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9/11: 10 YEARS ON

Up from the ashes

Ten years later, and that day remains brilliantly lit yet deep in shadows, its meaning a work in progress - for the nation, for the world, and for each of us

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By Brian McGrory
Globe Staff / September 11, 2011

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Last in an eight-part series.

They are moments that were never meant to be memories, fleeting bits of life trapped in time.

For Blake Allison, it was the phone call as he drove through the Prudential Center tunnel on the way to his Norwood office. He and his wife, Anna, had lingered at Logan Airport until time pushed them on their separate ways - her on a business trip to Los Angeles, him to make an important presentation at work. She called from the tarmac with a favorite phrase. “Just keep me in your pocket,’’ she said.

Kathy Giuggio glided down the Southeast Expressway toward her office in downtown Boston thinking that U2 got it exactly right. “Beautiful Day’’ was playing on her car stereo. The sun glittered on the skyscrapers and splashed on Dorchester Bay. Her week was to end in Bermuda, at the wedding of two colleagues from the Cantor Fitzgerald investment firm - a beautiful day, indeed.

In the kitchen of their quaint house set back from a country road in Easton, Conn., Lee and Eunice Hanson reminisced about the days when their young son, Peter, accompanied them all around the globe. That morning, in Boston, Peter and his wife, Sue, would take their 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Christine, on her first flight, a trip to California, and her proud grandparents waxed about the rhythms and cycles of life.

The list goes on, indefinitely so. Rudy Giuliani, at the tail end of his career in public service, sat at the Peninsula Hotel in midtown Manhattan dispensing advice over breakfast to an aspiring politician mulling a run for governor of California.

Tom Kinton, the aviation director at Massport, checked in with Logan from a conference in Montreal. Everything’s fine, they told him. We’ll see you tomorrow.

Then all semblance of normalcy was gone. It is a story Americans know by heart, but still struggle to define, a story that must be told and told again.

And so: At 8:46 a.m. on a Tuesday morning exactly 10 years ago, American Airlines Flight 11 bound from Boston to Los Angeles, a wide-body 767 carrying 11 crew members and 81 passengers (including Anna Allison) with hijackers at the controls, slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, striking the 93d to the 99th floors of the 110-story building.

At the Peninsula, a member of Giuliani’s security detail whispered to a mayoral aide that a twin-engine plane had hit one of the towers.

Kinton, hearing murmurings ripple through the Montreal exhibit hall, called the Logan command center. “All hell is breaking loose,’’ he was told.

A colleague in Norwood mentioned to Allison that a plane had just hit the World Trade Center, though he was confused whether it was the waterfront exhibit hall in Boston or the office complex in Manhattan.

At Cantor Fitzgerald’s Boston office, an unusual question floated eerily over the intercom speakers that link the company’s far-flung trading desks: “Hey New York, are you guys OK?’’

The telephone rang at the Hanson house with Peter on the other end of the line. He calmly told his father that his flight had been hijacked, that the hijackers had knives, that he should call authorities. When Lee Hanson alerted the local police, a helpless dispatcher told him to turn on CNN.

The Hansons were staring wide-eyed at the news when Peter called a second time to say he thought they were hurtling toward a building. Lee heard someone scream in the background. He heard Peter say “Oh my God,’’ softly, three times. And then he heard nothing at all.

At 9:03 a.m., United Airlines Flight 175 bound from Boston to Los Angeles, another hijacked Boeing 767, this one carrying nine crew members and 56 passengers (including Peter, Sue, and Christine Hanson), crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. The hijacker had banked before impact, creating a burning gash from the 77th to the 85th floors.

The Hansons watched it on live TV, watched their son, their daughter-in-law, and their granddaughter die. Eunice Hanson screamed. She longed to reach into the screen, inside the tower, and set the plane free into the clear September sky.

At 9:37 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77, a hijacked Boeing 757 carrying 58 passengers and six crew members from Washington Dulles to Los Angeles, plowed into the Pentagon, killing everyone on board and another 125 military officers and civilian personnel on the ground. Just 22 minutes later, at 9:59 a.m., the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed, creating what the 9/11 Commission report would later describe as a “ferocious windstorm’’ and a “massive debris cloud.’’

