Remembering 9-11

By Myra Saturen, video and photos by Adam Atkinson
September 08, 2011

On September 11, 2001, Vertel Martin, NCC associate professor of criminal justice was a lieutenant in the New York Police Department's (NYPD) Queens Internal Affairs Headquarters.Vertel Martin

Assisted by 10 sergeants and 139 detectives, she started the balmy summer morning as she had begun many others. Then, at 08:46 came reports of a plane crashing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. A second report came at 09:03: another plane had slammed into the South Tower. At 09:15, a rapid mobilization having been ordered, Martin faced wrenching decisions about her staff: whom to dispatch, whom to hold back, whom to send home, knowing that many were husbands, wives, and parents.

Soon, all sense of time vanished, as Martin and her cohort rushed to the scene, battling the smoke, the burning, the dust, the debris -- to aid terrified, dazed, injured people in the streets. Without the aid of cellphones, TVs, or communication with their command center, the responders labored to rescue and recover victims. To hospitals, went the injured, to a temporary morgue, the dead.

On September 8, 2011, the near-tenth anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, Martin relived the day for listeners in the NCC College Center. Striding restlessly among her audience, crying out her eyewitness's message, she compelled the audience to listen and remember.

Absolute silence froze the room as viewers watched slides of dust-covered men and women, fire-wrapped towers, bleeding faces. "In less than two hours," Martin said, "19 terrorists took the lives of 2,752 people, 100 of them emergency responders." After the towers collapsed, the former site of the Twin Towers lay under 1.8 million tons of wreckage.

By Day 2, operations had somewhat stabilized, Martin recalled. She was now head of the NYPD's 9-11 World Trade Center Missing Persons Task Force. Dozens of agencies and countless civilian volunteers joined Martin in what Martin called her final call to duty. "The first responders and volunteers were heroes." Martin stressed the word. "They worked in the wretched trenches. Many made the ultimate sacrifice. They are gone but not forgotten." Martin also reminded the audiences of those who sustained permanent health damage from the unprotected, toxic environment.

Martin recalled how she quelled a moment of personal crisis, as she stood on a corner, wondering whether she was experiencing a heart attack. At night, tumultuous sleep offered little relief. Some of her staff became so overwhelmed Martin had to order them home. Almost all returned. All the while, Martin and her cohort found the inspiration to go on. People lining her unit's route bolstered the group with their appreciative cheers.

Memories of those days are still very painful to her, Martin said. Time, she said, does not heal all. It is indeed difficult for her to speak publicly about the national and personal trauma, but she does so in honor of all the first responders as well as the victims and their relatives.

In describing hers and her colleagues' work, Martin illuminated the tangle of difficulties which beset the task. The team had to sort the lives lost from those safe: the fraudulent claims, the multiple reports about the same person, those found to be alive or out-of-the-country at the time. Every time a missing person was discovered to be alive, a bell announced the fortunate news.

Martin recalled that "It is well known that department heads came to dread my calls because it meant that I was calling to deplete their already strained pool of personnel. Nonetheless, this delicate work had to move forward. And it did, long after I retired from this noble profession."

Michael McGovern, a professor of history at NCC, reflected about how our world changed after the attacks on the World Trade Center, Pentagon and U.S. Air Flight 93 over Shanksville, PA. Terming it a "singular moment in American history," he said that the world and the American role in it has changed dramatically as a result of these events. Obvious changes he cited included concepts that have entered our mentalities-improvised explosive device, shoe bombers, "If you see something, say something" and numerous others.

More significant, McGovern said, are the shifts in the American psyche. "Given the deadly innovations of turning everyday vehicles and items into weapons, and the willingness (indeed eagerness) of desperate people to die using themselves as weapons, the notion that a country is safe because it sits protected by oceans on it s borders is increasingly quaint and archaic-very 20th century."

McGovern spoke of the fears 9-11 generated and their consequences. "Well-publicized incidents of xenophobia and religious bigotry have been reported nationwide, and a general willingness to trade liberties for security has led to troubling policies of pre-emptive wars, water boarding, and invasions of privacy for reasons not meeting the Fourth Amendment standards of probable cause." He pointed out that Americans' sudden awareness of their vulnerability have occasionally and persistently triggered irrational and un-American fears. "Americans are increasingly war-weary and saddened at the loss of so many of our bravest young people," he said.

McGovern believes that the United States' status in the world is now more uncertain. He raised the possibility that other nations will replace the United States as the sole superpower.

Nevertheless, McGovern voiced cautious hope for the future. "The events of September 11, 2001 may or may not have signaled the end of the American Century, but American hope, optimism, and the example of our constitutional system still inspire and lead us on so many ways. The long-term result of those attacks and how they shape the future of the U.S. remain in our hands. For that reason alone, we should never allow the attacks to be forgotten."

McGovern also noted that "a more lasting consequence of these attacks" might be " be a sense of commonality with those around the world who have consistently known war, fear and grief. By virtue of geography, politics, ethnicity or socioeconomic status," he said, "most of the world's population has already or is currently living with the anxieties and terror so recently visited on the US. If anything constructive can come from the devastation of 9/11, I hope it is a renewed respect for our common humanity and for the dignity of people and societies very different from our own.

In almost perfect synch with messages of the day, NCC student Kyle Apgar read his poem "In Hard Times," about the need to keep living, searching, healing, and pushing on.

NCC President Arthur Scott defined the memorial as a time for reflection, remembrance and honor.

The memorial began and ended with bagpipers playing "Abide with Me" and "Amazing Grace."

Air Force Technical Sergeant Justin Shellhammer and U.S. Marine Corps veteran Christopher Posch, both of whom have studied at NCC, introduced the speakers, and NCC student Elena Zervos sang "The Star-Spangled Banner," our national anthem.

After the hour-long commemoration, the remembrance continued, with the reading of names of victims of the attack. Lists of those who died aboard American Airlines, Flight 77; United Airlines Flight 93; United Airlines Flight 175; and in the World Trade Center towers flanked Laub Lounge. Photographs and short biographies of the slain evoked quiet tears from observers.

The Nancy Run and Hanover Township Fire Department displayed an American flag in front of Kopecek Hall to bring attention to the 9-11 commemoration.

The NCC Band of Brothers Club sponsored the commemoration. Band of Brothers was created for male and female students, faculty, and staff who have served or who are currently serving in the armed forces of the United States.

Martin also spoke at the 9-11 remembrance event at the Monroe Campus on September 7, along with Debbie Archimbaud, who worked in the south tower of the World Trade Center. Read the Pocono Record article to find out how a late bus and a stop for a breakfast muffin potentially saved Archimbaud's life.

Watch the 69 News coverage of this event, read the Bethlehem Patch article and the Express-Times article.

Video excerpts from Martin's speech can be found on Northampton Community College's YouTube channel or below. Her entire speech can be viewed on YouTube, as well as the speech of Michael McGovern.