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9/11: One Year
Out of loss, a struggle for meaning
On that catastrophic day, when chance separated those who lived from those lost, Americans began searching for explanations. Those most deeply wounded by Sept. 11 speak with the authority of tragedy.
Talat and Saleem Hamdani

Talat and Saleem Hamdani
(Sun photo by Nanine Hartzenbusch)
Sep 11, 2002

Charlie Sanders

Charlie Sanders
(Sun photo by Nanine Hartzenbusch)
Sep 11, 2002

Dorothy and Hubert Vauk

Dorothy and Hubert Vauk
(Sun photo by Nanine Hartzenbusch)
Sep 11, 2002

Portraits by The Sun's John Makely
Sun photographer John Makely covered the destruction of the World Trade Center. Recently, he returned and found some of the people from his most memorable images.
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(Sun photo by John Makely)
Mar 11, 2002

In Depth
More War on Terror
Sun Staff
Originally published September 11, 2002
The No. 7 elevated train clanks and squeals along the rooftops of Queens, scattering pigeons on the way past Shea Stadium, sliding by graffiti on brick and rusty steel. The riders, a polyglot mix, study textbooks, argue into cell phones, chat in Korean, Urdu, Spanish, Chinese. Posters pitch ambition to a striving class of new Americans: "Time to Learn a Trade -- Apex Technical School," "Turn Your Dreams into Reality -- New York School of Career and Applied Sciences."

And if you peer between the passing buildings at the southern Manhattan skyline, you will see what's not there today.

In the throng boarding the No. 7 train that crisp and beautiful Tuesday morning one year ago was 23-year-old Mohammad Salman Hamdani.

Salman to his family, Sal to his pals, he was all the more insistently American because he had come to the United States from Pakistan with his parents at the age of 13 months. He had caught the Q28 bus from near his home in Bayside, Queens, to the subway station in Flushing, his new routine as he commuted to his month-old job as a laboratory technician at Rockefeller University in Manhattan.

What was he thinking about on that last morning of his life as he bumped and lurched along with the train?

The night before, he'd been polishing an essay for his medical school application. Then Salman, an emergency medical technician, had sat up till 2:30 a.m. with his shopkeeper father, who feared his heart trouble was recurring, checking his blood pressure and offering reassurance.

He may have been thinking about the date he'd set for 5 p.m. across the Hudson River in New Jersey, where he was to meet for the first time a Pakistani-American girl with whom he'd struck up an online friendship. Perhaps he had cracked open one of his medical books or the English-language Quran he carried in his backpack.

Whatever his thoughts, they would have been ended by the shock of smoke pouring from the distant towers. The news, confused at first -- fire? bomb? plane? -- would have raced through the train, rumors coming in on cell phones, passengers switching on portable radios.

And it was then that Salman Hamdani must have formed his plan, the plan everyone who knew him says was absolutely in character: Somehow, though southbound trains and buses were stopped, though thousands were fleeing north, blocking streets, he would use his ID cards as a police cadet and emergency medical technician to hitch a ride to the World Trade Center to help.

"Instead of running away, like everyone else, Sal used all his New York entrepreneurial skills to get there," says William H. Hersh, his professor and mentor in chemistry and biochemistry at Queens College, where he had graduated in June. "It was a heroic act."

Yet it took months for Salman's heroism to be recognized. Someone using the simple-minded logic of profiling -- a young Muslim man, a chemistry major no less, disappearing Sept. 11 -- circulated a flier saying the young man was "wanted for questioning." Newspapers picked up the story, causing untold anguish to his parents.

Saleem and Talat Hamdani began to cling to a cruel hope: that Salman had been caught in the initial sweep for Middle Eastern-looking men and was detained, unable to contact them.

Only in March would a DNA test on body parts found in the rubble of the north tower prove that he was gone. His parents decided then to add a fourth name to honor him. In death, he became Shaheed Mohammad Salman Hamdani -- shaheed, for martyr.

It was a gesture of love, and of defiance. The fanatics who killed their son and 3,000 other people, the Hamdanis believed, had usurped the honor of martyrdom in a grotesque distortion of their faith.

"This is the real martyr, not that bastards that did it," says Saleem Hamdani, 55, an exuberant, mustachioed man whose English sometimes shatters under the pressure of emotion. "That's not a martyr. That's a devil!"

Nearly a year after the death of his son, he still seems lost. "You know, people were jumping from the 102nd story," he says, near tears. "What is that? Is that Islam?"

Looking around aboard the No. 7 train, it is possible to imagine the young men who erased the twin towers blending naturally with other immigrants traveling toward citizenship and a better life. It's hard not to wonder what made them choose death -- what sustained their determination to commit mass murder during all the months they lived in Europe and America among people like their future victims.

They targeted the World Trade Center and the Pentagon because those landmarks symbolized American wealth and power. Yet it is that very wealth and power, built by generation upon generation of immigrants, that still lures a million foreigners a year to resettle on American soil.