About four minutes after that, United Flight 93, a hijacked 757 bound from Newark to San Francisco with seven crew members and 37 passengers, nosedived into a barren field in Shanksville, Pa., after passengers rose up against the hijackers and thwarted their plans. At 10:28 a.m., the North Tower crumbled and fell, killing everyone who had been trapped on the highest floors, where the Cantor Fitzgerald offices were located.

And that was it - a brilliant, despicable plot. In the plume of ash and the twist of metal, it seemed obvious that nothing would ever be the same. Not obvious at all, though, was how the world, this country, and so many individual lives would change.

. . .

If you stood in Lower Manhattan in those mournful days of mid-September as ironworkers labored beneath a hauntingly blue sky, if you watched George W. Bush vow justice from the rubble, if you marveled that the Pentagon got rebuilt in what seemed like the blink of an eye, if you witnessed politicians of every stripe and station rally around their president during his pitch-perfect address one remarkable Thursday night, if you saw the flags waving and the candles flickering, heard the patriotic songs playing and the bells tolling, if you saw the depths of sadness and the hints of promise, you could have never possibly imagined where America would be a slim decade after the Sept. 11 attacks.

One commentator at the time proclaimed the end of irony. Many analysts said the nation had entered an age of unity. Others said we were amid an era of unprecedented vulnerability. Suicide attacks would become common. Air travel itself would lose its luster. City life would never be the same. The nation would become a sad, serious, safety-obsessed place.

None of that happened. But so much else did.

America a decade after Sept. 11 is a place with many more jagged edges than smooth finishes, a country where events don’t fit neatly into compartments, where wars don’t have clean endings, where there is no unifying theme, where the healing has been uneven at best, especially among those most directly involved.

It is a place where the past is at once painfully fresh but increasingly distant, the memories of those more innocent days carried around like souvenirs.

It has been a dizzying, exhausting decade: There was a recession, in 2001 and 2002, most notable for how quickly the nation overcame it. And then another, five years later, which took us to the brink. There are the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - long, costly conflicts that linger. The military actions have claimed the lives of 6,229 troops and Defense Department civilians and have left military hospitals crammed with soldiers whose lives will never again be the same.

The wars have been fed by record numbers of reservists and National Guard troops who have been sent abroad not just for single tours, but sometimes to return again and again and again, commitments that often led to personal, professional, and financial strife back home. There have been 116 soldiers from Massachusetts killed in the two wars.

There is the price tag for the wars, $2 trillion and rising, by reliable estimates, every dollar borrowed and all of it weighing on the national debt. There is the fact that the country has already spent $200 billion on interest alone, according to Linda Bilmes, the Harvard professor and coauthor of the book “The Three Trillion Dollar War,’’ a far cry from the early government projections of $50 billion to $60 billion to cover both wars, all in. There is the spike in oil prices, from $23 a barrel before Sept. 11 to $144 in 2008, to roughly $88 a barrel last month.

There was the 2004 election, a brutal affair in which a wartime president won by the slimmest of margins against a Democratic challenger, Senator John F. Kerry, bedeviled by his vote in support of military action in Iraq.

There has been a long stretch of safety and security in the homeland, which few would have predicted 10 years ago today. There have been no successful, broadscale attacks on American civilians since Sept. 11, but a dozen soldiers and one civilian died in the 2009 Ford Hood shootings in Texas, allegedly at the hands of a homegrown terrorist. Two other plots were thwarted with no small amount of luck - the attempted Christmas Day 2009 airliner bombing over Detroit, and the attempted Times Square car bombing in 2010.

“You and I have wristwatches; the terrorists have time,’’ Tom Ridge, the nation’s first homeland security secretary, said on the telephone recently. “That’s the scary difference.’’

There are words, notions, places, concepts, that have entered the American lexicon: waterboarding, Guantanamo, the Patriot Act, IED, traumatic brain injury, dirty bombs, anthrax, Abu Ghraib, the weapons of mass destruction that didn’t actually exist.

