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Untold Stories from the Largest Boat Lift in History

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Jessica DuLong

Published September 12, 2021

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, we might think that we’ve heard all we need to (and then some) about that day. In a nation consumed with mourning more than 650,000 people due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, what does it mean to remember the outpouring of unity and grief that followed the murder of close to 3,000 after passenger-filled planes were piloted as missiles?

Innumerable accounts have combed the depths of the grief, shock, anger, and resilience of that day. They chronicle epic heroism and tiny acts of kindness. But “9/11 fatigue” does a disservice to history. Beyond the jingoistic rhetoric, the market-driven spectacle, the bumper-sticker sloganization of memory, the printed tourist guides and Twin Towers tchotchkes for sale around the site perimeter, lie essential, inspiring, and instructive stories about basic human goodness and the power of collective action. Episodes of pragmatism, resourcefulness, and compassion. Moments of grace and solicitude. Lifesaving efforts born of professional honor. The joining of unlikely hands.

Still, remarkably, some of the most affecting of these stories have gone unheard.

Here’s just one. On the morning of September 11, telecom specialist Rich Varela was working a contract gig on the twelfth floor of 1 World Financial Center, directly across the street from the South Tower. A few minutes into his workday, he looked around the windowless, nearly soundproof “comp data” room humming with servers, telephone switchboards, and other electronics, and noticed that things seemed oddly quiet. There must be a late bell today, he reasoned.

About 15 minutes after he’d sat down at his desk, a “crazy, ridiculous rumble” erupted, and the building did a little shimmy. Maybe it was one of those big 18-wheelers, thought Varela, picturing the thunder created when a large truck rolls over metal plates in the street. He gave a passing thought to his surroundings. If that had been an explosion, from a blown gas line or something, nobody would even know I was in here.