The author of two novels and a collection of short stories, Smokestack Lightning, Stephen O’Connor of Lowell is a past contributor to this blog whose writing in included in History As It Happens: Citizen Bloggers in Lowell, Mass. (2017), a collection of the best of the RichardHowe.com blog in its first ten years.
by Stephen O’Connor
Eighteen years ago today, I was teaching a class at Greater Lowell Tech as a few hundred miles south of us men guided hijacked planes full of innocent people toward targets full of innocent people. When the bell rang and I emerged from my class, Bob Dick, another teacher, was standing by my door, “Do you know what’s happening?”
“What do you mean?”
“The United States is under attack.”
His look told me that he was in earnest, and I knew that those were words he would never speak in jest. He explained quickly what had happened so far, jetliners full of fuel had slammed into the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon; other hijacked planes were unaccounted for. Someone said there was a television on in the cafeteria. I had the next period off, so I ran to the cafeteria and saw black columns of smoke rising miles into the sky above the burning towers. The camera panned in to show people standing in the frames of the blown-out upper windows, driven to those dizzying perches by the scorching heat within. The camera pulled back while the stunned commentators tried to make sense of what was happening, and then, before our eyes, the South Tower crumbled into a pillar of cloud. A CNN reporter said, “There are no words.”
If you were alive in 2001, I don’t need to remind you of all of this. As Americans, as human beings, the scenes of destruction and grief are etched in our memories. Beyond that, there was the way that that day touched so many of us individually. I saw a young colleague in tears. Her brother worked in the Pentagon, and she had not heard from him. The husband of another had been scheduled to be on American Airlines Flight 11. The day before, his boss had decided to send someone else.
The following Sunday, I went to play with the over-40 soccer team from Pepperell, Mass., against Nashua, N.H. Before the game, both teams gathered in a circle at the center of the field for a moment of silence. The brother of one of the Nashua players had been on board one of the hijacked planes. My wife told me that a young man who worked at a gas station on the corner of Fletcher and Pawtucket had also been killed. He used to say hello to her as she walked to her classes at the university. On September 12th, as I entered Greater Lowell Tech, I saw school custodian and former Dracut selectman Doug Willet lowering the flag to half mast. There were tears in his eyes. He had been a personal friend of pilot John Ogonowski.
My sister in law, Maria Elena Ortiz, had a nephew named Danny Correa. He was born in Colombia, but came to this country as a child, and grew up in Union City, New Jersey. At the age of 25, he had realized the American dream. He was near completion of a degree in accounting earned while working as a manger in a Loews Theater in Secaucus. He applied for a job in the accounting department of an insurance firm, and was hired. His office was on the 98th floor of the World Trade Center. “It’s like working in the clouds,” he told his aunt, “I feel like I’m in heaven.”
His father dropped him at the PATH train station at 7:45 a.m. that Tuesday morning. Several hours later, his father and mother were wandering the streets of New York, checking the armory, Red Cross stations, hospitals, part of an army of helpless people searching for loved ones. But like so many of those whose destiny it was to be in the towers that day, Danny Correa was never seen again. His mother Marina fell gravely ill and spent some time in the hospital. The inexplicable tragedy of that day eventually tore her marriage asunder.
Danny Correa had formed a garage band called Lucid A. He played guitar, drums, keyboards, and horns. He was also the band’s songwriter and lyricist. In a song called “London Kills Me,” the young immigrant had written, “London kills me in the morn. New York saves me by the dawn.” He had become a true New Yorker. Looking out from his office window on the 98th floor of the World Trade Center, he wrote to a friend, “I dance in the clouds, and soak in the haze.”
They say that the hijackers who murdered thousands that day believed they would go to heaven. I don’t think so, but as for Danny Correa, he was already there.