At times, 11-year-old Valerie Arnold had to take a break and step away from the computer.
“This is so sad, this is so sad,” she would tell her mother.
But after a break Valerie would sit back down, in her own way as brave and noble as any first responder. She had taken it upon herself to go online and learn what she could about 20 murdered innocents whose names she had been asked to read at the upcoming observance of the 14th anniversary of 9/11.
“Mommy, you’re not going to believe this, you’re not going to believe this,” she would say as she came to another heartbreaking detail.
As a relative of one of the more than 2,700 who perished at the World Trade Center on a day three years before her birth, Valerie had been offered the opportunity to read 21 names. One was her firefighter uncle, Michael Boyle. The 20 others were strangers who had been allocated alphabetically from the list, from Max Beilke to Carl Bini.
Nobody had told her to learn what she could about her 20. She did so out of an intuitive sense of respect, a deeply decent desire to do more than just read a name, to honor each of these lost lives. Her uncle and the 342 other members of the FDNY who perished would have admired her moxie as she continued on, the very opposite of a terrorist.
Beilke was a retired Army master sergeant who had served in the Korean War and then the Vietnam War, and he had been officially listed as the last American soldier to leave Saigon on March 29, 1973. He was continuing to work for the Army as a civilian when he was killed by the plane that struck the Pentagon on 9/11.
Also on the list was Denise Lenore Benedetto, a mother of two who had worked as a secretary in the World Trade Center. She had met her husband-to-be when they were both 17. She had been eating an ice cream and it had fallen off the stick, and by the time they had stopped laughing they had started falling in lifelong love.
And there was Alvin Bergsohn, an equity trader in the Trade Center. He was a softball coach for his two sons, aged 14 and 12. On the weekend before 9/11 he had kept the game all the more lively, in keeping with his ebullient style, by dancing and singing with abandon on the first base line.
And there was Joseph John Berry, whose greatest delight was not in being a Wall Street titan but in being a family guy. He delighted in his three children and his wife of 31 years, and he would happily declare, “Marriage is a wonderful thing.”
And there was Timothy Betterly, a bond trader who had played football in high school but shone brightest during those years after he noticed a mentally handicapped girl was once again sitting alone in the lunchroom. He invited her to take a permanent place at the table he shared with his teammates.
And there was Edward Beyea, who had been left a quadriplegic by a diving mishap more than two decades before but was famous for telling jokes and managed to hold a job as a computer programmer by working a keyboard with a stick. A friend had held a phone to his ear so he could reassure his mother that he was OK after the plane hit the tower. His friend then perished with him.
And there was Firefighter Peter Bielfeld. He had an appointment at the medical division in Brooklyn on September 10 and would have been up in the Bronx the next day, but he had changed it so he could attend a firehouse rededication that included a memorial Mass for a captain who had been fatally burned moments after pushing him to safety. The appointment switch put Bielfeld at the medical office on 9/11, and he had run across the Brooklyn Bridge to a firehouse near the stricken south tower. The firefighters assigned there were all at the Trade Center. He grabbed a helmet along with some protective bunker gear and left a note that began, “I’m borrowing this gear. Hope to return it. If I don’t come back…”
And that was not even half of the names. The list of 20 ended with Firefighter Carl Bini, who had been off that day. But when he heard about the attack, he nonetheless raced from Staten Island to the Trade Center along with another off-duty firefighter. He left two teenage daughters and a wife who had been his sweetheart since they were 12 years old.
Any one of those stories might have been expected to be too much for a youngster of Valerie’s age. But she had gone determinedly from person to person.
“It makes you appreciate how much you love your family,” she told The Daily Beast.
The reader scheduled to precede her had been given a list that included the name Todd Beamer. Many Americans know him as the man who gave a famous cry as he and fellow passengers aboard United Airlines flight 93 made a heroic attempt to retake the plane from the hijackers.
Roll they had, storming the cockpit and preventing the hijackers from continuing on to strike either the White House or the Capitol Building. These brave souls lost their own lives as the plane plunged into a Pennsylvania field at almost 600 mph.
During the seemingly endless war that has followed 9/11, we have sometimes seemed in danger of losing sense of who we really are. But proof that we are still at the core very much ourselves came in August, when three unarmed young Americans found themselves facing a would-be jihadi brandishing an AK-47 and a knife aboard a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris.
Fourteen years after Beamer’s cry on Flight 93, there came a cry on a French train.
One of the Americans, Spencer Stone, received a nasty gash in his hand, but otherwise the trio escaped serious harm as they successfully subdued the gunman.
But as we continue from “Let’s roll!” to “Let’s go!” to the approach of the 14th anniversary of 9/11, the danger persists, maybe even grows. The online magazine ascribed to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has put out a new issue that calls for “more lone wolf” attacks and includes step-by-step instructions for making hand grenades such as might be tossed into a crowd down where the Twin Towers once stood.
Although much of the country imagines we are not at war and many of us are starting to forget the day that supposedly changed everything, our protectors were watchful as Valerie arrived at the Trade Center at 6 a.m. Friday, more than two hours before the start of the ceremony.
“She wanted to be early to make sure she got here,” her grandfather said.
She met Peter Guza, who had lost his father on 9/11. Valerie told him that she had read up on his dad, an executive with an insurance brokerage in the south tower.
As the time neared, drummers from the FDNY, NYPD, and the Port Authority Police slowly marched up to the stage. A woman sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” A silver bell sounded, followed by a moment of silence to mark the moment the first plane hit the north tower.
The reading of the names commenced, and when Valerie’s turn came somebody thought to put down a booster platform so she could stand even with the microphone and her co-reader. The added height matched her grownup poise as she stood in a pink-and-black striped dress.
Guza stood on her left and they alternated reading names. She spoke each with the clarity of familiarity, as if it were the name of somebody she knew.
Guza finished first.
“And my father, Phillip T. Guza,” he said. “We miss you. We try to make you proud every day. We know you’re looking down on us.”
Valerie then ended with the one whose story she had already known.
“And my uncle, Michael Boyle. I wish I could meet you.”
Her duty done, Valerie went over to the section of the south memorial pool. She took a long white piece of paper and made a pencil rubbing where her uncle’s name was inscribed. She then held up the paper and it was exactly right and at that she smiled.
Her uncle had been killed before she was even born, but now she joins him and a pantheon of others in proving the continued truth of the last line of the national anthem at the start of the ceremony.
This really is the home of the brave.