The 9/11 Eulogies
"If you're the mayor's speechwriter, what's your job" after the Towers fall? You're going to start thinking about "how do you find something redemptive out of this attack? How do you try and encapsulate those emotions?"
John Avlon, then the chief speechwriter for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, led the group that spent the weeks after 9/11 writing eulogies for each fallen fireman and police officer, giving him the "dark distinction of probably writing more eulogies than anyone else alive."
Now a senior columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, he spoke with the Voice about his experience, stressing that the important thing wasn't his personal story but those of the uniformed officers whose lives he tried to honor. What follows is a lightly edited transcript:
AVLON: I started with Rudy a year out of college as an advance man. I'd written some campaign literature and it didn't even occur to me that if you won, you generally got a job offer. I remember my freshman year in college, when Dinkins was mayor, walking by City Hall and thinking, "being the speechwriter for the mayor of New York, that's got to be a great job." So after we won, I said I'd like to work as a speechwriter. At the time, it was considered a really undesirable. People asked, "really? Are you sure?"
Rudy had a reputation for not reading speeches, which was largely true. There are two main models in terms of politicians giving speeches. There's the Kennedy-Reagan model of a person who's scripted and a great performer, and there's the Nixon-Rudy model of former prosecutors, very smart and trained to think on their feet. They really resist being scripted; they are not performers. But I thought that speechwriting was where politics and policy and writing all came together. It's the best place in the world to be, especially if you're a young guy. You get to learn from the mayor and work directly with the mayor.
Growing up in New York in the 70s, seeing all the brick lots and burned out buildings - the city looked like Dresden in some parts then - to see it all turning around was inspiring and I wanted to be a part of it. There was so much turnover in the speechwriting office that I ended up running the department at I think age 26, and then being deputy communications director as well. Oddly enough, I was going to leave the administration to get a master's degree in counter-terrorism at the Monterey Institute on September 6 and Rudy asked me to defer for a semester and wait until the end of his term. So I did. I'd gotten interested in counterterrorism because I'd been involved with the Office of Emergency Management around Y2K and Rudy had created OEM.
I'd been working as staff on the charter revision commission and on September 10, we handed in a major document - one of the things on the ballot was making OEM a permanent agency. I slept late the next day because I'd just handed in this report, and it was supposed to be a relatively quiet day. I remember Bob Dylan's Love and Theft was coming out - I was planning on going to J&R and get that at lunch. I was living on Cornelia Street, in a fifth-floor walk up and all of a sudden I heard this roaring sound, and I saw the first plane fly over my window. I remember seeing the silver belly of the plane, and you knew it was going to crash. But it didn't occur to me or any of us that it was an intentional missile attack, in effect. There's something very sweet about New Yorker's civic naïveté on 9/11 initially. The day was what's called radical clear - a bright blue-sky day after violent storms the night before, and still there was this sense that it had to be an accident.
When you're the mayor's speechwriter, you mainline New York City history, and one of the purposes of history in politics is to provide a sense of context. The only parallel we had was a B-25 in 1945 that hit the Empire State Building in the fog. Two things about that: First, it was an accident; Second, the Empire State Building stood. So that was sort of a mental template before the second plane hit. But I do think there's something civically sweet about the fact that we all assumed it had to be an accident despite the fact that it made no rational sense. If pilots are in a crashing situation in New York City, they're supposed to land in the river, which is what Sully did.
By the time the second attack occurred I was on my way out the door, walking past the Our Lady of Pompeii church on Bleecker and Carmine, past the playground on the corner of Houston and Sixth across from the firehouse where I would be four, five hours later, where I met Rudy later that day. I walked against the tide of people leaving downtown--felt for some reason I should be at work, this sort of misplaced sense of civic duty. There was really nothing that I was going to be able to do, but I felt I should be there. And I had people I worked with - I was responsible for not just the speech-writing team but research and all the written products that came out of the administration. So I walked down and by the time I got down to City Hall, people were streaming uptown and it was remarkably calm. As I wrote in The Resilient City, it was the response of a civil society to a massive attack.