This paradox is at the heart of Sept. 11: the way America repels as powerfully as it attracts, often for the same reasons. After the attacks, many Americans were flabbergasted to learn the scale and intensity of anger directed at the United States. They had believed, on the evidence of immigration and the assurances of their leaders, that their country was viewed only as a beacon and a model.

Over the past 12 months, the how of Sept. 11 has largely been unraveled, revealing a mind-numbing matrix of wire transfers, flight lessons, secret meetings, terrorist cells.

But the why still haunts. The endless words -- competing theories of clashing civilizations, U.S. policy in the Middle East, the Arab world's historical sense of grievance, the geopolitics of oil, the resurgence of religious fanaticism, the personal quirks of Mohamed Atta and his fellow conspirators -- do not quite add up to a satisfying answer to the simple question: What made them do it?

If the loopy, chilling diatribes of Osama bin Laden do not elucidate the motives of Sept. 11, neither did the declarations of Timothy McVeigh do much to explain the deadliest previous terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Much ink was spent after April 19, 1995, to place McVeigh in the context of militia movements, extremist heartland politics and angry white males. But seven years later, his act remains baffling.

Surely one year is too short a time to understand the meaning of Sept. 11 or assess its full impact. At least temporarily, it has shaken Americans' sense of invulnerability on their ocean-protected turf, sparked a surge of patriotism, and tipped the delicate balance of government away from openness and civil liberties toward secrecy and national security. It has provoked a war in Afghanistan that is not quite over and made a pre-emptive U.S. strike against Iraq far more likely.

Yet the predictions early on that nothing would ever be the same now seem hyperbolic. The country has demonstrated the resilience -- cynics might say amnesia -- of a fast-moving, distractible and tirelessly commercial culture. The intense collective emotion that began the war on terrorism has faded as steadily as the red, white and blue of the "United We Stand" and "God Bless America" bumper stickers pasted on so many cars last September.

This summer, child abductions have dominated the news. Terrorism alerts have become fair game for TV comics. No one knows whether Osama bin Laden was atomized in an Afghan cave or is holed up plotting new horrors, but the urgency of hunting him down seems to have dissipated. U.S. energy policy, widely considered to be at the root of the terrorist threat, has not noticeably changed.

And while many Americans doubt the ability of the intelligence agencies and the FBI to protect them, they express their doubts with what-do-you-expect-from-the-government shrugs rather than real outrage. Perhaps as a result, no one resigned in disgrace or was fired over the greatest failure of national security in American history.

Even Ground Zero -- a metaphor borrowed from the Cold War's worst imaginings -- has become a standard Big Apple tour-bus stop, the previous reverent hush giving way to the click-buzz of cameras. Though few tourists make a special visit to the Pentagon, those who do will find the facade seamlessly restored with color-matched Indiana limestone.

The return to something like normality has been possible, of course, only because of what has not happened. After Sept. 11, the media overflowed with scary could-happen stories: crop-dusters spewing plague bacteria, hijacked gasoline tankers slamming into office towers, planes diving into nuclear plants. But to the surprise and relief of many experts, al-Qaida has so far produced no second act on U.S. soil.

For most Americans, Sept. 11 has been permitted to begin a slow fade into history. For those who lived through it or lost loved ones, the day will never be over.

In New York, Salman Hamdani died at the north tower trying to save people like Charles J. Sanders and Karen Rickenbach, who made it out just in time but will always bear the scars. In Washington, the accidents of Naval Reserve duty and an impending birth put Lt. Cmdr. Ronald James Vauk in the Pentagon at just the moment the jetliner hit -- and brought the war that raged that day on the East Coast back to his hometown of Nampa, Idaho.

They are Muslim, Jewish, Christian; immigrants and the children and grandchildren of immigrants; ambitious for a better life -- in other words, a random American assortment, defined by that day.

There are greater experts than these to sort out Sept. 11: theologians to speak of religion as both cause and comfort, historians to trace the antecedents of al-Qaida, security specialists to apportion blame for the nation's unpreparedness.

But those who rushed through Manhattan, pasting photos to lampposts, who felt their skyscraper shudder and fled as it fell, who opened their door to Casualty Assistance Officers bringing the worst of news -- these people have their own expertise.

When they speak of that day and this year, they speak with the authority of tragedy.

A family wounded twice: By death and by suspicion

When Salman Hamdani was a boy, he and his father would sleep each Saturday night inside the family's convenience store in Brooklyn. They had to be on duty when the stacks of Sunday newspapers were delivered lest they be stolen, a loss they could not afford. They were "Abu," or father, and "Bhaijan," or big brother, and they grew close working together in the myriad tasks of the business.

