Real Heroes Run Toward—Not Away From—Danger

A book excerpt dedicated to the memory of those who were lost on 9/11.

Posted Sep 11, 2016

This post is the Sept 11 diary entry of my fictional character Jessie from my book "Project Superhero". It is dedicated to the memory of all those who were lost on 9/11 and all those—like my friend Mike Bruen—who tried so hard to save them.

It’s been a long time since September 11, 2001 but all the news coverage still seems so creepy. Lots of images on TV and online today about 9/11. Pretty freaky. And we had that special visitor friend of Ms. King.

This guy was an incredible speaker. His name is Mike Bruen and he was a sergeant—he’s retired now—in the New York City Police Department.

So he was pretty important and saw a lot of crazy stuff. Wow, the stuff he saw and did. He was, like, right there at Ground Zero. Lots of dust and smoke made it hard to see and to breathe even.

Ms. King asked Mike a bunch of questions, so we could learn about his experiences. He was so amazing that I wrote a lot of what he said down even though we didn’t have to take notes.

Ms. King: “Did 9/11 seem real to you when it was happening? You were actually there. But every time we all look at videos and TV shows about it each year, it just seems like we’re watching a movie or something that’s just not real.”

Mike Bruen: “That’s some question . . . did 9/11 seem real to me? Well, let me tell you kids, it was so real—it was overwhelming. You looked up and around at places that you have seen a million times and they were just . . . gone. People around me were walking around in shock. At times like these, you have to be careful to not take in too much. I forgot all about tomorrow or next week and just thought about now. And how I was going to deal with the next few minutes or how I could take the next few steps.
I tried to make each step a focused step because, the truth is, I realized they could be my last.

Sorry! I’ve gotten pretty serious here—but you did ask, right?

I tried to think for the people who couldn’t. Because they were in shock and scared. That kind of thing is something I saw a lot in my career as a police officer. It gets easier to do with practice.

People who depend on you kind of feed on your ability to take charge. And the cool thing is they somehow become more confident because of your confidence.
So I just focused on the tasks at hand—the little things, the little steps that I saw in front of me. That’s how I did it.

Occasionally, me and my friends, when time allowed, we lifted our heads to look at the big picture. And it was unbelievable. You cannot understand the level of destruction.
About a week or so later, my group of detectives in the NYPD left the hole (or kind of a pile) that used to be the World Trade Center and spent 12 hours at the Staten Island dump sifting through wreckage and remains.

We did a hundred yard field at a time. Standing shoulder to shoulder with other officers, looking for something we could recognize as anything but pulverized rubble.
After a few passes, we found nothing. So I got my line together and said to my guys, ‘The first person who finds anything recognizable of any life being present, bring it to me.’

About six hours later, the line was stopped by a detective. As he came toward me, he held up a green and white highlighter pen. This image remains seared into my memory. This was the first thing that showed us we weren’t on the barren landscape of another planet. This was the only thing remotely human we found.
That is devastation.”

Before he came into our class, Ms. King had showed us a couple of news videos and summaries of what happened. Almost 3,000 people died in this tragedy. It is hard to even understand what that number means.

And to hear from somebody who was actually there and trying to help everyone was pretty mind-blowing. Mike said it was total mayhem with dust everywhere and people going every which way. The police and fire service people weren’t just going every which way. They were all going to the World Trade Center.

And at the World Trade Center, everything was out of control. The police were rushing all around trying to help whoever needed help. Which was basically everyone.

Today I learned something important about heroes from Sgt. Mike Bruen.

Real heroes run towards—not away from—danger.

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2016)