A Personal Reflection on 9/11: 20 Years Ago When the Disability Community Responded
- Sep - 09 - 2021
- Mary Dolan, Executive Director, FDR Memorial Legacy Committee
I remember the day clearly. My husband had left the news on in the living room of our Washington DC area home that morning. He liked to watch the news as he had breakfast, but I liked it quiet. He would normally turn off the TV by the time I got downstairs, but that day he forgot. I was working from home, and as I went to turn off the TV to preserve the lingering sense of relaxation from sleep, my eye caught a view of the World Trade Center. I paused and put the remote down. Few other buildings would make me pause and stir me awake, but the Twin Towers literally and figuratively always loomed large for me. I grew up outside New York City in Long Island, and the Twin Towers were built when I was a kid. No one could believe one building could be that tall – but two?! And the Towers made the New York skyline – according to my East Harlem-raised mom – the best skyline in the world.
So what was being said about this piece of my childhood? There was smoke and a plane. It was 8:45 am. For some reason, my mind calculated that some old guy had a heart attack while flying a Cessna and the plane flew accidentally into a Tower. I am not sure how I came up with that formula, and maybe a newscaster suggested that, but either way, it bought me a few minutes of calm as I said goodbye to my husband for the day. Uncharacteristically I kept the TV on. It stayed on. And then, at 9:03 am, another plane hit, and everything changed. In that one day, I thought my husband's life was at risk, that toxic chemicals were in the air where we lived, and that any airplane overhead could crash and kill more people – me, my loved ones, other people's loved ones.
Cells phones weren't working well. We still had a landline which seems like a quaint memory. I remember talking to my dad, who said this was a 9-11 emergency call to our country. I am not sure I had noted the bitter irony of the date. A friend called to check on me and told her me her brother's girlfriend, who worked in the Towers, could not be found. Another friend told me about seeing the plume of smoke from her apartment across the river in New Jersey.
It was a terrible day, and then it became terrible days. My husband was fine, but many other husbands and wives, partners, friends, family members were not. There were no toxic chemicals in the air where I lived, not far from the Pentagon, but I was still afraid to leave the house. The sound of airplanes and helicopters overhead was dread-inducing.
I then worked for the National Organization on Disability (NOD). When I made it back into the office in the following days, my colleagues and I started hearing about disabled people who did not make it out of the Towers. We started hearing that many emergency plans across the country did not include disabled people. We heard that our community was once again the most at risk.
My boss Alan Reich invited the leaders of disability organizations to meet and share collectively what was known about the state of emergency planning for disabled people – in towns, cities, buildings, schools, and so on. It turned out there were many shortcomings as evidenced on 9/11 and sadly once again verified during Hurricane Katrina four years later.
Alan asked Marcie Roth, a veteran disability leader, and me to follow up with the meeting attendees, capture their wisdom and write it up as a memorandum as a Call to Action for what is needed for emergency planning for disabled Americans. Always one to go to the top, Alan set up a meeting with Tom Ridge, who had just left the governorship of PA to be the first Director and later the first Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). We presented the Call to Action to him at the White House. Despite the gravity of the subject matter, that is me standing and smiling in the picture wearing my mom's old Harris Tweed jacket (see photo).
Photo caption: Alan Reich, graying hair in a white collared shirt and dark suit and tie in a wheelchair. Seated next to him is former PA Governor Tom Ridge, then Director of the Department of Homeland Security, with black hair, a white collared shirt and a dark suit. Standing is me – Mary Dolan – with a white turtleneck, brown jacket, and brown shoulder-length hair. Next to me is Ginny Thornburgh, in a white turtleneck and black jacket and grey hair. To the right is Mike Deland, seated in a wheelchair, in a dark suit, white collared shirt and tie.
I believe that a lot of good came from that collective effort of the disability community. I moved on to other projects, but Marcie Roth stayed engaged in emergency planning. DHS smartly brought Claudia Gordon on board which furthered outreach to our community, and NOD set up the Emergency Preparedness Initiative, which received recognition for its work post-Katrina. We owe so many advocates and dedicated disability leaders, local and national, for their tireless work on these issues, which are a matter of life and death.
The sting from that day 20 years ago is still there, but I also must say that I am proud that when the Towers fell, our community responded, worked together, and affected change and continues to do so today.
May all those who lost their lives on 9/11 and to 9/11-related causes rest in peace.
P.S. I was reminded by my colleague Kelly Douglas (then Mahan) that Alan Reich reopened the office, which was just one block from the White House, on September 12th. According to Kelly, "We went back to work on 9/12. Alan was insistent that the world didn't stop moving and succumb to what the terrorists wanted."