Non Sibi Sed Patria (Aliis)

Not for Self But Others (rather than simply country)

Psalm 46; Mt. 17:20



Fifteen years ago, on a morning that was alive with vivid natural beauty in the bright blue skies, death and terror caught us unaware at the start of an ordinary workday. We gather this morning to remember the honor exhibited by so many ordinary heroes. We cannot bring back the 2,996 neighbors that died that day, but we can partially redeem the future through meaning that comes to us in humane nobility.

Over the top of the arresting entrance to the Chapel at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis are written these words, “Non Sibi Sed Patria” (Not for Self but for Country).  We Christians might express the same thought a bit more broadly, “Non Sibi Sed Aliis” (Not for Self but for Others). Both lift up the virtue of honor, of service… It is the higher, more noble way.

At the end of the battle of Iwo Jima, Admiral Chester Nimitz lifted up what was worthy during that horrific violence, and he remembered the sacrificial spirit that was exhibited among his troops. “Where Uncommon Valor was a Common Virtue”. And that is what we witnessed.

Wanton, random, arbitrary don’t begin to describe the untenable situation that ordinary workers found themselves in with fire below them.

At one point, a few dozen of the 20,000 people that work at the Pentagon, happened to be in the inner courtyard of the building, a park of several acres, where people normally sat on benches and shared lunch. They heard the sound of a jet approaching much too close and they had every reason to believe that they would not be able to run fast enough to avoid being killed, so they dropped to their knees en masse and began saying their last prayers.

One of our neighbors here in New Jersey was in the World Trade Center that day, just sensed that something terrible had happened that would kill him, so he called home, got the answering machine, and he said goodbye to his wife and two daughters. His youngest child was a boy and his father searched for something to say to him that would strengthen him in his last words after he told him that he love him. He said, “Son you are the man of the house now”… Untenable words no one should have to say.

And that is the spiritual effect of terror. Who would do such a thing? Who would do such a thing?

Almost immediately we inverted that question. Honor made heroes out of ordinary folks.

The Pentagon is the largest office building in the world, 5 huge buildings connected together, each with 5 concourses inside. When the jet liner hit the Pentagon it was full of fuel which flooded an enormous area that kept burning hotter and hotter, melting everything in its path.

Being the command center of our military, people jumped into active mode. As soon as they ran out of the building, they joined forces to head back in like they were trained to do, and help others. Instantly, all of the metro fire departments were alerted and they dispatched trucks to the scene. The fireball was growing.

It melted the water mains in the basement, so water was flooding indiscriminately which caused the water pressure for the whole building to drop so low that the fire trucks had no water to pump onto the fire to put it out.

The chief building engineer for the Pentagon knew what had to be done. They had to go back into the basement as close to the fire as they could get, and shut off the water mains. They only guys who knew what to do weren’t trained military people. They were just plumber and electricians that worked at the Pentagon, ordinary government employees, the butt of so many jokes.

The firemen stood helpless, knowing that people were trapped in the building. The engineer was able to corral a group of plumbers and electricians, explain to them what they needed to do. He asked for volunteers to head back into the basement, with a pretty good likelihood that they would face serious danger and death. In short order they stood as one, made their way back to the basement, fought through the smoke, got to the mains, shut them off one by one, stabilized the water pressure and the firetrucks started pumping water onto the fire.

For so many of us here, the day started like it did for our own Darla Stuckey. She caught the train to Hoboken and then the ferry across the Hudson to where it used to dock right next to the World Trade Center. She was on her way to the New York Stock Exchange where she worked as the lawyer to the board.

The first plane hit right as she was getting off the ferry. It just so happened she was walking the same way she always walked on the morning commute, right past the day care and nursery school that was in the basement of World Trade One.

The teachers had no idea what happened but it was obvious something really big, really bad just took place and they made the executive decision to evacuate the children immediately. There was no plan and no time to develop one, so they just started handing babies to anyone that would take one.

One of them grabbed an infant and handed it to Darla. With her briefcase in one hand, clutching an infant in the other, she started walking, jogging, sprinting up town, finally running into someone else she knew who was doing the same thing.

They were just a few blocks north when they heard that awful sound behind them, the Towers starting to weaken and implode on themselves, sending that huge mushroom cloud of debris in every direction.

They turned north, then east, back north, trying to come up with a plan. Where should we go? One of them said to the other. “Head towards Chinatown, there’s nothing to attack in Chinatown.” Crazy, comical moments in the midst of chaos.

Of course, they eventually started wondering about the mother’s of the infants they were carrying. Where were they? What would they be thinking right now? As mothers to mothers, they were deeply concerned and needed to get somewhere.

None of the cell phones worked, they needed a land line. They remembered a friend with an apartment on 56th street. By the time they got to the apartment, the TV had an emergency hotline set up for you to call if you had information for loved ones. They called, found the place to take the infants, dropped them off, where one very upset mother was overjoyed at seeing her child again.