Those are the effects that can be counted and cursed, mulled and mourned. But beyond that has been something harder to pin down, but no less palpable.

The attacks came on our own soil, using our own planes, which were carrying our own people. The twin strikes on the World Trade Center towers, and their devastating impact, unfolded on national television, the sickening yet riveting images burned in, indelibly. The second attack, on the South Tower, followed by the two collapses, was watched in real time by speechless anchormen and shell-shocked viewers. In one horrific morning, America’s sense of invulnerability and unquestioned authority had given way to something that didn’t feel like us at all: a new era of uncertainty.

“There’s all this doubt stuff,’’ said David Hastings, president of the Massachusetts 9/11 Fund and an official with Harvard University’s School of Public Health. “Do we trust each other, the person next to you on the plane? We get inspections, are they enough, do we trust the inspectors, do we know who our enemies are? They hate us, but you can’t grab them and meet with the leader and say, ‘What can we do to stop it?’

“It’s all become so unknown, and this planet doesn’t do well with the unknown,’’ he added. “We want to blow it up or cut it out or quantify it. But you can’t.’’

Added Ridge: “9/11 did not make us more vulnerable, but it is indisputable that it gave us a greater sense of our own vulnerability. . . . It is the new norm.’’

In that new norm, there was something that not many analysts could have predicted after the show of nonpartisanship and unity in those hours, days, and weeks after the attacks - the deep, unyielding political divisions that have come to define American politics in the post-Sept. 11 era. That divide had already begun to open, certainly, in the contested 2000 presidential election and the Supreme Court ruling that decided it. But what the nation has seen this past decade is something entirely different.

Kerry leaned forward in a wing chair in his high-ceilinged Senate office on Capitol Hill one recent morning, elbows on knees, and talked with deep frustration about how it all came apart. Arguably no politician in the nation saw his career so dramatically whipsawed by Sept. 11, coming so close - the electoral votes of any one swing state would have done it - to defeating Bush, in a campaign that will be remembered for its harsh tone.

“America had this stunning moment of unity where people really were one, the most united I remember this nation in my life, save when Jack Kennedy was killed,’’ Kerry said. “There was no partisanship when the president came to talk to Congress. People felt a common insult to our nation.

“Then it got switched into a partisan, ideological place,’’ he said. “We are a different place. The psychology of war and terror, what it has done to America, is enormous.’’

. . .

In the tens of millions of words that have been written about Sept. 11, the hundreds of thousands of hours of airtime, the movies, the books, the documentaries, the reports, there are very few stories that have never been told. Mark Falzone and Kathy Giuggio sat in the downtown Boston office of Cantor Fitzgerald as the 10th anniversary approached and shared a particularly chilling one.

They are senior equity traders, in constant contact with colleagues at the company’s headquarters in New York - so constant that there is an intercom system to provide a continuous, open link among traders. They are so close that they attend each other’s weddings. They dine together regularly. They constantly joke, laughing at even the ones that aren’t that funny.

On Sept. 11, Falzone and Giuggio listened to their colleagues living out the last frightening moments of their lives, as 658 Cantor workers in the North Tower died. Over the last decade, they’ve slowly come to terms with it all, their initial shock and sadness gradually colored by a basic, human characteristic: the determination to overcome. All they’ve had to lean on was each other - and time.

“A man in New York came on and said, ‘We’ve been hit by a plane,’ ’’ said Giuggio. “We figured it was a little Piper that bounced off the building or something. There wasn’t any panic at that time. Then a guy came on and said, ‘We’ve got to evacuate.’ ’’

In their office high above the Financial District, Giuggio, Falzone, and the other traders gazed at the banks of TVs above their desks, at the black cloud billowing from the World Trade Center.

At the Cantor office in New York, the workers quickly realized an evacuation wasn’t possible. The hijacked American Airlines flight had sliced through the North Tower, just beneath them, cutting off all staircases and elevators, severing them from the rest of the building. The doors to Windows on the World, the famous restaurant above them, were apparently locked. They had no place to go.