"He'd wake me up: 'Abu! Abu! Wake up! It's five o'clock in the morning, six o'clock in the morning, let's get the paper inside! Somebody take our papers!'" the father remembers, affectionately mimicking the boy's panic. "He put together all The New York Times, all the sections, same thing with Daily News. When he finished the papers, I will give him one dollar. He says: 'Abu, you keep it. When I need it, give it to me.'"

Salman would complain to his parents that he wasn't born in America, a fact his U.S.-born younger brothers, Adnaan and Zeshan, would exploit when the boys bickered.

"They'd tell him, 'Bhaijan, go back to Pakistan!' He got very angry," recalls his mother, Talat, laughing at the memory. It upset Salman that his foreign birth disqualified him from running for president.

He came by his patriotism naturally; his parents were flag-wavers long before Sept. 11. After shocking some relatives by insisting on a love match rather than an arranged marriage, they took off for the United States in the late 1970s in search of economic opportunity. Saleem arrived first, then Talat, who came with baby Salman and was horrified at the frigid weather.

Saleem remembers his father writing from Karachi to ask: So, how is America?

"I said, it is the word of God, anybody who is born in this earth in America, it is like [being] born in heaven," Saleem says. He liked capitalism. He liked the law-abiding atmosphere in which employers felt obliged to pay overtime. He liked the tolerance -- that nobody had a problem with him and his family going to a mosque or celebrating Pakistani Independence Day every Aug. 14.

After trying work as a journalist -- he found that Pakistani free-lance fees wouldn't pay U.S. living costs -- Saleem Hamdani first bought a quarter share in the store, then a half and finally the whole thing. He often worked seven days a week, keeping the store open from 7 a.m. to midnight with the help of his wife and three sons.

Salman, his parents say, gradually became the moral center of the family. The eldest son grew into an almost comically generous young man, who nursed injured pigeons back to health and insisted that his father stop to help stranded motorists. His mother remembers finding an entry in Salman's diary from age 14: "Why do people mistake sympathy and kindness for weakness?"

On a few occasions, Salman's astonished family saw him drop a hard-earned $20 bill in front of a homeless person, pretending it was an accident. The ruse was his way of protecting the recipient's dignity, Talat says: "He did not want anyone to feel small."

Last year, Talat, frustrated with discipline problems at the tough Queens middle school where she teaches English, contemplated switching to a school serving more affluent kids closer to home. Salman advised against it.

"He said: 'They need you more over there than over here. So if you're a real teacher, stay there and do your job,'" his mother says. She did.

"I raised him," Talat says, "and the last two years I think he was raising me. Really, he was guiding me along."

Salman had another side -- the adventurer who tried every sport from karate to whitewater rafting, who roller-bladed to Queens College, who was such a Star Wars fan that he got vanity tags reading "YUNGJEDI" for his Honda.

At Queens he could usually be found in the chemistry lab, where his two closest friends were a student from Israel and another from the Bronx whose father is Puerto Rican, says Hersh, their professor. "Queens [College] is where all these ethnic groups get to mix," he says.

Salman had a knack for making experiments work, for "turning white goo into crystal," says Hersh, who is helping arrange the posthumous publication of a couple of his student's scientific papers. But Salman didn't like to study, Hersh says, and he'd kick him out of the lab during exam week to force him to settle down with the books.

Weekends during college Salman worked as an EMT for a private ambulance service, sometimes not getting home till 2 a.m. In 1998, he joined the New York Police Department's cadet program, partly to beef up his credentials for medical school.

"There were many sides to him that were surprising," Hersh says, recalling Salman's dropping by one day and mentioning that he was going to sing in Handel's Messiah. "As a professor, you have a few students you think you'll probably know all your life. Sal was one of those."

For the Hamdanis, as for thousands of other New York families, Sept. 11 started a dreadful clock ticking as "missing" became more of a euphemism with each passing hour. Salman's parents and two brothers fanned out across the city, posting his photo and searching fruitlessly for anyone who might have seen him.

Soon they were convinced that he must have rushed to the World Trade Center to help out and died in the collapse. But a few weeks later, news of the federal detention of thousands of Middle Eastern men rekindled a paradoxical hope: They prayed that he might be imprisoned, alive but incommunicado.

"He did look Middle Eastern," his mother says. "And he has the Quran on him, his name is Mohammad. That's all you needed that day to be picked up."

Her hope was reinforced when several police officers called and two visited, always asking the same questions about her son -- as if trying to catch her in a lie, she thought. One officer seemed to know quite a bit about Salman; she wondered whether he had learned it by interrogating him. In early October, she wrote to President Bush, asking for his help in finding where her son was being held.

Soon after that, reporters turned up at the family's modest white house on a quiet street in Bayside. It turned out that someone -- evidently a person with access to Salman's police cadet records -- had distributed an amateurish, handwritten flier calling for his detention.

"Missing -- Or Hiding?" was the New York Post's headline above an Oct. 12 article claiming police had spotted someone resembling Salman near the Midtown Tunnel the day before. The New York Times reported, "A joint terrorism task force of the Police Department and the FBI wants to talk to him."

