An odyssey honoring the lost Alumni Association makes trek to ground zero

By Dan Lamothe, Collegian Staff

The UMass Alumni Association paid its respects to the 11 alumni that perished as victims of hate on Sept. 11 last Friday. Two other students and I made the trip with them. Sobering does not begin to describe the experience.

It was my first trip to New York City, and while totally lost geographically, I knew it as soon as we rolled up to the site. It didn’t take me long to figure it out that we were there – the huge hole in the skyline created by the destruction of seven colossal buildings made it easy to figure out.

I think everyone realized it at the same time. All of the chatter in the police escort van abruptly stopped. The huge emptiness in the air where the World Trade Center should have stood haunted everyone standing within reach of where its shadows were cast. Never in my life had clear, open blue sky seemed so scary.

The van came to a stop, and we started to get out. A New York state trooper security agent mysteriously known to us only as Reggie helped me get the wreath out of the van. The wreath is the reason I was there. Eleven University of Massachusetts alumni died in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.

Eleven individuals, 11 different stories and one act of hate all led me to a spot on a freshly paved city street less than 200 feet from an open cavern – a cavern that seven short months before had gone in one instant from being a center of financial, tourist and national pride to a twisted horror scene buried in 10 stories of iron, concrete, steel and death.

Meeting the Man

How do we try and prevent this from happening again? Every American knows that precautions are being taken to prevent terrorists from taking another such terrorist action on us again. But what are these measures? What is being done to make the United States of America a safe place to live and grow?

As part of the trip, we were invited to the Office of Public Security for New York State. The office, created in the post Sept. 11 world by New York Governor George E. Pataki, is essentially the homeland security office for the state of New York. Heading this office is Jim Kallstrom, the former assistant director of the FBI and head of the FBI in New York City. The lead investigator in the TWA Flight 800 Crash and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Kallstrom also has one other credential of interest to his name: University of Massachusetts graduate, class of 1966.

When Kallstrom talks, people listen. The Wall Street Journal called him “the bulldog at front and center” during the TWA investigation. The Boston Herald called him “a tough-talking G-man who lists his idols as his father, Ted Williams, Eisenhower and Patton.” After sitting in a room with the man, the above descriptions seem fair. Just having Kallstrom sitting there in the same room makes you sit up a little straighter in your chair.

Picking Up the Pieces

“The globe has really shrunk,” Kallstrom said as he sipped from his coffee mug. “The United States really has an international economy that outgrew an aspect of security.”

He looked down the table from his head seat position as he talked to his visitors from UMass. “If you’ve flown, you basically know that there is no security in airports. It was inevitable that this would happen, and it’s inevitable that something else is going to happen again.” At this, Kallstrom’s eyes narrowed and his voice dropped a little.

“The rest of the world has security,” he nodded. “But we’re this loosy-goosy people that don’t want to impose anything on people. When you have people living here fostering their glee with what happened to all those people [in the Trade Center], it’s a tough situation.”

So what do we do to stop it?

“The number one priority of the government is to protect the citizens,” Kallstrom stated to us. “You can split the things our government is planning to do into two columns.”

Kallstrom’s voice deepened. “In one column, we’re doing our best at stopping another [attack] even from happening through intelligence…” His voice faded away, as he went back into thought.

“It’s kind of like having a house and taking the doors off,” he said. “I really don’t think that’s an over-dramatization. I think it makes sense to do common sense things, because we haven’t; we have to do big things.”

Kallstrom’s face darkened and he raised his voice. “We knew about an approaching security problem in 1988 as analog technology went to digital… We knew [intelligence-wise] we wouldn’t be able to keep up… We didn’t do much of anything until after 9-11. That’s 14 years.” He drew out the word 14, adding emphasis to his point.

Kallstrom then remembered his second “column,” the other thing the government has to prepare for since the Sept. 11 debacle. “We’ve got to clean it up if and when [terrorist actions] happen.”

Kallstrom pushed himself away from the table a little. All present could sense that he was switching gears as he thought again. “I’m an optimist,” he stated. “I’d like to think that we can do away with the root cause of this problem. If we can’t, we’re going to have to follow this situation through, though.”

Kallstrom outlined things that the state of New York is more closely trying to protect now – everything from the milk supply to small airfields to the water supply.

“They’re thinking outside the box. Yes, we’re covering the New York Stock Exchange,” he said, giving an example of an obvious target. “But there’s 545 airports in the state of New York. Try watching them all.”

Kallstrom took a deep breath, reviewing in his head all that he’d said to us in the previous hour. “All this stuff I’ve been talking about? We’ve been talking about it for decades,” he noted. “We don’t do things until there are big problems in the United States.”

Kallstrom shook his head. “A lot of people,” he began slowly, “say that during the Clinton Administration, the [American] people wouldn’t have stood for [doing] something [aggressive to prevent terrorism]. Of course not. Leadership needs to stand up for it and keep the public’s attention that this is serious.

“We can’t do everything at once,” Kallstrom demanded.

He exhaled. “We CAN do one thing at a time, and eventually, we’ll be better off. I think this is more serious than the Cold War… than World War II… this is a lot to deal with.”

In Memory

I walked across the freshly paved street with the wreath in my arms. A cold, bitter wind pushed down between the remaining high rises, and I shivered. It may have been April, but the weather suggested February last Friday.

