To Honor Those They Lost–9/11 Ten Years Later

Photographed by William Coupon A decade after the devastating attacks, family, friends, and colleagues of terror’s victims are finding peace

Steve and Liz AldermanPhotographed by William Coupon

A decade after the devastating attacks, family, friends, and colleagues of terror’s victims are finding peace through service

Liz and Steve Alderman
“Because Peter lived, the world is a better place.”

Liz and Steve Alderman were in the South of France, celebrating Steve’s 60th birthday, when a shopkeeper ran up to them. “Your country has been attacked,” she exclaimed. Until that moment, the Aldermans had considered themselves fortunate. Steve was a radiation oncologist in New York’s Westchester County; his wife was an avid painter, a quilt maker, and an opera fan. They were happy, prosperous, and close to their three grown children. Now, as they learned of the destruction at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, they wondered whether their luck would hold. Their son Peter, 25, worked for a financial company in Manhattan; their daughter, Jane, 28, lived in Washington, D.C. Either could have been in harm’s way.

For hours, the worried couple tried to phone their kids, but there were no overseas connections. Finally, their son Jeff, then 30 and a physician in Oklahoma, managed to reach them. “Jane’s fine,” he said. “I talked to her.”

“What about Pete?” Liz asked.

There was a pause. “Pete was there. People are looking for him, but I’m sure he’s okay.”

Peter had been on the 106th floor of the World Trade Center, attending a conference at the Windows on the World restaurant, when the first plane hit directly below. At 9:25 a.m., he sent Jane his last e-mail: “We’re stuck. The room is filling with smoke. I’m scared.”

Over the following weeks, the Aldermans learned how beloved Peter—the baby of the family, all “laughter and sunshine”—had been to others: When they threw a party to memorialize his life, 300 people showed up. “Peter enjoyed creating and cultivating relationships,” says Steve. Adds Liz, “He was constantly taking care of people. He made them feel better about themselves.”

As their grief descended, the couple nearly collapsed under its weight; Steve retired from his medical practice, and Liz gave up her artwork. On some days, they could barely get out of bed. Liz recalls the horror of the endless tape loop spooling in her head: “I have no idea how my child … how long he lived, if he was alive when the building crumbled. And my only prayer is that he didn’t know he was about to die.”

Eventually, she found a way to cope. “In the worst circumstances in life, I learned there are only two options,” she says. “You can kill yourself—either literally or emotionally by crawling into bed and never getting out. Or you can put one foot in front of the other and take baby steps forward.”

The breakthrough came one sleepless night in June 2002 when Liz watched a Nightline program about the psychic scars of war and terrorism. She learned that one billion people around the world have suffered from mass violence and natural disasters; among those directly affected, about two thirds develop depression and other crippling psychological problems. The Aldermans could afford counseling; most of these people could not. Liz remembers thinking, If we can help bring these people back to life, that would be the perfect memorial for Peter.

The couple called an expert featured on the show—Richard F. Mollica, MD, director of the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma. With his guidance and some of the $1.4 million they received from the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, they launched the Peter C. Alderman Foundation. Their mission: to train doctors and nurses in countries ravaged by war to treat emotional trauma.

They found that the challenges of effectively launching their project were more than just logistical. At the first clinic they opened, in Siem Reap, Cambodia, in 2005, Steve learned that when Cambodians feel depressed or anxious, they believe it’s because the household gods have deserted them. So he encouraged monks from a local monastery to counsel patients for a year after they were released from the clinic. Now it’s part of every patient’s treatment. “Our model is to include spiritual healing because we know it works,” says Steve.

They know because it has worked for them. “The whole business of work and spirituality—you go outside yourself,” says Steve. Adds Liz, “The nature of the work gave me a reason to get out of bed every day. I thought I was never going to feel good about anything ever again. And I feel incredibly good about the people who have come into my life and the people we’re meeting along the way.”

The nonprofit now operates mental-health clinics in Cambodia, Uganda, Rwanda, and Haiti; its nearly 600 doctors have treated thousands of trauma victims in 22 countries.

From some safe beyond, Steve and Liz sense their son’s approval—and amusement. “We’ve won awards, and they’ve made a movie about us, and blah, blah, blah,” says Steve with a little laugh. “We feel that if Peter could have seen that stuff, he’d have thought we’re a real hoot.”

Bill Keegan
“Now we’re stronger, and we’re here to help you.”

Growing up in Jersey City, across the Hudson River from Manhattan, Bill Keegan watched the construction of the Twin Towers from the windows of his high school. In 1993, as a Port Authority police officer, he helped rescue children trapped in an elevator when the North Tower was damaged by a truck bomb. When terrorists struck again in 2001, Keegan, by then a lieutenant, was off duty, accompanying one of his three young daughters to a checkup at a New Jersey hospital. “I heard everybody start screaming in the hallway” as they watched the catastrophe unfold on TV, he recalls. He took his daughter home, then raced down the New Jersey Turnpike as smoke billowed on the horizon. By the time he reached the Holland Tunnel, just across the river from lower Manhattan, the towers had fallen.

