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September 12, 2023

Commemoration of the 22 Anniversary of the September 11th Attacks

Remarks delivered by Chargé d’Affaires Kevin O’Reilly
September 11, 2023

Today, at the entrance to our embassy, the flag is at half-staff, in mourning and remembrance, as in every anniversary of September 11, 2001, and at all of our facilities and in every corner of our country. 

Anyone old enough to remember the events of that day, certainly all Americans, remember an intensely shared experience and an intensely personal one.  

Like millions of people around the world, I saw for the first time on television, live, the images of the World Trade Center towers in flames; a friend called me into my office at the State Department and just said, “turn on the TV—now”. 

Minutes later, like hundreds of thousands of people in Washington, I saw with my own eyes the smoke rising over the Pentagon. 

Like tens of thousands of people in Washington and New York and around the world, I spent much of the day worrying about a member of my family. 

My brother lived and worked in Manhattan, only a few steps from the two towers. He survived, but 2,997 other souls did not. 

It was a terrible day made stranger by a beautiful clear blue sky and lovely weather, 28 degrees Celsius, 83 Fahrenheit-hardly a cloud in the sky—a sky that seemed to mock suffering with indifference. 

A priest who later offered the funeral mass for a friend who died in the bombings said his “whole spirit collapsed to the ground”. 

Many shared the same sentiment. 

But I also remember how two people who died in the attack, men I never met in life, helped me overcome my despair. 

I met them through their obituaries. 

I read about William Feehan, a lion in the New York City Fire Department. 

He was the son of a firefighter, father of a firefighter, a Korean War veteran, he was 71 when he died; the department’s highest-ranking career professional. 

He became a firefighter in 1959 and to this day he is the only person to have held every rank in the department. 

They say he knew the location of every fire hydrant in New York City, and he wouldn’t let his department replace the rotary phone on his desk. 

He lived a life of service, protecting communities and saving lives. 

I also read about Friar Mychal Judge, a priest of the Franciscan order, an order known for its commitment to the poor and to charity. Judge served a convent and parish at West 31st Street, across from Engine No. 1-Ladder 24 Fire Station, and became a fire chaplain. 

The South Tower collapse killed them both, along with many others. 

For years, Friar Mike went to the site of fires, cared for people, and for injured firefighters and the dying-and in cases of death, for their widows, widowers, and orphans. 

When AIDS had no effective treatment, he became one of the first members of the clergy to minister to and care for those dying of that terrible disease. 

He lived simply, shared compassion, and turned no one away. 

He wrote a few short lines on prayer cards to the homeless, the dying or sick, and to the simply sick at heart: 

Lord, take me where you want me to go. 

Let me meet who you want me to meet. 

Tell me what you want me to say. 

And keep me out of your way. 

What a good way to live a dignified life. 

Their stories did and still give me hope. 

I remember thinking, too bad I hadn’t met them, how terrible they died like this, but I also thought that if our society-and humanity-had produced servants like these, well, then we were going to produce more men -and more women-like these, and that we could face and overcome any obstacles before us. 

Many people died that day, cruelly murdered—children from Washington, DC, flying to attend a science camp in California; dishwashers in the Windows on the World restaurant; tourists traveling from Boston to our west coast: citizens of about twenty countries; followers of half a dozen religions-prominent and anonymous men and women; each with their own human dignity, loved by their family and in their community. 

We mourn each individual loss, but at the same time I would like to remember and thank those who responded to help those who fell victim to these attacks, including many who sacrificed their own lives in trying to help: seventy-one police officers- three hundred and forty-three firefighters-eight paramedics—public servants, touched by fire. 

In that dark hour, when the question came to them, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” each responded, “Here I am, send me.” 

September 11, 2001, was a watershed—on one side the waters run one way, on the other side they run in the opposite direction. 

That day changed the world and profoundly affected the United States. It hurt us. It diverted our energies. It confused our culture and our politics for a generation. We had to face a new feeling of vulnerability and work hard to overcome it, but we have renewed ourselves. 

My career clearly has a before and after. My responsibilities and mission changed, the waters ran in a different direction, and many, many of our colleagues here, and around the world, can say the same. 

Many entered public service after, and because of, the sacrifices we saw that day. 

And we have renewed ourselves with good people, good people with a calling to serve. 

With each generation and each new challenge. There is renewal.  

In the years since 2001, we have faced tragedies and hardships and have had to cross new watersheds—and surely there are others in our future, not just for the United States but for us all.  

And the people who renew us? 

We have known them—we have served alongside them; we have seen them raise their hands to say, “send me.” 

We all recognize that yesterday’s challenges are not always those of today, or of tomorrow. 

But humanity is resilient, as is each human society. We should recognize the essential hope in this fact. 

We will always remember what happened in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001— but we also remember other challenges that once seemed insurmountable—such as what happened on another September 11 in 1973, fifty years ago—when a military coup usurped for 17 long and very hard years the legitimate democratic authority of the Chilean people, accumulating power in the hands of a violent, cruel, and bloody dictatorship. 

We must say about this dark period in the history of our hemisphere, as others have already said, never again, and we must admire how Chileans, and others as well, have defended the right to live without fear, to live in peace. 

The dates differ, but every society confronts its own version of September 11, caused by man, or by nature—the Guns of August in 1914, the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, the earthquake on December 23, 1972, that devastated this city—but each society has those who raise their own hands and say, again, send me. 

In that sense, these challenges unite us. Instead of highlighting our differences they remind us of our shared humanity. 

So, we always remember—and at the same time we focus our energies on where we need to go—on the words of the hymn made famous during our hard-fought struggles for civil rights and the March on Washington sixty years ago, keeping our eyes on the prize, focusing on what we must do to build a better future—more equitable, more sustainable, more resilient—and we trust in the power of renewal. 

Because the world has produced more examples like Bill Feehan and more like Friar Mike Judge.  

They come from societies in every corner of our world, and certainly not just from the United States or from Chile or from Nicaragua or from any one country, but spread out among us. 

There are women and men of courage all over the world ministering to the sick and dying—or acting in defense of the poor, the powerless, in defense of freedom of speech and conscience and democracy, to protect the environment, and defending the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and self-determination of their nations and for each one of them, in our hemisphere and in our world, we are beyond grateful. 

And at sunset, in this solemn day, we will raise the flag to full staff and we will look to the future.  

Thank you.