A fellow alumnus of Senator Schumer’s office recently sent a note around, alerting a few of us who were in the office in the early 2000s to the recent passing of a Staten Island 9/11 family member with whom we all worked. I hadn’t thought of Bill Doyle in a few years, but I remember him well, and am sorry to hear he died. I had helped Bill in discussions with AOL to allow him to send mass emails on 9/11 issues that were, at the time, addressed to more people than email limits allowed. Recalling our work together—it was a small issue, but mattered a lot to him—has me thinking of the other families I had the honor of working with back then.
I started in the senator’s office in November of 2001, not long after the horrific attacks on the towers, and was designated one of the primary contacts for 9/11 families. Remains were still being found and sifted through, cleanup was in preliminary stages, and there were funerals and memorials taking place all the time. I attended the funeral service of a firefighter I knew as a college freshman. Newspapers were filled with obituaries, and those in the suburbs were writing about death riding the commuter trains.
Heated policy discussions were taking place on issues impacted by the attacks and their aftermath: airline security, insurance, compensation funds, building safety and liability. Families had a role in all of those talks. Foreign wars, in which we are still involved, were being preliminarily debated.
Grief and policy were intertwined. Families needed to be advocates, but also needed to catch their breath. Children’s parents were killed, parents lost their adult children, and spouses were left widows and widowers. And there were issues—though I wouldn’t say they rose to the level of conflicts—among different groups of 9/11 families.
For many reasons, all understandable, first responders who died received the majority of attention and media coverage. Employees who worked in the companies that called the towers home, regular folks who did nothing more than be at work that day, were similarly eulogized. Lost in the well-intentioned scrum of emotion were the civilian employees in the building: electricians, porters, building service personnel and maintenance staff. I remember working closely with those families, people who didn’t have powerful voices to speak up for them. Those families’ loss was as real as that of any others, and they asked for help.
Some families were hawks for overseas military action; others didn’t want their tragedy to be used as an excuse for war. Some families insisted on the sanctity of remains collection; some accommodated whatever was immediately doable. Mothers and fathers, siblings, children, spouses—some became impressive experts on fire safety in buildings or the intricacies of reinsurance law.
Often, before press conferences or at the start of meetings, Senator Schumer would ask family members to lead our group in a prayer. Tears were commonplace. Now-single parents asked the senator, and sometimes the staff, to speak with their children privately. We made referrals to counselors. We listened. We made sure that other governmental offices returned families’ phone calls.
Time passed. Soldiers went to Iraq and Afghanistan. New losses compounded 9/11 deaths. Ground Zero became a financing and rebuilding quagmire of its own, with mostly positive results. Some families stayed in touch; others less so.
Years later, long after I had left the senator’s office, I started getting email updates from families I knew back then to share news about new marriages, children going off to college, old notes they’d found while cleaning out old homes before moving, or ancient emails that surfaced. Maybe one of those emails was from Bill Doyle.
9/11 changed America in ways still unfolding. It certainly impacted families who lost a loved one. It changed neighborhoods, our city and all of New York. It changed my understanding of public service, and—I hope—made me a better advocate.