Before the articles ran, the Hamdanis left for Saudi Arabia. Desperate, they flew to Mecca, Islam's holiest site, to pray for Salman's safe return.

They took some comfort from the pilgrimage, Talat's first and Saleem's third. But they were aware of the irony that Saudi Arabia was the homeland of 15 of the 19 hijackers. At one holy site, a security guard asked their youngest son, Zeshan, where he was from.

"America," he replied, and the guard gave a thumbs-down sign to show his contempt. Outraged, Zeshan turned on the guard. Saleem rushed to stop him, saying, "We came here to pray, not to fight."

Back in New York, the Hamdanis weathered five more months in limbo. Hope ended at 11:30 p.m. one March night, when two police officers woke them and said bluntly that "lower body parts" found in the north tower rubble had been identified as their son's.

Saleem took the news hard. "He sat on the floor, and he cried," Talat says. "And I told them, please leave. Just leave."

The next month, at Salman's funeral at a Manhattan mosque, official New York made amends. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly praised his bravery and self-sacrifice.

"My young Jedi," Talat said, addressing her son before the crowd of mourners, "you gave your life for the children of Abraham and humanity." She "wanted to bring the religions together," she explained later, since Abraham is a figure shared by Islam, Judaism and Christianity. But she also took note of the misplaced suspicions: If her son's name were David or Jesus rather than Mohammad, she said, the family would not have suffered such an insult.

Since then, Salman's story has taken on a life of its own. Two major Muslim-American groups have honored Salman and his parents at their annual conventions. Talat and Saleem Hamdani have spoken to TV crews from Al-Jazeera and the British Broadcasting Corp., Colombia, Kazakstan and Japan.

The two-sided tale has proved malleable in the service of politics. A version on the Web site of the U.S. State Department omits the suspicion directed at Salman, playing up instead the mention of his heroism in the text of the anti-terrorist USA Patriot Act. But a new French film about Sept. 11 stresses the false suspicions and portrays "intolerant white New Yorkers and insensitive FBI agents," according to the Associated Press.

To this day, Talat Hamdani cannot speak about the innuendo that her son was in league with the terrorists who murdered him without breaking down.

For Muslim Americans, she says, the past year has been one of "intense fear and apprehension." The Hamdanis have seen friends deported for visa violations that once would have been overlooked. They have read with horror about brutal attacks on people like them -- such as the beating of a Pakistani woman and her son in Long Island 12 days ago by three teen-agers who called them "terrorists."

"There's a lot of bridge-building that has to be done," she says.

She is heartened by the flood of books and documentaries on Islam. She finds comfort in her religion, which holds that a true martyr, as she believes her son to be, will live forever.

But like many of those bereaved by Sept. 11, Saleem Hamdani has found his faith challenged by the ultimate religious conundrum: How can an all-powerful God permit such a tragedy?

"I asked so many people about this. I research myself in the Quran. I couldn't get the answer, you know," he says. "Why is my son dead? He just went to help the people, and Allah killed, God killed my son. Why? Because he went to help?"

Such talk distresses Talat, and she asks him not to say such things. He calms himself with the memory of their last night together, when his son assured him he would be all right.

They sat next to each other on the sofa. Saleem recalls taking his son's hand and remarking that it reminded him of his father's hand. Salman laughed and said: "Abu, I'm going up to bed. If you need me, call me."

Marked by survival, forever set apart

One long year later, an airliner passing overhead can still stop Charlie Sanders in his tracks, just for a moment, while the fear washes over him and he tells himself: It's only an airliner passing overhead.

For Karen Rickenbach, the shudder of a subway train underground can summon the dread that a building is about to thunder down on top of her.

That electric crackle in the brain -- the fight-or-flight reflex -- can make it all rush back: the scenes of horror, the coin-flip arbitrariness of their survival.

Both have had an arduous recovery from that day that divided everything into before and after. Both found they could no longer endure the commute to Manhattan, the fear of glass, heights, crowded stations, crowded trains. Both gave up their jobs.

They are the lucky ones.

"I didn't lose an arm," Rickenbach says. "I didn't fracture my skull. But I lost a lot of what I used to be. There are days when I feel like I'm a spirit walking around, just thinking I'm alive."

Rickenbach credits Sanders with saving her life. But as a good lawyer, he knows it's more complicated than that.

They saved one another, and for the stupidest of reasons: their relative status in the law firm where they worked.

Charles J. Sanders, 55, was a senior partner at Sidley Austin Brown & Wood with 30 years' tenure, most of it putting together bond issues of eye-glazing complexity that allowed New York hospitals to expand.

Karen Rickenbach, 41, was an administrative assistant in professional development, keeping track of lawyers' mandatory continuing education.

