One Of The Youngest 9/11 Relief Volunteers Recalls ‘Overwhelming Loss’ And ‘Extraordinary’ Responders
Today marks 19 years since the September 11 attacks, which saw almost 3,000 people in the United States lose their lives.
The events of 9/11 are an infamous part of recent American history, and they are marked every day through permanent memorials and in the memories and stories people have of that fateful day. But on each anniversary, more than any other day, we must take the time to remember all those who died and all those who bravely responded to the attacks.
With hijacked planes targeting New York City, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania, the impact was widespread and felt by every member of the nation and beyond. Kyle Bass, a Homeland Security and Emergency Management Consultant from Long Island, was just 12 years old at the time, but he told UNILAD his heart was ‘broken’ when he heard what had happened.
Like many young people, Kyle was at school when the news of the attacks broke. He saw footage of planes hitting the twin towers on a TV in his classroom, and asked to be excused so he could try to compose himself. Kyle was one of thousands for who the attack hit closer to home, because his brother had a meeting scheduled in one of the towers at the time they collapsed.
Whether down to a stroke of luck, a higher power or pure coincidence, Kyle’s brother was late to his meeting, and ultimately his lack of punctuality saved his life. The family were still in the thick of the incident, though, as in the aftermath Kyle’s mother, Lesllie, was put to work at ground zero.
Lesllie worked for a food distribution company, and she was part of the relief effort helping to provide firefighters, medics and other first responders with food. It’s no secret that work at ground zero was tough and tiresome, with rescuers working for hours on end to sift through the rubble, tend to the injured, and find those who were still missing.
Kyle told UNILAD he was proud of the role his mother played at ground zero, and he himself got an ‘overwhelming desire to help in anyway [he] could’. About a week after the attacks, when responders began to uncover more bodies from the rubble, Lesllie was moved to work at Shea Stadium in Queens, which was being used as a temporary site for relief efforts.
Volunteers collected donations, and food tents were set up to feed responders, and after the attacks made him feel ‘helpless’, Kyle decided to help his mother serve those who were working on the frontlines.
Because he was just 12 years old at the time, Kyle has previously been considered to be one of the youngest ‘responders’ to the attacks, most notably in studies carried out by Columbia University in New York, which looked at the long-term health of 9/11 responders.
Discussing his experience working at Shea Stadium, Kyle said:
To be able to work in the capacity I did brought me a sense of purpose and accomplishment. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks I felt incredibly frustrated and helpless.
[Working gave me] a sense of accomplishment and fulfilment. I felt a small measure of control over my life again and though my heart was still broken over what had taken place, I knew that I was doing everything in my power to assist my fellow man in a time of crisis.
I didn’t feel scared while working, perhaps due to the naivety of being young. However, at the time, my sole focus was on helping in any way I could.
Kyle, who is now 31, described the atmosphere after the attacks as being full of ‘confusion and despair’. He interacted with those working on the frontlines, and said he could ‘sense the sadness’ and the ‘overwhelming loss’ felt by everyone involved in the relief efforts.
Discussing the bravery of the responders, Kyle said:
To those who responded, such as my mother and the responders I served – as well as all the others who were involved – I say that you are heroes.
Anyone who is reading this and was a responder to September 11, 2001, you are nothing short of extraordinary and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for inspiring me to become what I have today.
Your actions allowed a terrified kid to find purpose and meaning, not only in the moment, but in life. For this, there are no words other than thank you.
Kyle recalled how rescuers were ‘drawing on reserves that one only finds in these types of extraordinary situations’, and said that while there was a feeling of anger against those responsible, there was also a feeling of determination; that the United States was ‘going to do whatever it takes to come back from this’.
The feeling of determination is one often echoed by those remembering 9/11, and every single person who helped in the aftermath should be endlessly proud of their efforts. Not only did they help others, but they did so while putting their own lives at risk.
Last year, a paper published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health discussed the ‘wide range of physical and mental health disorders that continue to plague thousands of people’ so many years after the attacks.
The collapse of the twin towers prompted a plume of pulverised asbestos and other hazardous materials to spread across lower Manhattan, exposing 410,000 to 525,000 people to toxic dust, Asbestos.com reports. By 2018, approximately 10,000 people had been diagnosed with 9/11-related cancer.
After having served at ground zero, Kyle’s mother Lesllie became one of these people, developing an aggressive form of cancer that was at one point deemed to be terminal. Thankfully, Lesllie managed to overcome the disease, and is still alive today.
Kyle believes 9/11 was a ‘turning point’ in his life that shaped his ‘purpose’ as well as his career and academic choices. Knowing that he never again wanted to feel as helpless as he did after the attacks, he set out on a journey in which he ‘vowed [he] would always be in a position to offer assistance when tragedy struck’.
As soon as he was old enough, Kyle became a first responder, and he went on to obtain a Masters degree in Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
Kyle told UNILAD:
It is not simply my occupational and academic choices which the attacks shaped. It is a life theme. This is the reason I have used my education to become a consultant in Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
I am able to operate independently and in such a manner as to uphold the promise that I made myself after the attacks that never again would I allow myself or those around me to feel incapacitated due to a lack of understanding of what to do or how to proceed.
Kyle said he promised himself that, ‘no matter what’, he would ‘find a way to be trained and educated enough to ensure that even if I did not have an answer, I would have enough training to be able to find one’ and be able to ‘protect and assist others’.
He added, ‘The attacks of September 11, 2001 solidified these thoughts and – if I’m being honest – have guided my career, academic and life choices ever since that time.’
Kyle and his family are just a few of the hundreds of thousands of people affected by the events of 9/11, and for every story told, there are a dozen more left untold.
It can be difficult to comprehend the number of people whose lives changed that day, but that is exactly why we must continue to honour and remember them.
Kyle believes the attacks showed ‘the best and worst in humanity’, allowing us to see what happens when ‘humanity tallies together’. He acknowledged that those who lost their lives ‘did not do so in vain’, adding that the events help remind us how we can ‘leave this world better or worse than we found it’.
Kyle continued, ‘All those who perished, while they did not know it at the time, they left the world better… when their defining moments came, they faced them with grace and dignity and left a legacy that would inspire many – like myself – to be their best selves and to never shy away from making the world a better place and using their mortality for good.’
Without a doubt, every single person who served in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks is a hero. May we never forget those who lost their lives, or the bravery and honour displayed by the responders.
If you have a story you want to tell, send it to UNILAD via [email protected]