Darla carried that child 6 miles that day up against her chest. She said in the morning of the next day, she couldn’t lift her arms off her chest…

As you might imagine, every year since then that overjoyed Mother has invited Darla over to her house. And now that infant is a teenager. Darla discovered that day, what we would all come to see over the coming months following that attack, just how connected we all are.

Or Welles Crowther.[i][ii]

“He was 24, from Nyack, N.Y. He played lacrosse at Boston College, graduated and got an internship at Sandler O’Neill, the investment bank. In two years he was a junior associate on the trading desk. He worked in the south tower of the World Trade Center, on the 104th floor.

The young man always carried a red bandanna with him since his father gave him one when he was a kid. “Welles kept it with him, a connection to his father,” said Alison Crowther this week by phone. “He carried a red bandanna all his life.” It was a talisman but practical, too. It could clean up a mess. When he’d take it from his pocket at Sandler O’Neill they’d tease him. What are you, a farmer? That is from Tom Rinaldi’s lovely book “The Red Bandanna,” which came out this week. He’d tease back: “With this bandanna I’m gonna change the world.”


“As Welles went down the stairwell he saw what happened on the 78th floor sky lobby. People trying to escape had been waiting for elevators when the plane hit. It was carnage—fire, smoke, bodies everywhere. A woman named Ling Young, a worker for the state tax department, sat on the floor, badly burned and in shock. From out of the murk she heard a man’s voice: “I found the stairs. Follow me.”

“There was something she heard in the voice, an authority, compelling her to follow,” Mr. Rinaldi writes. Ms. Young stood, and followed. She saw that the man was carrying a woman. Eighteen floors down the air began to clear. He gently placed the woman down and told them both to continue walking down. Then he turned and went back upstairs to help others.

“Judy Wein of Aon Corporation had also been in the 78th floor. She too was badly injured and she too heard the voice: “Everyone who can stand now, stand now. If you can help others, do so.” He guided her and others to the stairwell.

“Apparently Welles kept leading people down from the top floors to the lower ones, where they could make their way out. Then he’d go up to find more. No one knows how many. The fire department credits him with five saved lives.

“He never made it home. His family hoped, grieved, filled out forms. On the Friday after 9/11 Alison stood up from her desk and suddenly she knew Welles was there, right behind her. She could feel his energy, his force; it was him. She didn’t turn. She just said: Thank you. She knew he was saying he was OK. After that she didn’t dare hope he’d be found alive because she knew he wouldn’t.

“They found him six months later, in the lobby of the south tower. He’d made it all the way down. He was found in an area with many firefighters’ remains. It had been the FDNY command post. It was where assistant fire chief Donald Burns was found. He and his men had probably helped evacuate thousands. Welles could have left and saved his own life—they all could have. But they’d all stayed. “He was helping,” said Alison.

“The Crowthers never knew what he’d done until Memorial Day weekend 2002. The New York Times carried a minute-by-minute report of what happened in the towers after the planes hit. Near the end it said: “A mysterious man appeared at one point, his mouth and nose covered with a red handkerchief.” It mentioned Ms. Young and Ms. Wein. The Crowthers sent them pictures of Welles.

“That was him, they said. Ms. Wein had seen his face when he took the bandanna from his face as the air cleared on the lower floors. Ms. Young said: “He saved my life.”

“As a child, Welles Crowther had wanted to be a fireman. Few knew he’d decided to apply for the FDNY while he was still at Sandler. After his father found his application the department did something it had done only once in the 141 years since its founding. It made Welles an honorary member.

His father sometimes felt guilt—maybe taking him to the fire department so much when he was a kid was why Welles died. Alison said no: “That gave him the tools to be the fullest person he was that day.”

And we remember these acts of ordinary heroism because we know that we now live in this era of terror and we know it is not going to leave. And we can debate back and forth whether we should have gone into Iraq or dealt with the Middle East differently than we did but we also know that even if things had gone very differently, we would still be in this era of terror.

And we know that we live on the symbolic target for these jihadists and we know that they still long for the celebrity of infamy. Mayor Bloomberg once said, “The whole world is potentially at risk from these guys but every time we pick one of them up, they have a New York City Subway map in their back pocket.”

How do you make a hero out of an ordinary person on an ordinary day?

Darla Stuckey told me that ‘Love casts out fear’.

We’ll let Peggy Noonan at the Wall Street Journal have the last word.

“The way I see it”, she said in yesterday’s paper, “courage comes from love. There’s a big unseen current of love that hums through the world, and some plug into it more than others, more deeply and surely, and they get more power from it. And it fills them with courage. It makes everything possible.

People see the fallen, beat-up world around them and ask: What can I do? Maybe: Be like Welles Crowther. Take your bandanna, change the world.”



[i]Remembering a Hero, 15 Years After 9/11”

‘With this bandanna,’ Welles Crowther said, ‘I’m gonna change the world.’ And he did.

Peggy Noonan’s Op-Ed on September 9th, 2016



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