On September 11, 2001, I was only 6 weeks into a new job at Merrimack College, a small Catholic, Augustinian school up in North Andover, Massachusetts. I remember how perfect the day started… how crystal clear the sky was. Blue as blue can be. Not a single cloud in the sky. It was probably a little after 9 a.m. when I got to the campus center. I was just behind a couple of my colleagues and simply said “Good morning,” to which they replied, “What’s so good about it?” I still didn’t really know people yet, so I wasn’t sure if they were being sarcastic or just having a bad day, so I inquired further. “The World Trade Center was hit by a plane!” they replied. I blurted out, “My dad works there!” and began running for the first TV that I could find. I got to the main floor and there were dozens of people watching TVs in the food court. Strangely, I had just walked by a couple of minutes earlier and hadn’t noticed what was going on. Now I’m sitting there with everyone else in complete disbelief.
I remember trying to call anyone I could… but all I got was busy signals. The only person I spoke to that morning was my sister in California, but other than e-mail I remember using ICQ, which was like instant messenger, to communicate with others.
My dad worked for Washington Group International, an engineering company in the south tower, on the 91st floor – the second tower to be hit but the first to fall. On two counts, my dad wasn’t supposed to be there. For one, his area was relocated to Princeton, NJ, but he didn’t want the lengthy commute from our home on Long Island, nor did my parents want to move. Great Neck had been our home since I was 6. Secondly and most ironically, he was supposed to be in the Middle East, of all places, on business but his trip was cancelled.
When the south tower fell at 9:59 a.m. I remember being overwhelmed with grief. I don’t know where I intended to go, but I just ran. Before I could get too far, someone grabbed me and brought me to the chapel. Although it took me a while to realize it, that was the first act of kindness someone did for me that day. They saw I was in distress and they grabbed me.
The 2nd act of kindness took place later that evening. I decided to drive to a friends’ place in CT as I wasn’t sure I could drive all the way to Long Island. I remember being asked if I wanted company, but told my colleagues that I’d be okay. As I’m packing up my things, I get a knock on the door from 3 students from a fraternity that I advised, insisting on coming along with me. “Fred, we’re not taking no for an answer. We’re going with you.” The semester had just started and these students who had just met me offered to make sure I got there safely.
The next morning, I continued to Long Island. I intentionally drove over the Whitestone Bridge so I could get the closest view of the skyline. I remember how empty the roads were that morning. Not just on the highways coming down, but approaching and crossing the bridge, there was NO ONE on the road. I felt like I was in a movie. Something like “Mad Max” or “I Am Legend.”
When I finally got home to see my mom, I tried to reassure her but she was already convinced my dad was gone. My two younger brothers, who were living at home at the time, were there. My sister, because flights were grounded, was driving across country with my uncle in a rental car; it would take her another 3 or 4 days before she arrived.
Like many other families, we made up a flyer and organized a search. Maybe he was buried under some debris? Maybe he simply couldn’t get in touch with us? Maybe he was injured and walking the city aimlessly? We just put our faith in God and hoped and believed he was out there somewhere. My brother’s friends were at the house and without hesitation took it upon themselves to blanket the city with flyers, posting them in hospitals, police stations, and just about anywhere and everywhere they could. I didn’t always like my brother’s friends, but I remember how differently I felt about them at that moment. This was the 3rd act of kindness.
With every passing hour, day, and week, we came to the realization that my dad was really gone. I’m not sure how or when we made the decision, but about 3 weeks after 9/11, we held a memorial service for him. I remember how much life there was in the Church on that rainy day. Our Church and it’s congregation was very old, so there were never more than 2 or 3 dozen people there on Sundays, but on that day the Church was packed; the pews were filled and there were even people standing in the balcony. There was even a group from Merrimack, who only knew me for a few weeks. It was an amazing sight to see so much life in our Church and all of the people my dad had affected. Yet another act of kindness.
They never found my dad or anything that belonged to him, except for part of an old, charred, employee badge. So there was no casket at the service, just a large photo of him on an easel. We have a cemetery plot in town, but nothing physical there other than a headstone. I have since gone there to speak with him, but I feel closest to him when I’m at Church or when I’m at Ground Zero.