The Port Authority lost 37 officers that morning, many of them Keegan’s close friends. He narrowly escaped death himself hours later, when Building 7, a 47-story structure that was part of the World Trade Center complex, collapsed. “It was half a block away,” he says. “We took off, but the huge plume caught up to us, and we breathed in a lot of the stuff.” The next day, he took over as commander of the nighttime rescue and recovery efforts at Ground Zero.

Over the next nine months, Keegan bonded fiercely with the cops, firefighters, and construction workers at the site. Their shifts were long, backbreaking, and emotionally grueling. “I remember one recovery that took us 13 hours, in a very dangerous area,” he says. A body lay trapped within a pile of twisted steel, which threatened to topple onto the crew at any moment. When they finally loaded the corpse into a pickup truck under a light rain, “all these guys started crying. The mud was caked on their faces, and their tears looked like a river coming down.”

Keegan’s labor amid the smoldering ruins changed him forever. “Down there, things were black-and-white. My ability to bring comfort to people was so direct. It completed me somehow.” When he returned to ordinary police work, “the world seemed gray. I felt myself retreating, not caring as much.” Keegan was just 50 when he retired in 2005 after 20 years on the force. He wrote a memoir, Closure: The Untold Story of the Ground Zero Recovery Mission. Then he pondered what to do with the rest of his life.

The answer came with Hurricane Katrina. Watching the slow and inept responses to the disaster, Keegan saw a need for the expertise he and his comrades had gained at the World Trade Center—and an opportunity to restore the feeling of purpose they all were now missing. In 2007, he enlisted two other 9/11 first responders—NYPD lieutenants Owen McCaffery and John A. Moran—and Tom Thees, a financial-industry executive. Together, they founded HEART 9/11, a nonprofit disaster-response corps (the acronym stands for Healing Emergency Aid Response Team) comprising more than 300 Ground Zero veterans as well as many relatives of those who perished in the New York attacks.

“All of a sudden, I realized what was important in life,” Keegan says. “I wanted to do something I could invest in emotionally, something that helped people. And that’s what this feels like—going back, to the sense of mission at the World Trade Center, yet moving forward.”

For its first project, the group built more than a dozen homes in St. Bernard Parish, a Louisiana community hard hit by Katrina. Four years later, in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, they built 50 homes in six days. Teams have also helped residents rebuild housing after a flood in Nashville.

“People hug us,” Keegan reports proudly. “They say, ‘You’re helping me? After what you’ve been through?’ And we say, ‘Well, that’s why we’re here. We know what it’s like. We survived September 11 with the help of a lot of people. Now we’re stronger, and we’re here to help you.’”

Jay Winuk and David Paine
“9/11 is about how good people responded.”

When the first plane hit the World Trade Center, Jay Winuk’s brother, Glenn, was in his apartment in Midtown Manhattan talking on the phone. The 40-year-old lawyer could have stayed there. But Glenn was also a volunteer firefighter, and he thought his rescue skills might be needed. He jumped in a cab and made it downtown in time to help evacuate workers in his building a block from the World Trade Center. Then he ran to the South Tower, where he borrowed a medic bag from an EMT and rushed into the lobby.

You couldn’t stop Glenn from going down to the scene of an accident,” says his brother Jay, 53, a public relations executive in Mahopac, New York. “He also responded in ’93 when the towers were bombed. I spent 9/11 trying to call him. By that night, we were calling hospitals. It wasn’t until weeks later that we gave up hope.” In October, Winuk’s family held a funeral; lacking a body, they buried a few of Glenn’s possessions in a plain pine box. The following spring, searchers found his remains beneath tons of debris, and the family held a second funeral.

Jay agonized over how to memorialize his brother. Then he got a call from David Paine, a former PR colleague and ex–New Yorker whose own brother had escaped from a building near Ground Zero. “I was struck by the way the whole country came together, this remarkable spirit of unity,” says David, recalling the conversation. “I had just read that the New York Mets had donated a day’s pay to the relief efforts for the 9/11 families and thought, What a great idea! Maybe we could all find a way to donate a day’s pay, or a day’s service, to help others. That would be a great tribute to those who had lost their lives.”

Jay loved the idea. The two men started a website and a nonprofit, MyGoodDeed, to coordinate volunteer efforts on the anniversary of 9/11. In the first year alone, 50,000 people posted their plans for the day, whether pitching in at soup kitchens, repairing schools and homeless shelters, or simply helping needy neighbors. “We wanted each person’s good deed to be personal to them, in tribute,” says David. In 2009, President Obama signed into law David Paine and Jay Winuk’s vision—the September 11 National Day of Service and Remembrance. This year, MyGoodDeed is organizing events in 24 U.S. cities and several foreign countries.

“I lost my kid brother, somebody I shared a bedroom with growing up,” says Jay. “Your siblings are the people you’re supposed to know the longest in your life. And when they’re taken away, that leaves a big, big hole. So the ten years of trying to do something in memory of him have been a labor of love. His example of going out of his way for other people in need—we could all use more of that.

“We want future generations to understand that 9/11 is not just about the attacks. It’s about how good people responded.”

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest