to complete their death-sentence mission, they were fully prepared to go down with their aircraft to protect others from harm.
Army Spc. Beah Doboszenski
On September 11, 2001, Army Spc. Beah Doboszenski was just a tour guide at the Pentagon. He was working on the opposite side of the building, so far away that he didn’t even hear the plane hit. The former volunteer firefighter and EMT didn’t hesitate to volunteer his services, however, racing to the site of the crash. He had to evade police officers and go around barricades to find a medical triage station and begin giving medical care to countless victims.
He then voluntarily ran back into the building to search for survivors while the building was still in flames. He gave medical aid to the injured outside, then went back into the building while it was still in flames. Former Vice President Joe Biden said of Doboszenski’s heroic act, “When people started streaming out of the building and screaming, he sprinted toward the crash site. For hours, he altered between treating his co-workers and dashing into the inferno with a team of six men.”
Last but not least, Roselle
Some heroes have two legs, but some have four. Roselle, a guide dog, was on the 78th floor with her blind owner, Michael Hingson, when the plane hit. She guided him all the way down to safety. Without her, he most likely wouldn’t have made it out alive. The heroic pup lived a long, happy life until her passing in June 2011, and her owner has since written a book in her honor.
These are just a few of the innumerable heroes of 9/11. To the police officers, firefighters, military personnel, and ordinary citizens who brought light to one of America’s darkest days: We humbly thank you.