When she hit the floor and said, "I can't go anywhere," he reached down and took her hand and said, "Karen, you and I are going down together." She didn't want to leave, having no idea of the danger. "I only did it because he was a senior partner," she says, amazed that such a distinction once seemed meaningful.

And because he was a senior partner, he felt an obligation to keep himself together, help a junior colleague, joke a bit. Trying to keep her from panicking, he says, kept him from panicking.

"I had a mission to focus on," he says.

Charlie Sanders had caught the train as usual that morning from near his big Tudor house in affluent Short Hills, N.J., then hopped on the ferry at Hoboken for the ride across the Hudson.

He thought of it as a "civilized commute," often using the boat ride to write entries in the diary he had kept of his daughter Maggie's life from the day of her birth 22 years ago. The 3-inch-thick diary rested in a binder in a drawer of his leather-topped desk on the 56th floor of One World Trade Center, the north tower. He planned, some day soon, to type it up on the computer and present it to her.

"I didn't know if it would be at wedding time or what, but it was going to be a parent's way of paying respect to his child," he says.

He was just a generation further removed from immigration than Salman Hamdani: His grandparents, Jews from Poland and Hungary, had arrived a century ago. His grandfather had started as a peddler, famous in the family for walking all the way from his Lower East Side home to customers in the Bronx, just to save the nickel bus fare.

As Sanders met with a firm accountant, Karen Rickenbach rode the subway over from Brooklyn. She noticed the spectacular weather and did something she'd never done before in three years at the World Trade Center: Instead of rushing inside, she stopped at Starbucks and spent a few minutes sitting in the plaza between the two towers, sipping coffee, smoking a cigarette and gazing upward.

"I was just watching the trade center sort of glimmer," she says. "It was just so beautiful."

It was still quiet in the firm at 8:40 a.m. when Sanders sat before the computer in his mahogany-paneled office, looking over details of a refinancing at Mount Sinai Medical Center. Lined up on the shelves were leather-bound volumes of documents, each the "bible" for a major financing project. He was proud of his work; driving through the city with his wife, Jill, he would point to a hospital and say, "I did that one."

To his right was a north-facing window. Like everyone else, he had grumbled about the construction of 7 World Trade Center some years back, because it blocked part of the spectacular view of midtown.

Suddenly, for no reason he was aware of, he turned and looked out the window.

He saw the jet coming at him -- clearly a big commercial airliner and in a place where it should not be. He barely had time to form a thought -- "This dumb pilot is too low" -- before the aircraft slammed into the building above him.

"The impact was like someone taking an aluminum bat and swinging it into the back of your head," he says. "The next thing I know, I'm running out the door."

As Sanders had caught sight of the plane, Karen Rickenbach was reaching for a carton of milk to pour on her bowl of cereal in the firm's kitchenette. She picked it up and read the expiration date: Sept. 18.

Then she heard two colossal booms -- the collision and the explosion of jet fuel, though she had no idea what they were at the time. The building staggered beneath her feet, and she dropped instantly to the floor.

"I thought the building was going to snap off," she says.

She remembers seeing Sanders nearby, hearing him say, "Wowee!" and then, "Let's go!" Next came their fateful exchange, and they were following another lawyer into the stairwell.

These two colleagues, who knew each other only slightly, held hands for the next hour as they picked their way down 56 floors.

Sanders recalls at first "trying to keep it light." He joked about keeping his jacket on in the hot stairwell to comply with the firm's dress code. He made fun of the firm's obsession with billable hours by wondering aloud whether time descending the stairs could be billed to a client.

But as people speculated about what had happened, he made a conscious decision not to describe what he had seen, fearing that knowledge that a huge airliner had hit the tower might cause panic.

If Sanders was telling jokes, Rickenbach wasn't taking them in. She remembers the lawyer "staring straight ahead." As she held onto his hand, she says, she could feel his body shaking.

But she says his quiet resolve kept her moving.

Any joshing quickly ended as people with ghastly burns began to stumble past them down the stairs. They would hug the wall to let the victims pass, some with their skin hanging off in grayish sheets, one woman with all her hair burned off -- "walking zombies," Rickenbach says.

The scale of the catastrophe dawned only gradually. For a time, they kept trying doors onto different floors, looking for a safe place to stop -- but each time they found shattered glass, chaos and smoke of different colors: carpet smoke, electrical smoke, wood smoke. Rickenbach began to have trouble breathing.

At the 30th floor, they met the first firefighters climbing toward them. People applauded and called out "God bless you!" Sanders remembers what a struggle it was for the firefighters in heavy suits to climb, hauling hoses and oxygen tanks. One noticed Rickenbach's distress, pulled a bottle of water from his coat and handed it to her.

She would spend many days looking for "my firefighter" among the survivors. She would never find him.

The line moved more and more slowly as workers from lower floors joined it. By the 10th floor the sprinkler system was drenching the stairwell and making footing treacherous. Women who had taken off high heels were cutting their feet on broken glass.

