OPINION: The enduring legacy of 9/11

By Lorraine Connelly

It’s been 21 years since the 9/11 attacks.  Many of us can still pinpoint exactly where we were when al-Qaida terrorists carried out coordinated suicide attacks against the World Trade Center. Within three hours, two of New York’s tallest buildings had collapsed, and the Pentagon was on fire in a third attack.  

I was in my office in the Communications Department at Choate Rosemary Hall, watching the horrific events unfold on T.V. Our immediate concern was comforting our students who were told of the attack, later that morning, at a hastily called school meeting.

The school year had barely begun, yet the weight of the crisis was now on shoulders of our rising seniors. Much like the Covid pandemic impacted the Class of 2020, the 9/11 attacks temporarily suspended thoughts for the future. College admissions and the senior prom were no longer top priorities in a world turned upside down.

One member of the Class of 2002, a former class president and Jordanian citizen living in Saudi Arabia, was suddenly grappling with the fact that the world was now holding his fellow countrymen responsible for these heinous acts. After the initial shock of the attacks had been absorbed, one of the recommendations of Choate’s Student Council was to ask a NYC firefighter to deliver that year’s Commencement address. For a school noted for inviting famous politicians, poets, and personalities to address graduating seniors, this would be a first.

The Communications Office worked closely with the Head of School and extended an invitation to firefighter James Hanlon of NYC’s Engine 7 Ladder 1 Company.  Hanlon grew up in the Bronx and dropped out of three colleges before deciding, at age 21, to pursue a career in acting. He studied at the Stella Adler Academy of Acting and over the next several years performed in more than 25 plays regionally and in New York City. Yet Hanlon realized he couldn’t make a living as an actor. His brother and a close friend urged him to “Become a fireman. It’s a great backup plan.” He took the test, passed it, and became a NYC firefighter at age 26.

But Hanlon never quite gave up his passion for acting and filmmaking. After eight years at the fire station, he was approached by two French filmmakers, acquaintances of his wife, about making a documentary about a day in the life of a “probie,” a probationary firefighter. He got permission from the NYC Fire Department for the project.

On the morning of September 11, Engine 7 Ladder 1 Company, located on Duane Street in Lower Manhattan, was called out for a reported gas leak. The tag-along filmmakers recorded what was to become one of only three known recordings of the first plane, American Airlines Flight 11, hitting the World Trade Center’s north tower, and the only footage captured inside the towers.

Hanlon continued to film fellow firefighters’ reactions to what they experienced. The filming captured the terror and remarkable resilience of first responders for the CBS documentary “9/11.” Hanlon earned credits as director/producer/cinematographer and received an Emmy Award, Edward R. Murrow Award, and George Foster Peabody Award. The film has become one of the most watched television documentaries of all time. If there is an opportunity to watch it Sunday, one should certainly tune in.

Said Hanlon of the film, “We wanted this document of history to not only share the truth but also to share with the world how ordinary people rose up and showed courage and bravery under horrific circumstances. In the end it would also be a tribute to all those whose lost their lives that day.”

He advised graduates at Commencement, “You will find yourselves sometimes in life struggling under strenuous circumstances, how you react and persevere will determine your results. It will also build your character.”

For those old enough to remember, the memory of 9/11 is indelible. Yet an ever-growing number of Americans have no recollection of that day; they were either too young or not yet born. Today’s high school seniors, born in 2004, have little context for the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in this country, the military mission in Afghanistan, or the post-Patriot Act controversy that the federal government had constricted civil liberties in response to terrorism.

We cannot let the significance of 9/11 become a faded memory. And we cannot forget the character lessons it taught. It was a day of terror, yes, but one of hope, when “ordinary people rose up” and showed inordinate courage, bravery, and self-sacrifice.

Lorraine Connelly is writer and longtime Wallingford resident.

[Hanlon, a decorated FDNY firefighter, retired in 2007. He went back to school and earned a degree from UCLA’s Film Directing Program.]


More From This Section