As the anxious Boston traders gathered around the TVs, they heard sounds from the intercom - commotion, screams, muffled cries for help - their New York colleagues, gasping for air, looking for a way out, holding out hope.

“We’re yelling that help is on the way,’’ said Giuggio. “We’re trying. A woman from another office was good. She said we’ve called all the authorities. They were . . . trying to breathe, trying to get windows to open.’’

Despite the words of encouragement, the Boston traders could do little more than helplessly eavesdrop on the chaos and tragedy. The workers in Boston rushed home to tend to their families moments before the North Tower collapsed.

The next day, it didn’t matter that the markets were closed. It didn’t matter that the world itself seemed to freeze in place. Virtually every member of the Boston desk showed up at work. Where else were they supposed to go? They called hospitals. They watched newscasts looking for familiar faces. They handled inquiries from the relatives of the missing, because there was no New York office for families to call.

It wasn’t until the next day that they accepted the truth that the vast bulk of the New York office had died. No company, no government agency, suffered more in the Sept. 11 attacks.

“We lost everyone in New York, unless you were playing hooky or playing golf,’’ said Falzone. “One guy was bringing a visitor up at the time. His assistant was pregnant, so he said he’d go down and get them. Another guy was on the elevator. The chairman of the company wasn’t there because he dropped his kid off at the first day of school.’’

When the markets finally opened the following week, and Cantor chief executive Howard Lutnick vowed to give 25 percent of all profits for the near future to the victims’ families, the Boston office arrived at work with a vengeance.

“That was the rallying cry: Let’s give it a shot and make some money and give it to the people who need it,’’ said Falzone. The phone rang off the hook with orders from clients who wanted to help.

Over the next couple of weeks, Falzone and Giuggio attended memorial services in and around New York, sometimes three in a day. Giuggio allowed herself to cry only in the car, not at home in front of her children or at work with her colleagues. The tears flowed for many months.

The company, inevitably, started to hire, at a clip of 25 people a week. Business, like life, carries on, but the traders in the Boston office were having a hard time accepting their new colleagues in New York. There was no easy rapport, none of the old jokes, and every exchange, each conversation, reminded them of what and who they no longer had.

But the president was right when he told the country a week after Sept. 11, “Even grief recedes with time and grace.’’ Gradually, the Boston traders grew more accepting. “I thought how hard must it be for the new people,’’ Falzone said.

Now, they said, is a new normal. “It will never be the same,’’ Giuggio said. “But we still have fun. You have to move on. You have no choice.’’

. . .

Rudy Giuliani, the voice and face of New York during the hours, days, and months after the attacks, was on the phone recently offering something of a confession.

Conventional wisdom at the time was that cities, especially New York, would lose a lot of their appeal. Skyscrapers would sit vacant. Nondescript suburban office parks would become the way. Instead, New York grew in population. Real estate prices boomed until the housing market collapse, which had nothing to do with Sept. 11. Boston grew as well.

“I said I wanted New York City to emerge stronger from this,’’ Giuliani said. “I believed it, but I guess half of it was hope. The first couple of days, I was really concerned. It was hard to get people out of their houses.

“But very quickly, they recovered,’’ he said. “We have a stronger city than before. It’s bigger. Our unemployment problem has not been as bad as the rest of the country. Our deficit has not been as bad. The city decided it would rally.’’

As New York went, so did America.

“People were saying things like life would never be the same,’’ said Claude Fischer, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley. “The striking thing, setting aside the small percentage of families affected by military service, is how resilient and robust are American lives. It didn’t take that long.’’

That word, resilient, has emerged as a theme among those who have tried to fathom the impact of Sept. 11. Tom Ridge used it: “After 10 years, we are undeniably resilient. We are a tough country.’’ Senator Scott Brown used it during an interview in his Capitol Hill office one summer morning: “We’re a resilient society.’’