Rickenbach felt her legs giving out and said to Sanders: "I can't do this." He spoke calmly to her, persuading her to keep going.

When they approached the underground lobby, they thought their ordeal was over, that they had finally found refuge. But when they opened the door, "it was like opening the door to hell," Rickenbach says. Huge steel beams were crumpled. A waterfall tumbled from above. The ceiling lay shattered on the floor.

Rescue personnel were shouting: "Get out! Get out!"

Then they separated. Rickenbach joined the human chain running from the building. Sanders, for reasons he now cannot fathom, decided to stop to try to call his wife on a lobby phone. The phones weren't working, but minutes later a colleague would spot Sanders outside and call Jill Sanders on a cell phone telling her Charlie was alive.

When the south tower fell, about 10 a.m., Rickenbach was at the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge with another colleague. This time it was her chance to offer support: The colleague could not swim, and she promised to help him if the bridge was attacked and they ended up in the river below.

For Sanders, who was walking up Broadway, helping another man support a woman who had just had knee surgery, the moment of the first collapse was the worst of all.

They were near City Hall, about eight blocks north of the World Trade Center, when someone screamed, "The building's going." Sanders looked up to see the top tumble over.

"The next thing I remember was this ball of smoke coming at us. For some reason I thought if the ball of smoke envelops us, we're dead," he says.

The three tried to hobble faster. Sanders watched in terror as the black cloud tumbled toward them and then -- about 25 yards away, it rose into the air, never reaching them.

The rest of the day took on a surreal quality, Sanders says: avoiding the television in a SoHo apartment where they found refuge; riding to New Jersey on a luxury liner commandeered as a ferry; seeing bizarrely calm people relaxing in sidewalk cafes in Hoboken; being directed off the train for a pointless "disinfection" by New Jersey firefighters wanting to get in on the act.

The mild-mannered Sanders, who avoided becoming a litigator because he doesn't like "adversarial relations," found his temper flaring out of control. On the boat, when others speculated about the number of dead, he astonished himself by yelling at them: "I said, 'Shut up! Goddamn it, those are my friends up there, and I don't want to hear any more about it!'"

A week later, the law firm summoned all employees to a meeting at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel -- partly to try to find out for certain who had not survived. Remarkably, only one employee had been lost. But the reunion was extremely emotional for Sanders and Rickenbach.

"I saw people there I was certain were dead," says Sanders. When Rickenbach arrived and they saw one another, she recalls, Sanders turned to the wall and began to cry.

Of the months that followed, they tell a remarkably similar story. Both returned to work, but both found reminders of that day too excruciating, their post-trauma edginess intolerable.

Sanders, who had wanted for some time to cut his hours down, took early retirement. Rickenbach is out on worker's compensation and can rarely bring herself to cross into Manhattan from Brooklyn.

In a practical sense, the difference in their job status has huge consequences. Sanders is financially set. Rickenbach says she's "getting broker and broker" and will have to find a way back into the working world.

But both now laugh at the law firm proprieties that once seemed so significant. For Rickenbach, Sanders is just Charlie, just "a very good man." Both are part of a class of survivors set permanently apart from other Americans.

Many people have been touched by The New York Times' brief profiles of the dead. But for Rickenbach, scanning the photos has been a grim exercise in recognition -- the people on the 8 a.m. subway, the smokers she met on breaks, the security guard who always had a cheerful word. "I'd say, 'Oh my God, not him.' 'My God, not her.'"

"Nothing you can see now, no television pictures, can put you inside that building," Rickenbach says. "The world is different for everybody. But for those of us who felt the impact of that plane, life will never be the same."

More than Rickenbach, Sanders seems determined to leave the episode in the past. "The events in that 24-hour period are done and over with," he says. "My perspective has to be forward. It can't be back."

A counselor's key word, "acceptance," which seemed useless at first, has become a touchstone.

He has had to accept that the irreplaceable diary he kept for his daughter and the leather-bound volumes he so valued were reduced to ashes, and to recognize his good fortune that his own weren't mixed with them.

He recently made the 14-hour drive to St. Louis with his daughter for her first year of law school. He is learning to cook -- ratatouille is a recent achievement -- and wants to take up fly-fishing. Eventually he'd like to study U.S. history and do some teaching. Perhaps, he muses, a "Law and Society" course for laypeople.

More than Rickenbach, Sanders seems to have shifted his anger from the personal realm to the political. He says he's obsessed with the news, even as he still avoids images of the destruction. Mostly, he is struck by what he sees as a fundamental failure, whose roots stretch across decades and are shared by both political parties, of the first responsibility of U.S. government: protection of the citizens.

He traces the failure to the nation's dependence on oil, leading to its blind support for Saudi Arabia, its tacit tolerance of Saudi money -- American money, paid at the gas pump -- going to train young men in the fundamentalist madrasas of Pakistan and Afghanistan to hate America.