You could see this quicksilver sheen around the impact zone. It almost reminded me at the time of the special effects in Terminator 2, this quicksilver sheen.
Our thought really was given the parallel of the Empire State Building that the buildings would just - they'd have a hole in them, it would be a fire, but they would stand. We didn't have a parallel for buildings imploding. By the time I got to City Hall, people were clustered around the gates and it almost reminded me at the time of those scenes you see at the fall of the U.S. embassy at Vietnam. The cops on guard recognized me, I got inside and there was a very small group. And I remember that the newspapers on the table in the press office were instantly irrelevant, they were reflecting a different world - news from another century. There was a lot of misinformation flying around. We heard another plane hit the Pentagon. There were rumors they'd shot down another plane. Nobody had a clue. We were living in a fog of war.
Rudy was setting up for a press conference on the corner of Vesey Street -people were jumping, but the towers were standing so there was no dust cloud yet-and I was trying to evacuate my team. We evacuated all non-essential personnel and we were standing outside on the steps and then I remember Rudy Washington, the deputy mayor, saying the towers were coming down. And there was this shock of recognition. No one had a mental template for that. The sound of the towers coming down was one of the things I'll never forget. It registered a 2.4 on the Richter Scale and the sound was like being behind a thousand jets when they took off. There was almost this sigh of humanity you could hear echo through lower Manhattan and then the cloud of ash and debris rushing toward you - at a distance it's slow and then as it gets closer it's very fast - and then enveloping this 1832 building City Hall and hearing the debris pitter patter on the stone roof and seeing people respond.
People respond different ways. Some people went fetal, some people were crying, some people were shouting orders in different directions. It's the fog of war. No one knows what's going on. We heard rumors that Tommy Von Essen, the Fire Commissioner, had been killed. I remember one person coming up to us and saying, "we lost Tommy." It wasn't true. But we lost 343 firefighters. In one day, one hour, one minute, that was more than the department had lost up to that point in its history.
We commandeered a bus in between the two towers collapsing. At that point, there was still somehow the thought that, "well, there'll just be one tower." And we commandeered a bus to get people up from City Hall and the second tower fell and it was this grey wasteland of ash and smoke pierced by sirens. Rudy sent word for me to go back into the building to look for Beth Hatton, his longtime executive assistant who was married to Terry Hatton, who was the captain of Rescue One. These were people we knew, these were people we worked with, who had raced into the towers. We got into a van that was underneath the municipal building--myself, Beth Hatton, Kate Anson the mayor's scheduler, and Owen Brennan--and we went to meet the mayor on Houston Street. He was in the firehouse, and that's where we reconvened, and then went on to the Police Academy that became the new operations center. The OEM headquarters was in 7 World Trade, so that was already on fire and would soon collapse.
But one of the amazing things because of all the drills we'd done, we were able to reestablish a functional emergency operation center first at the Police Academy and then at Pier 51 very quickly. The pier setup was really thorough, and that all was done in around 72 hours.
That day was so surreal and dichotomized, especially as you walked uptown: Some people were covered in ash and other people were going about their day. You looked downtown and there was this plume of smoke. In Midtown, there was a stark difference. There were these shocks of recognition that hurt your heart. I remember seeing people playing Frisbee in a park while other people walked by covered in ash. I remember trying to go into every church I walked by. You know you'd seen a lot of people die that day, and you didn't know how many at that point--and you didn't know what would happen next. The adrenalin kept you moving.
So if you're the mayor's speechwriter, what's your job? You're going to start thinking about how do you make this event mean something--not "make this mean," that's wrong--how do you find something redemptive out of this attack? How do you try and encapsulate those emotions? How do you capture a sense of perspective, comfort and resolve - something useful that can give people strength at that time.