x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

A tragedy understood by the lives of three good men

In memories of that dreadful September 11 and its aftermath, three victims gave the disaster a human dimension.


Greg Bruno

Gerald Fisher was an "eternal optimist". Captain Charles "Chic" Burlingame III was described as a "go-to guy". And Lt Gen Timothy Maude was one of the US army's most important men.

All three were killed when American Airlines Flight 77 slashed through the Pentagon 10 years ago on Sunday.

I never met any of them. But their deaths define my September 11.

Americans struggle to make sense of those attacks. We know where we were, what we were doing, who we were with. But a decade later we still can't process the "why" of what we saw, or understand the anger in which the United States responded.

So when Americans fail to come up with answers that satisfy or pacify, we settle instead on memories. And it is the victims whose stories I know best.

A year before the towers fell, I'd taken a job with The New York Times in the Washington DC bureau. During that year, I had helped cover the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, the contested presidential election of 2000 and the monotony of America's policy machine.

But at 8.46am on September 11, while visiting a friend in New Jersey, I began to understand why journalism mattered. This is no trite statement. That day showed how journalism helps to explain the world in real time - the decisions, the triumphs and the tragedies.

By the time the second plane hit the World Trade Center I was in my car driving south. When I checked in by phone with my editors in the Times Square offices, they sent me to the capital. Roadblocks in New York were going up, tunnels were closing and lower Manhattan was becoming a war zone. Panic was setting in.

The Washington newsroom was controlled and working, but the buzz was frenetic, chaotic, even apocalyptic. Friends in New York were wondering about family and colleagues but among seasoned reporters at 1627 I Street, the questions were far graver.

"Where was the president?" I remember someone asking. "Has he returned to Washington? Are there more planes inbound? Is Congress next? Who is running the country?"

I called my family.

The third attack hit at 9.37am. After ducking low over the Potomac River, Flight 77 took a path into the Pentagon, steered by a hijacker who had forced the pilot, Capt Burlingame, from the cockpit. And as Ground Zero smouldered and New Yorkers leapt to their deaths, as powerful men hid in bunkers, America's vulnerability was laid bare.

Over 180 people were dead by the time I reached the Pentagon, among them Capt Burlingame, Gerald Fisher, a consultant working with the military, and Gen Timothy Maude, the US army's deputy chief of staff for personnel.

In the immediate aftermath, press was kept at a distance, well beyond the ring of fire engines, ambulances and stretchers that pulled people from the rubble. But I didn't need to be any closer. None of us did.

In the days that followed we searched for answers; I did so by trying to give a voice to some of the victims. Portraits of Grief, one of the Times post-September 11 projects that was eventually awarded a Pulitzer Prize, aimed to tell the story of every man, women and child who died that day.

The names of three men landed on my desk.

In my career since, I have done my share of door-stopping relatives, sitting for hours with friends of soldiers killed in Iraq, or a family grieving a young man's death in Afghanistan. But the calls I made to friends and family of Mr Fisher, Capt Burlingame and Gen Maude have stayed with me.

Mr Fisher "was a very open kind of guy, an eternal optimist", one of his colleagues said. Capt Burlingame, a former classmate said, "was kind of a go-to guy. If you needed something done and done right, you would call on 'Chic'". The army had needed Gen Maude, a friend recalled. "They wanted his sage wisdom.''

Years after I left the Times, I returned to Washington and paid a visit to the Pentagon's America's Heroes Memorial, a small room in the building's outer ring. I stopped at the book of biographies and flipped to the Bs. A photo of American Airlines Capt Burlingame smiled back, big white teeth filling the frame.

I hadn't known that Chic was married to a flight attendant, that he had played trumpet in his high school marching band or that he had been a navy jet fighter pilot.

I didn't know him, but I have never forgotten him.