And Ken Feinberg used it. Beyond those directly affected, few have confronted the depths of Sept. 11 despair as intimately as Feinberg, the Brockton-bred attorney and mediator who was in charge of distributing money from the federally funded September 11 Victim Compensation Fund.

He personally met with more than 1,500 family members of the deceased, heard their stories, looked at their photo albums, viewed old tapes of weddings or award ceremonies. As he sat in his sun-splashed office one steamy Washington morning, he talked in his typically stentorian tone about how the victims are scarred. But over the three years of meeting with them day after day, month after month, he learned something else. “You learn that people are resilient,’’ he said. “People have moved on. Ten years later, it’s history. It’s not current events anymore.’’

In the Midwest, at the University of Chicago, officials at the highly respected National Opinion Research Center inserted several key questions to measure what they assumed would be a spike in distrust after the attacks. They asked, specifically, are most people trustworthy, helpful, and fair?

“We assumed a rise in misanthropy, and that there would be a big drop in trust,’’ said Tom Smith, a senior fellow and director. But the sociologists who interpreted the results were floored. In the months after Sept. 11, the sense of trust increased.

“The reason was that rather than focus on the 19 terrorists who carried out the attacks, they focused on the first responders, and the solidarity, and national pride of people in general,’’ Smith said. “People’s assessment of fellow people went up on 9/11.’’

Likewise, in early 2002, the research center again asked a question that the organization includes in yearly surveys: How happy is your life? The smart money was that Sept. 11, combined with fears of more bombings, would have a deep impact. The smart money was again wrong. It didn’t change from the year, or the decade, before.

There are no studies on laughter and Sept. 11, but there are students of it, and Tony Viveiros, a Boston-based comedian with a faithful and growing following, is a particularly insightful one. Tony V, as he is called, happened to be in New York on Sept. 10, performing at a gala event hosted by Bon Appetit magazine at the famous restaurant Le Cirque, a night that should have been, for all the best reasons, one of the most memorable of his life.

In the months that followed, the only reason the phone rang was with a cancellation. “Humor really had taken a hit,’’ Viveiros said. “Corporate shows went belly up, and private shows went belly up. There were times you were barely eking it out.’’

It wasn’t until 2003, when Viveiros was performing at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, that he finally sensed something different. The hall was packed. The audience was laughing harder and more often than any audience had in a long time. Even the air somehow felt lighter.

“I’ve never seen a crowd like this in my life,’’ Viveiros recalled. “People want to laugh. People want to live. And that is what comes back. You go from saying, ‘We never want to laugh again,’ to realizing it’s just what you do.’’

Laugh. Or cry. It’s what people do.

. . .

Blake Allison sat on a high stool in the front window of a Concord, N.H., pub one summer afternoon and told not one love story, but two.

The first: He managed a wine shop in Cambridge, and an outgoing woman named Anna Williams became a regular customer. She began showing up in his wine tasting classes, always asking interesting questions. When the store was damaged in a fire, she sent him a note suggesting they get together for dinner the following Tuesday, which they both came to realize was Valentine’s Day. Anna announced to her mother after dinner that she had met the man she would marry.

Marry, they did, seven years later, in 1991. They bought a house in Stoneham where Anna would walk onto the back deck overlooking her gardens, stretch her arms wide, and proclaim, “Isn’t it beautiful, sweetie pie?’’ Blake worked for a wine distributor. Anna launched her own software consulting practice. She published a major article in a trade paper, was lauded at a key symposium, and signed up a marquee client, Toyota. They traveled through the vineyards of Europe and vacationed every summer in Vinalhaven, Maine.

“We were at a happy place in our lives,’’ said Blake, a 61-year-old with a thoughtful demeanor and a boyish face. “We were with the person we were supposed to be with.’’

And then he saw the images of the smoke billowing from the World Trade Center that morning in the conference room of his office and, as he learned it was a jet bound for Los Angeles, proclaimed to no one in particular, “My God, it’s my wife’s plane.’’

What followed were tear-drenched questions, constantly asked in the depths of his mind: Why? Why Anna, why her plane, why did they want to kill us?

