September 11th, 2001
By Tom O'Connor, Treasurer
(For the past few years, this article has avoided using “I” or “me”. This month, I couldn’t think of anything to write without “I” or “me”.)

My birthday, September 11th, started out as my average day…my twin sons woke up at five a.m., pestered my wife for food, and then were promptly dumped on me and told to leave the room. During their morning ritual of pulling out my chest hair, bashing my head with blocks and finding electrical cords to chew on, I received “the call.” It was my mother in New York, calling to wish me a Happy Birthday, or so I thought…

My mother was frantically telling me to turn on the TV, that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I brushed her off a bit, thinking it was only a Cessna or some other small plane. When I had to remind her

it was my birthday, I knew something was very wrong.

Turning on the TV only brought home the true scope of what was happening, especially when I saw the second plane slam into the other Tower. I quickly threw some crackers on the floor to keep my kids busy and turned up the volume. Like the rest of America, I was in absolute shock. This was a terrorist attack on our nation, and as the drama unfolded, it only seemed to get worse and worse. But as the drama unfolded for me, and as the fires got bigger and bigger, there was only one thing I could think of…my cousin Sean is a New York firefighter.

Sean and I were born one year apart, our mothers identical twins, and we have been the best of friends since before I can remember. We spent all of our time together, with Sean spending time in “the country” at my family’s house, and I would be shipped off to Queens to spend time at his house. It was always the perfect vacation from school.

As we grew up, we both had similar interests. We played football and hockey, ran track and then discovered surfing. As soon as I got my driver’s license, we practically lived in my Chevy Nova, searching for waves every spring, summer and fall. We both became bartenders to pay our way through college, and we both rowed on the crew teams for our schools. It seemed we were living parallel lives, with just too many miles always between us.

On September 11th, Sean was working.

I called home again and found out that the last Sean’s wife had heard from him, he was heading into Manhattan from Brooklyn, and he was going to the fires.

When the first Tower fell, I thought I was seeing things…when the second Tower fell, all I could think of was Sean…

When we both became young men, we drifted in and out of jobs we never really liked, until we became firemen. Sean became a fireman in New York, and I was fortunate enough to become one here in San Francisco.

Every year we would meet during the summers and major holidays, but we made sure to always meet every year during St. Patrick’s Day in New York. Sean would march with his buddies in the New York Fire Department, and I would march with my father and sister Kate. After the parade we would all end up together at some watering hole and have a great time. It was my favorite holiday.

I kept trying to call New York, but all circuits were either busy or there was no dial tone. The television kept showing the collapse and the screams over and over. Then there was the footage of firemen hugging after escaping the dust cloud. Then there was the worst footage of all, stunned firefighters in the rubble with the sound of PASS alarms going off everywhere. Somewhere in all that rubble, were a lot of missing, and presumably, dead firemen.

I couldn’t watch anymore TV.

I headed into the Union office for some meetings and contract negotiations. It was a welcome distraction, although I still tried to call home every twenty minutes. At this point, there was no longer even a dial tone from New York.

Sean and I both found our brides at about the same time, and we scheduled our weddings one week apart so that all of our family members could attend both. We both were fortunate enough to have two healthy sons each, and our lives were great. The only thing missing though, was time spent together. Between the kids and our jobs and the distance between us, we hardly saw each other anymore. We always brushed it off, agreeing that next holiday we’ll make more time for each other…with the Towers collapse, I kept hoping there would be a next holiday….

Hours went by and still there was no answer from New York. Sean was at the World Trade Center and that was all my parents knew. This was the worst birthday of my life…

The rest of the day’s meetings were cancelled and some time spent with my kids didn’t really distract me from what was happening on the other side of the country. My wife and I decided to go out for a birthday drink, and stuff the kids full of food before bed. Even this proved as no distraction, the attack was the topic on everyone’s mind, and that was all anyone talked about.

We drove home on a beautiful summer night and said not a word to each other. We carried our kids up the stairs and put them to bed, happy that our little family was safe, and happy that the boys didn’t have a clue as to what had happened today. We had another drink, and watched the news. It only seemed worse. Thousands were feared dead, and the number of firemen missing was only growing…

Sean and I both loved being firemen. The job was exciting, the pay was decent, and the reward of helping others was beyond compare. We both had finally found the right job. The last time I had talked to Sean he was studying for the lieutenant’s exam, with high hopes of moving up. Sean was never a very “bookish” student, but when he put his mind toward something, he usually got it. I kept wondering when our department would have a promotional exam…

Late at night, I realized I hadn’t checked our answering machine, so I walked upstairs and pressed play. There on the machine was my Mom’s voice, telling me that Sean was okay, he had called home and told his wife not to worry. He had lost so many friends he couldn’t even count them, and he was hard at work at “Ground Zero”, trying to dig up his fallen comrades. I couldn’t even imagine what he was going through, but I was happy that he was alive and well.

So that night, on my 35th birthday, I did something I don’t do often enough…I said some prayers. I prayed for all the missing, I prayed for the dead, and I thanked God that my cousin Sean was spared. And while thousands of people lay buried under rubble, and thousands of people were going through the nightmare of losing loved ones, I went to bed with a guilty smile on my face.

On my 35th birthday, the worst one I have ever had, I got the best gift I ever received…on my 35th birthday, I got to keep my cousin Sean.

I felt like the luckiest person in the world…


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