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We Still Have Heroes

“Michelle, get up here!”

My husband’s voice boomed through the house and down the stairs to me as I walked in the front door. Startled, I quickly shut the door, kicked my running shoes off and headed up the stairs. His words surprised me not only because of their urgency but because he was up at all. My husband was a second shift officer with the Phoenix Police Department. Often he needed quite a bit of unwinding time after his shift before he could sleep so he went to bed around three or four in the morning. He wasn’t often up this early; let alone, upstairs in the family room.

Prior to his command for my attention, I had been out for my morning run. I dropped our son off at kindergarten and before he went into class he wanted to make sure we were still going to the Arizona Diamondbacks game that night. It was after all, September 11th (9-1-1) and the ballpark held a public safety telecommunicators appreciation night on that day each year. Last year (2000) had been the first time I had gone, although I had been a police dispatcher/9-1-1 operator for over three years.  The year before I had taken my son and we had a great time. We decided to make it a mother son tradition and he was very excited about returning to the ball park that night. I sent him into his class with a guarantee we were going and a kiss. Once his blonde hair disappeared into San Tan Elementary School, I headed off for my run. It was a beautiful day in Gilbert (AZ), not unusual for September. It was still getting really hot in the afternoons, but the mornings were beginning to be a bit cooler making the run through the new suburb we lived in pleasant. Although I was a forest girl at heart, I had learned to love the desert with its spicy smells and isolated, starkly beautiful landscape.

I headed up the stairs towards my husband’s voice wondering to myself, “What now? Did the cat poop on the floor?” I really had no idea what could have brought him out of bed and put the strange tone in his voice that now resonated through the house. 

I found him sitting on the couch, eyes glued to the television screen. Sweat still beaded on my forehead and I was in desperate need of a shower.

“Look,” he said pointing towards the screen.

Oh, please, not another officer involved shooting, I said to myself. Please don’t let it be someone I know. I glanced over the screen trying to make sense of what I was looking at. I wasn’t really that familiar with New York. If this tragedy didn’t take place, I probably wouldn’t be able to say what or where the World Trade Center was if shown a picture. On the television was the burning tower, the second still standing. I was just about to ask my husband what he was watching when I saw the other plane come onto the screen. When it smashed into the second tower, I dropped to the floor sweaty clothes and all. I hugged my knees to my chest.

“That’s no accident,” my husband said in barely over a whisper.

We sat there watching the horror for what felt like hours. The ashes. The people jumping to their deaths. The firemen and police officers grungy, dirty, tired and traumatized stumbling through the hell, resting against emergency vehicles parked haphazardly all over the place. Transfixed, we listened as reports came in of the tragedy—the collapse of the tower. I felt icy cold listening and watching—my mind trying to wrap around the immense loss of life that was happening before my eyes. Brothers and sisters in blue and red were dying across the country while I sat in my living room. I went numb. Tears streamed down my face as images of crushed fire engines and patrol cars flashed across the screen. I didn’t know who to blame. I didn’t know who to be angry with. I wanted to wail in sorrow. I wanted to scream. I wanted to do something—anything—but could do—nothing.  

“We’d better call your mom,” I said finally snapping out of the daze. “They’re going to recall us.”

My husband agreed and reached for the phone. In the ensuing 15 minute phone call, I listened as he tried to comfort his mother and also took control of the situation, arranging for us to drop off our son when the department called. We’d each probably be working long hours and possibly sleeping at the station and dispatch center. At this point, we still did not really know what was going on. All we knew was that America was under attack and we both had a job to do to keep the public safe. After arranging for indefinite care of our son, the next call he made was to a couple who were close friends of ours. He worked with my husband in patrol and she was a dispatcher with me. Both guys and I were former military, and the conversation revolved around how we were going to protect ourselves and our homes. They agreed our house was the best stronghold and our friends were going to bring over supplies and the weapons they owned. Paired with our supplies and weapons, we could protect ourselves for quite some time. Thankfully, it didn’t come to that.

Over the next few days, things began to clear up a bit. We were fed some answers to the tragedy. We watched the horror over and over and over again. We learned about the devastating loss of first responders. I cried a lot and I was angry. Still to this day, my mind flashes back to the pictures of the emergency vehicles and the radio transmissions of lost men and women. It was haunting. It was tragic. It was senseless.

On September 15th, I wrote these words (in the form of a prayer) in my journal:

Lord, I turn to you with a sorrowful heart. I grieve for the families of those lost during the tragedy on Tuesday. I pray for peace although my head screams war. I pray for forgiveness although my head screams revenge. I am confused, lost, and lonely. I turn to you for healing, for wisdom and for answers. I pray that in sorrow, we will find gladness. In hardship, we will find rest. In solitude, we will find friendship. In hate, we will find love. At this time, the country and the world stands by as we await the next step. I pray that you will guide our leaders and keep them from acting in anger. I pray you will soften the hearts of those behind this tragedy and make them let go of their hatred and rage. Let us find peace, in our country and in our hearts.

A year later, a variety of agencies including Phoenix Police and Fire Departments got together to host a memorial. We organized a walk up the stairwell of the tallest building in Phoenix in memory of those who died. I got involved when I asked, “Wouldn’t it be cool if every participant wore an armband with the name of a fallen first responder? That way we would truly be walking in memory of a person.” On September 11, 2002, fire fighters, police officers and hundreds of supporters arrived at the Bank One building in downtown Phoenix many in full turn-out gear. Volunteers helped them put an armband on.

As I walked up those stairs surrounded by my colleagues wearing one of the 1500 armbands I made, I felt a spark of hope. It was in solidarity that America and its first responders were finding healing. It was through memorial events and remembering why we work in the occupations we do that promoted our growth. Even after all the tragedy, men and women were still willing to run into a building when others ran the other way. Despite the efforts of evil people, America still had its heroes. Through these heroes, we still have hope.