I made it through most of the academic year, but by April my emotions finally caught up with me and I came to the realization that I wanted to go home. Once again, the Merrimack community was there to support me and let me go until I was ready to come back – no expectations, no questions asked. Once again, another act of kindness.
After a few weeks at home, I decided I needed to be closer to my family, which is how I ended up here at Fairfield. Geographically, it made sense, but there was something else going on. The strong sense of care and community – those many acts of kindness on 9/11 and the months thereafter – I was beginning to experience what the Jesuit principle of men and women for others was all about. It wasn’t just at Fairfield or at Merrimack where this shift was taking place – it really was everywhere. Yes, there was a heightened sense of patriotism after 9/11, but there was also this heightened feeling that we were all in this together. No matter who you were or where you came from, there was a common sense of decency between others – and not just because you had a connection to 9/11. It would be at the grocery store, the mall, or just walking down the street. People just seemed nicer to one another. Looking back on 10 years, that’s the feeling that I fear we’re losing … that feeling that we’re all Men and Women for Others.
What I Miss…
I’m sure this may sound odd, but it many ways, I consider myself lucky or even blessed. As I said earlier, not a day goes by that I don’t miss my dad, but I had 29 years with him. I still think about all the young kids who lost their mom or dad on 9/11 and how they never got the chance to experience all the things that I was able to share with him during that time. He got to experience little league, boy scouts, piano lessons, summer vacations to Florida & Canada, and not to mention all the C’s on my transcripts. He got to see his four kids graduate from college and find jobs. He got to see us get to the point in our lives that he knew we’d be okay. However, it just felt as though we were just getting to the really good stuff because my siblings and I were now all adults and had lives of our own.
So much has happened over the past 10 years, I just wish he could have been a part of it. I know he and my wife Cristina would have gotten along so well together. I’m sure he would have also really enjoyed her family because they are so much like my family before 9/11. I imagine him and Cristina’s dad in particular really getting along – two hard-working, self-taught, handymen. I would never have to lift a finger for any home improvement jobs in our house!
But it wasn’t until I became a parent myself that I began missing him the most. Often times, I look at my son and think about what a wonderful grandfather he would have been to him. He was a great dad, but I know he would have been an even better “Lolo” to my son Lucas and his cousins.
Years ago, I told myself if I ever had I son, I would never name him Fred. Too much pressure. Growing up, I always felt as though I had to live up to my dad and my grandfather because we shared a name. I didn’t want that for my son. But after my dad died and then a few years later, my grandfather, it felt strange being the only Fred Kuo. I was used to there being three of us and it felt odd being the only one. So Lucas is actually my son’s middle name; his first name is Frederick.
What I Will Never Forget…
I can’t believe that this Sunday will mean that my dad has been gone for 10 years. I’m 39 and it makes no sense to me that my dad has been a gone for nearly a quarter of my life. At times, it feels like he was just here, and other times I worry that I’m beginning to forget him. So although I know doing things such writing this reflection can make me emotional, I do it because it helps me remember. I do it because I don’t want to forget.
I also do it because of our students. Working in a college setting, I often forget that I’m getting older because our students never age. They’re perpetually 18-22 years old. 10 years ago, our freshman class was 8. How do you talk about 9/11 through the eyes of an 8 year old?
By the 15th anniversary, our students will have no recollection of the actual day. They will only know what they see on TV, in books, on the internet, or what they hear from others. With every anniversary, how we engage our students about 9/11 becomes that much more important.
For me the 10th anniversary isn’t just about remembering my dad, or the 3,000+ people who died on that day. It also serves as a reminder about the responsibilities that we have to those around us today… that we should all remember to be men and women for others every single day.
So when I think back on September 11, 2001…
I’ll never forget the person who grabbed me and brought me to the chapel.
I’ll never forget my 3 students who wouldn’t take no for an answer and drove me to Connecticut.
I’ll never forget how the Merrimack College community supported me, even though they barely knew me.
I’ll never forget my brothers’ friends blanketing the city with flyers.
I’ll never forget the overwhelming energy in our Church during my dad’s memorial.
I’ll never forget how I came to Fairfield and how this community continues to support me.
I’ll never forget how ‘different’ things felt between people in the wake of 9/11.
I’ll never forget…
Fred Kuo is the Associate Director of University Activities at Fairfield University.