"In my view, American leaders have completely failed," he says. "These are things we ought to have questioned. Why did it take 3,000 lives to raise these questions?"

Despite that fury, he is able to call the disaster "a liberating event" for him, "a humanizing experience."

"You realize the arbitrariness of being alive. If I was 20 floors higher, I'd be dead. If they hadn't built that building [7 World Trade Center] that blocked my view, I'd be dead. If I'd stopped on an upper floor to try to make a phone call I'd be dead," he says.

"Whatever I get into," Sanders says, "I'm going to make sure I enjoy it."

A town mourns, wondering what has changed

Chances are that terrorists will never target Nampa, Idaho, where rodeo fans gather each summer for the Snake River Stampede and the sugar beet and potato fields stretch from the edge of town.

But even if their aim was thousands of miles away, the attacks a year ago hit Nampa, too.

Tyler Welshimer, 53, heard the news Sept. 13 from his wife after biking home from the high school where he's a teacher and counselor: Ron Vauk was missing at the Pentagon.

"I said, 'It can't be,'" Welshimer recalls. "My wife said, 'Even I remember Ron Vauk.'"

Ron Vauk, of the mischievous grin and the strong principles, valedictorian of Nampa High School's Class of 1982. Editor of the school paper, who had gotten the paper sued (unsuccessfully) by daring to write the truth about an incompetent teacher. Who had taken his challenge of a penalty for tardiness he considered unfair all the way to the school board -- and won.

"You try to insulate yourself by saying, 'That was sure sad -- back East,'" Welshimer says. "But then you find out it's a little closer than you thought."

You can't get a lot farther, geographically or culturally, from the skyscrapers of Manhattan and the office warrens of Washington than Nampa, 25 miles west of Boise just off the old Oregon Trail. From here, the death of a U.S. serviceman at the Pentagon does not feel much closer than such a death in Afghanistan.

But if it's one of their own, this community knows how to wrap a grieving family in its comfortable embrace. Ron Vauk, at 37 the youngest of nine children in an old Nampa clan, died on duty as the watch officer at the Navy Command Center, in charge of tracking every ship in the fleet. When the plane hit, he was on the phone trying to scramble more fighters to protect the capital.

His death has reverberated all year.

The news that he was missing was stripped across the top of the front page of The Idaho Press-Tribune, where he had worked evenings in high school as a proofreader. And it was a front-page story again in November, when his widow, Jennifer, gave birth to a daughter, Meaghan, back in Maryland. The Press-Tribune even told Nampans how the 4-year-old big brother was taking it: "Liam held his baby sister and called her cutie pie."

In May, Ron's octogenarian parents, Dorothy and Hubert Vauk, rode in the lead car as grand marshals in Nampa's annual Parade America, whose theme was "Let freedom ring." In July, when many of Ron's 333 Nampa High School classmates celebrated their 20th reunion, they dedicated the event to him, planting a red maple on the school lawn in his honor.

The attacks, and Ron Vauk's death, recharged patriotism in a patriotic town, one carved from desert hills a little more than a century ago as a railroad whistle stop, a refuge for gold and silver miners and a processing center for sugar and potatoes.

And here, no less than in Salman Hamdani's Queens or Charlie Sanders' New Jersey, it has stirred fury, debate and puzzlement.

Was it jealousy of American liberties and lifestyles that made the terrorists do it? That's a favorite notion in this town, whose population has nearly doubled to 52,000 over the past decade as people have flocked from California for its big lake, wildlife refuge, golf courses and affordable housing.

"We didn't realize the hatred some people have for the United States," says David Vauk, 52, Ron's brother, who runs an accounting business. "They're envious. It was an attack on our way of life."

Or did it have something to do with oil, the fuel for the SUVs that fly past pulling motorboats on Interstate 84, headed for weekend adventures? That's the conviction of Forrest Briggs, 75, a retired Amtrak engineer:

"If we had no oil interests in the Mideast, we wouldn't know there was such a thing as terrorism."

But for Dorothy Vauk, Ron's 82-year-old mother, who has resumed her decades of service as a church and hospital volunteer, the mystery of the terrorists' motive comes down to one baffling question: "How can you hate people you've never met?"

For her, the past year has summoned memories of the anguish, fear, patriotism and service Nampa experienced during World War II, when Dorothy and Hubert, who served in the Navy, lost many high school classmates to combat.

German POWs were imprisoned in two camps on the outskirts of town, and Japanese-Americans were interned not far away, setting off debates about sedition and civil liberties like those that now rage about Muslim Americans. Dorothy remembers rolling bandages for the Red Cross, baking cookies for the USO and writing letters for semi-literate servicemen stationed nearby.

"It was a similar feeling," Dorothy Vauk says. "War is war."