The second: In November 2002, Blake got a call from the wife of a work friend telling him that her husband, Lewis, had just died of a massive heart attack while driving from Long Island to New Hampshire. Hanging up, Blake told her to call him if he could ever be of any help.

A couple of months later, around Christmas, Nancy Itkin did call. She knew Blake was going to be alone for the holidays and asked him to please come to her house in New Hampshire for dinner. “She insisted,’’ Blake recalled, “so I drove up.’’

There was a snowstorm, hours of conversation about their respective losses and grief. By March, they were regularly seeing each other. In 2005, they were married.

“Nancy has said that in many ways, we were fated to be together,’’ Blake said softly, sipping his iced tea. “That’s difficult to take in. On Sept. 10, I thought I was with my life’s partner. Now, here we are with so much in common. It does feel like fate.’’

He added, “Neither of us walks around the house trying to get rid of the vestiges of the other’s past. We let each other have our history.’’

“If we want to keep Anna’s memory alive, we need to not look for the living among the dead. Go forward. We need to go forward.’’

Every family member moves at a different speed, with life sometimes presenting different obstacles, even 10 years out. Cindy McGinty, then of Foxborough, now of Connecticut, remembers well how her husband, Mike, used to stride into their house after work, exclaiming in an exaggerated tone, “Where’s my dinner?’’ Her older boy, Daniel, would break out into peals of laughter every single time.

“The whole presence of the house would change when Mike walked through the back door,’’ she said.

Mike McGinty was killed in his office at Marsh & McLennan on the 99th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. He and Daniel looked alike. They talked alike. They had the same mannerisms. “The person who could have helped him through this crisis is the one who died,’’ she said.

Daniel descended into a dark place. His grades suffered, he fought with his brother, he had difficulty getting along with others. But Cindy successfully battled back with private schooling, extra tutoring, and constant attention. This year, Daniel goes off to college, an unmitigated success story. But now it’s his brother feeling the delayed effects.

“People look at you 10 years later and say, ‘Aren’t you over that?’ ’’ she said. “Well, no, not really.’’

Still, she is asked whether there is anyone new in her life, romantically, and she laughs as she tells about reconnecting with an old high school classmate on Facebook.

“It’s comfortable,’’ she said. “I know where they come from. . . . It’s real life, which I kind of need - someone who understands me and where I come from and the steamer trunk of baggage that comes with me.’’

Finally, there are the Hansons, Lee and Eunice, kind and thoughtful, two of the nicest people anyone could ever want to meet. It is odd how many people directly touched by Sept. 11 seem to be like that.

Ten years later, and the Hansons wear the loss of Peter, Sue, and Christine all over their faces. It is felt in every room of their quiet house, where pictures of the dead smile from so many walls.

Lee holds tight to the memory of his unannounced visit to their Groton house the Thursday before the attacks. Peter was doing what he so often did, which was landscaping his yard, bit by bit. Lee read a story to Christine, and when he was about to leave, he told her he loved her. She did a dance, a happy dance, with her little arms spread high and wide. “I grabbed her and lifted her up,’’ he said.

Eunice tells of how her free-spirited son would call her as she worked for the town’s conservation commission. He would disguise his voice and say he wanted to build next to a pond on his property. Eunice would suggest he needed permits. He would snap, “It’s my land.’’ Just as she was about to argue, she’d get it, exclaiming, “Oh, Peter!’’

She tells another story, too, of her and Lee, filled with grief, visiting Peter and Sue’s house not long after their deaths. It was immaculate, everything where it belonged. They roamed tentatively from place to place until they walked into the playroom, where they came across something that caused their hearts to fall even further: All of Christine’s favorite dolls sitting around a table that had been set for afternoon tea. They walked into Christine’s bedroom and found her favorite stuffed bunny tucked beneath the covers, just as she had left it, awaiting her return.

“I have no more dreams about the life we would have shared, about seeing Christine grow up,’’ said Eunice. “We were so blessed, and it was all shattered.’’

Without dreams, they have only memories, memories of tragedy, memories before tragedy, memories that have yet to fade with time.

Brian McGrory can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.