Susan Mattei, Executive Director of the UMass Alumni Association, led us towards the platform where World Trade Center victim’s families could view the site and mourn their losses. Built up against the nearby World Financial Center and Dow Jones Building, it overlooks the canyon that remains of the World Trade Center site, a clear sign of the steady progress that New Yorkers have made in cleaning up the site as quickly and respectfully as possible.

The seven UMass people in attendance – four alumni, three students -slowly worked their way up the wooden staircase. A quote by Abraham Lincoln served as a centerpiece on the lower level of the platform.

“I pray that our heavenly father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom,” it reads. It’s from his “Letter to Mrs. Bixby,” the mother of a civil war soldier that perished in battle.

Overwhelmed already, we made our way to the higher level. We placed the wreath on a stand up against a wooden support pole, and Mattei read a poem out loud. We then reached the names of those from our UMass family that were lost in the attack.

“The University of Massachusetts Amherst Alumni Association was deeply affected by the tragic events of Sept. 11. We would like to express our deep sympathy for all of our UMass family members who were affected,” Mattei read to us and anyone else listening.

We started to read the n
ames off, one by one. After each name was read, the folder with UMass letterhead inside emblazoned with the names of the victims got passed on to the next member of our travel group. My mind drifted as the names were read. “Christoffer M. Carstanjen… Geoffrey W. Cloud… Tara Shea Creamer… Peter Hashem… Todd Russell Hill… John C. Jenkins… Thomas N. Pecorelli… David Ellis Rivers… Sheryl L. Rosner Rosenbaum…”

At this, the letterhead was sitting in my hands. “Jessica Sachs,” I said in a clear voice. My voice caught, though, as I saw the Sachs was a member of the Class of 2001. I later confirmed that she indeed graduated last spring. Graduated in spring. Died in the fall. She was 22 years old.

The last person in our group named one other victim the Association had chosen to recognize: Peter J. Ganci, chief of the New York City Fire Department. His daughter Danielle is a member of the UMass Class of 2000.

With that, we were allowed to wander the site. My mind wandered just as much. I thought of the car trip from the Security Office building to ground zero. In the course of several dozen city blocks, I had got Trooper Reggie (I regretfully have no other information on him) to open up on his role during Sept. 11.

“It was like walking into a disaster movie,” he told me. Originally told to deal with the fleeing crowds as they came over the Brooklyn Bridge, Reggie was reassigned to ground zero before Sept. 11 was over.

“I was a member of the ‘bucket brigade’,” he said. His face betrayed no emotion, as he spoke the words, but his eyes told a different story. “I sifted through the piles looking for body parts. You’d step in something gooey and realize it could be human flesh. You didn’t know what you were walking in.”

I recalled Reggie’s face as he revealed to us that he had a close friend that worked on the 86th floor. “We haven’t seen her since,” he said quietly.

The sound of iron clanging as workers labored in the Trade Center hole jarred me back to reality. I began to survey the whole scene. I knew from briefing that seven buildings had been demolished in the disaster and that eight others had sustained heavy damage.

I looked at these other eight buildings. A black shroud ran down the length of the side of one of the high-rise buildings, well over fifty stories long. A gigantic American flag hung defiantly on top of it. The sides of all the other surrounding buildings were caked with soot, ash, and scorched from the heat of the fires that ravaged the Trade Center. Many windows were missing, even seven months later. Several of the buildings had constructions crews working on them, steadily trying to fix what hate had destroyed.

My attention turned to the memorial itself. I gazed blurrily at a wall of faces, pictures, and letters filled with the agony of uncertainty that many of the families have. It occurred to me that for many of the victims, this is as close to a gravesite as they will ever get. I realized the difficulty families involved must have in finding true closure.

My eyes fixed on individual letters, and my heart sunk. Each letter, while all nearly the same, told the story of another individual that was a victim of circumstance; thousands of individuals, thousands of different stories, one act of hate.

I began to read the lines of “A Fireman’s Prayer,” but tore my attention away from it before I finished. “When I can called to duty, God, whenever flames may rage,” it began. “Give me strength to save some life, whatever be its age.”

With a sick feeling in my stomach, my gaze continued to shift. My eyes met the gaze of Vladamir Savenkin, as I stared at a poster with his face on it. “5/9/80 – 9/11/01,” it read underneath his photo. I quickly did the math and realized that Vladamir was 21 when he died. It dawned on me that he easily could have been one of us. He was our age, our generation. Gone, just like the rest of them.

I continued my wandering. My eyes took in the gifts, flowers, and card that mourners had left as they slowly built a shrine out of the site. Some gifts seemed normal. Others seemed a little strange. One man left his brother a full bottle of Heineken. A woman left her son a Ziploc bag with two packages of Reese’s peanut butter cups in it.

Finally I stopped, perhaps finding what I was looking for. In a childish crayon-drawn scrawl, I read the following: “Dear Tommy Cahill, I miss you a lot! I wish you could come back I love you so much!!! I wish you could come back and swim in the pool. You were so fun to play with!!! You were a grate uncle. I used to have four uncles but now I have three uncles with one in heaven. …from Ashley.” A heart was drawn in purple after the word heaven.

My heart broke. My heart will break again every time I think of that letter. As I came back to reality, I realized several men in kilts with bagpipes were playing “Amazing Grace.” I had not even seen them come in. The steady whir of the cement mixer pouring a new sidewalk hummed in the background of the bagpipe music. The wind came up again, and I shivered. Two tears dropped from my left eye. Perhaps the wind blowing the dust into my face had caused them; but I don’t think that was it.