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Days after Sept. 11, 2001, Paul Veneto knew already what would happen in time.
The enormity of 2,996 lives lost, the tumbling of the New York City skyline, a nation in grief, and a world plunged into dizzying uncertainty had — naturally — overshadowed what had happened on those four planes: what their faithful crews had done before those late summer blue skies slipped to scars of soot and sorrow.
And Veneto knew well.
A flight attendant for United Airlines, Veneto, of Braintree, flew into Boston on his regular route the night before tragedy struck, among the same crew that was aboard that fateful United Airlines Flight 175 scheduled to fly to Los Angeles — the second plane to strike the World Trade Center the following morning, hitting the South Tower at 9:03 a.m.
In all, 33 flight crew members lost their lives that day, including on American Airlines Flight 11, which struck the North Tower; American Airlines Flight 77, which flew into the Pentagon; and United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania after those aboard fought the hijackers that seized the plane and thwarted a planned attack, believed to be targeting the U.S. Capitol building.
“I knew they were not going to be recognized for the heroics that they did,” Veneto, now retired and 62 years old, said over the phone last Friday, calling the four flight crews the “first, first responders” of the terrorist attacks. “And unfortunately, I was right.”
Veneto was calling from Bridgeport, Connecticut, just shy of a week before the 20th anniversary of 9/11/01.
With time’s steady beat again turning the nation’s attention toward those dark hours, Veneto has set out, quite literally, on a journey to shine a light on the lives and actions of his fellow airline professionals who perished that day.
Keeping a grip on an airplane trolley cart and letting the sun and rain splash his face, Veneto has traversed three states by foot since Aug. 21, when he left Logan Airport determined to walk his way, nearly 220 miles, to Ground Zero in lower Manhattan by Sept. 11 in their honor.
“They knew they weren’t coming out of it …. When those pilots are taken out, it was all over,” Veneto said. “But they still stood up against the guys and did what they could out of those conditions: made phone calls, protecting people on that plane, protecting us on the ground, tried to take cockpit back. They did so much.
“As Americans, we’re supposed to recognize their heroics on behalf of their families,” he continued. “So that’s really what this whole mission is” about.
Veneto wishes his one-man memorial happened sooner.
After Sept. 11, 2001, Veneto, who has spent 25 years as a flight attendant across five airlines, plunged into a struggle with opiate addiction.
“That pretty much really pulled me out of any type of equation of trying to get these guys recognized,” he recalled. “I was spiraling down at a slow pace, but every year the anniversary would come up, and it bothered me that they weren’t recognized.”
Each passing anniversary fueled his addiction, too, Veneto said.
But in 2015, there emerged some redemption on that day: Veneto turned sober. And he has waited for the moment when his body and mind could take on the duty he is now faithfully executing.
“This is a total miracle that this happening,” he said. “It really is.”
Last October, Veneto began training for the effort now known as “Paulie’s Push,” an initiative formed with a hellbent desire to grab the national spotlight and make the stories of his colleagues known.
The project is also paying it forward: Half of the donations made to Paulie’s Push are given to “Power Forward,” a non-profit organization founded by Kevin Stevens, the former Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins player, to help support people struggling with addiction. The rest of the money raised benefits crew members’ families and any charitable work they may be engaged in, he said.
Veneto started preparing by walking from Weymouth Landing through Braintree and into Quincy and back. In the spring, he began pushing the cart now at his side.
He needed to know that, if necessary to keep pace, he could push himself to 20 miles in one day.
Most days, he averages over 10 miles. He spends his nights in hotels and motels in whatever city or town he winds up in, with a friend driving ahead of him on the route to make any arrangements needed. Another friend stays close to Veneto and follows along in an RV.
By the time of his phone call with Boston.com from Bridgeport last Friday, he had weathered two major storms, walking through each: the remnants of Hurricane Ida that battered and flooded the Northeast, and Hurricane Henri, which smacked New England the weekend Veneto set out from Boston.
“I went 18 miles in Hurricane Henri — the first day,” Veneto said. “I went 18 miles and that was nothing, to be honest with you. I swear to God.”
With that same honesty, Veneto admitted he actually hasn’t struggled at all during his trip. He finds strength in looking at pictures of his fellow crew members gazing back at him from atop his cart.
“I know that these guys would do it for me,” Veneto said. “I’ve never been so focused in my life on accomplishing something. I swear: I’ve never been so determined and confident about how I’m doing this thing.”
T-shirts, water, and gifts. Police escorts. Handmade signs.
Veneto never expected the reception he has received along the way; the people waiting for him in their towns, ready to cheer him on.
He recalled one woman had breakfast ready for him, but when he hadn’t made it to her in time, she made lunch and then even got something to make for dinner while waiting to see what meal would ultimately correspond with when he strutted into town.
Photos and videos posted on Veneto’s Instagram account show him shaking hands with first responders across New England. On different stretches, Veneto was joined by flight attendants. When he reached the Bronx, a New York City Police Department cruiser paved the way forward.
“I never expected when I started out to get the response I’m getting out here now,” he said.
An online map records and broadcast Veneto’s whereabouts. Followers can receive notifications about his progress, too.
“All I ever wanted really … was national attention because that’s the key to this whole thing,” he said. “These family members, these crew members, are from all over the country and every one of their relatives all over this country should hear it, and they’re going to hear it, finally, that their family member … was a hero on 9/11.”
Veneto hasn’t typically allowed his mind to veer into speculating about the moment of his arrival at Ground Zero. Like his recovery, he takes each day one at a time.
But for a moment, his imagination slipped. He’s looked into the faces of co-workers — the pictures of the crew members affixed to his cart — and knows, somewhere, they’ve been watching him, too, all this time.
“My sisters and brothers saw me struggling for so long and didn’t know if I was going to come out of it,” Veneto said.
He paused and took a breath, trying to release the grip of emotion that clenched his voice.
“I know–,” he said, stopping again. “I know they’re just grateful that … a miracle happened in my life.”
Saturday will mark 20 years since they passed. But so too will the day mark six years since Veneto stepped into sobriety — an almost cosmic aligning of sorts not lost on him.
Veneto left no doubt, as he spoke from Connecticut last week, where he’ll be on that day, no matter what happens next.
“They’re gonna see me roll that cart into Ground Zero on Sept. 11. I can guarantee you that,” he said. “And if it’s not rolling, then I’m carrying it on my back because I’ll be there.”
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