Though he had moved east to attend the U.S. Naval Academy nearly 20 years ago, Ron Vauk had kept close ties to his hometown, visiting a few times each year. His grandparents on both sides were immigrants, farmers who came from Switzerland and Czechoslovakia to the American West in search of land.

The baby of the family, and the one who had traveled farthest and pursued the most exotic life, Ron was known for launching ambitious improvement projects during visits to his parents' ranch house on Winther Avenue. Then he'd fly back to his wife and son in Mount Airy, leaving his brothers to finish the jobs. (Jennifer Vauk chose not to comment for this article, saying she preferred to grieve in private.)

A brass light fixture glistens near the front door, and a new green plastic mailbox stands at the curb -- the fruits of his last trip home, in July 2001. To the end, despite the demands of his family, his job at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and his service in the Naval Reserve, Ron Vauk remained a devoted son.

"The Tuesday before he died," Dorothy remembers, "he called and said, 'I'm having El Charro bring you dinner. I know how Dad likes their Chili Colorado.'" Then he called back to see how they had liked the restaurant food, promising to have dinner delivered every two weeks.

Before he left for college, his family and classmates had Ron pegged as a lawyer or politician. "You couldn't win an argument with Ron," says his brother, David. "If he convinced you, he'd switch sides just to keep arguing."

When he chose the Naval Academy, his friends put a banner on the garage for the going-away party: "Is the Navy Ready for Him?" It was, but back home, much of his career remained mysterious: His missions during five years on submarines and his later work at APL were often classified.

After his death his family learned much for the first time, including details of his service during the Persian Gulf war, his work on bioterrorism detection systems at APL and the prestige of his Pentagon job, where he was among the youngest people to serve as watch officer.

Like all the bereaved, the Vauks contemplated the what-ifs. Sept. 11 was just the second day of Ron's annual two-week Naval Reserve duty. He had asked to serve at the Pentagon so he could get home each night to his wife and son. He had swapped dates so that he could be home in November, when his second child was due.

As the family gathered in Nampa, neighbors rallied in support. El Charro sent over four pork roasts without being asked. At two other restaurants, waitresses donated their tips and management their profits to a fund for Ron Vauk's family. Nampans gathered for a candlelight vigil at the fountain plaza in the middle of town that became a makeshift memorial.

The first of more than 1,000 cards and letters arrived at the Vauks' house, now all stuffed in a box in the closet of Ron's old bedroom. One came from the family of a New York rabbi, promising to pray for Ron every Friday evening. Another was from an Idaho woman who said she had run the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington in Ron's honor -- and would it be OK to do that every year?

The reminders are still coming. A few weeks ago a check for $200 arrived -- the donations of people who weren't able to attend an Idaho "potato bake" in Ron's memory. The Vauks have had to sift through invitations to multiple events for today's anniversary, including the erection of a 60-foot flagpole on a nearby hill, a remembrance in downtown Nampa, and ecumenical services at many churches.

The ceremonies won't stop everything. A hearing on new air pollution controls at Amalgamated Sugar's refinery, which at times spreads a burnt-food stench over the city, is set for 6 p.m. today at City Hall, where "Bless the USA" is still spelled out in paper flowers.

But Sept. 11 has left a mark on Nampa that's more than bumper-sticker deep. Welshimer, Ron Vauk's former journalism teacher, says he has seen changes in his students and their parents.

Sept. 11 "has put a chink in people's feeling of invincibility," the teacher says. "They've put the furniture back as best they can. But in the back of people's minds, they're still skittish."

There is a positive side, too, he says. Americans often maintain a blissful ignorance of the outside world, and that's especially easy in a place such as Nampa, which is surrounded by "a lot of sagebrush," Welshimer says. The attacks changed that.

"People are more introspective, and that's a good thing," he says. When kids ask him what the Mideast has to do with them, "I tell them, 'Your pants are made of petroleum.' And they're willing to listen.

"I don't think it's a bad thing for us to realize we're all in this world together," he says.

Lynda Campbell Clark, president of the Nampa City Council and author of a local history, didn't know Ron Vauk. But like most Nampans, she had ties: Her mother went to high school with Ron's father; the city's parks director is Ron's brother-in-law.

Clark, 54, says a line from a preacher who spoke after the attacks has stayed with her all year: "Who's included in our unity?" For her, that's the point: If the terrorism makes Americans vengeful and suspicious of one another, denying their heritage of liberty and diversity, it will have done even greater damage than the physical devastation of that day.

Clark is hopeful. She remembers that Nampa's Parade America began as an angry response to the anti-Vietnam War movement but has grown into a more inclusive celebration of American values. She has noticed a surge in local volunteerism and generosity that seems to be outlasting the anger and fear of the past year.

"I still see the decals around town: 'We will remember,'" Clark says. "That's as it should be. But I think it's been a challenge to all of us. Who are 'we'? Who do we include when we do that flag-waving? Who do we want to be?"

Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun | Get home delivery


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