Last week in this space, retired firefighter John Finucane put forward a proposal for a separate memorial at Ground Zero for the firefighters who died on Sept. 11. Perhaps not surprisingly, the idea is winning support from a good many firefighters and their families … and their survivors. The sacrifice of the FDNY on that day was unprecedented, and the image of heroic firefighters racing into those wounded towers remains burned into our collective memory.
Not everybody, however, agrees that the firefighters should be singled out for their own memorial. Some people, in fact, believe that a separate tribute to the FDNY would unintentionally distort the enormity of that atrocity and perhaps unwittingly overshadow the memory of civilians who died in that act of barbarism.
Unfortunately, it would seem that both sides are doomed to collide unless either somebody backs down or some sort of compromise is reached. Based on the amount of e-mail and telephone calls last week’s column inspired, it’s clear that emotions are intense on both sides. One woman who lost her firefighting son confessed that she is sickened by the idea that her son’s sacrifice would not receive separate recognition in the proposed memorial. Another correspondent complained that those who advocated a firefighters’ memorial are “ignorant”-not the best choice of words, but certainly indicative of the tone of the emerging debate.
I spoke with several family members of office workers who died in the towers, and while they were unstinting in their praise of the FDNY, the Police Department, the Port Authority police and the emergency medical workers, they passionately believe that all the victims should be remembered in a single memorial. Michael Cartier, 26, of Astoria, Queens, lost his brother on 9/11 and nearly lost his sister, who also worked at the World Trade Center towers and barely made it to safety before the south tower collapsed. “This is a tough one emotionally,” Mr. Cartier said. “But we believe there has to be a universal memorial, one that transcends ethnicity, cultural and other differences.”
Kevin Duffy, a family advocate in New Jersey, agreed. Mr. Duffy is one of many social-service workers who has been helping the families of 9/11 victims in New Jersey deal with paperwork and obtain access to social-service resources. “We understand the courage and sacrifice of the firefighters,” Mr. Duffy said. “We’re not taking away from that. But when you look at the list of victims and you see how many companies they represented, how many different walks of life, it becomes difficult to single out any one group. I think it’s a slippery slope: If the firefighters have a memorial, what about the New York police, the Port Authority police, the E.M.T.’s? And what about Cantor Fitzgerald, which lost 658 people who were doing their jobs? Suddenly you have a memorial site with 75 different memorials. Everyone who was murdered that day was heroic in the sense that all were doing their jobs and providing for their families.”
Mr. Cartier and his sister, Marie Ganrieri-Cartier, pointed out that many of the civilian victims were heroes, too, dying because they stopped to help a friend, a colleague or a stranger. “We know some of those stories, but we’ll never know all of them,” Mr. Cartier said. “There was a collective motivation on everybody’s part to save as many lives as possible.” Ms. Ganrieri-Cartier added that “splintering their sacrifice” into separate memorials would be neither just nor historically accurate. All those lives, she said, “were lost equally.”
Mr. Cartier admitted that the proposed firefighters’ memorial “is causing a stir,” which he regrets. Still, he maintains that the memorial should be “universal.”
There may be room for a quiet compromise before this debate becomes too public and, frankly, too unseemly. Mr. Duffy, for example, supports the firefighters’ belief that the names of the FDNY’s victims include their rank, which would certainly distinguish them on any proposed memorial. And perhaps the very coming together of so many walks of life in one terrible event may inspire a piece of art that would include a representation of heroic firefighters, rescue workers and civilians alike.
What is undeniable, and what the civilian family members contend with great passion, is that the atrocity of Sept. 11 was aimed at all Americans. The terrorists made no distinctions between civilian and uniformed workers. In the end, the victims died together.
I believe there is room to satisfy both views. Surely, there should be some recognition of the uniformed personnel who became symbols of heroism and sacrifice in this terrible new world. Just as surely, civilians and rescue workers died together-slain not because of what they did, but because of what they stood for and who they were.
It would do little to honor their memory if this disagreement became-as it very well could-a contest of grief and sacrifice.