My first hero was Bud Harrelson the Mets shortstop. I played the same position in little league and wore his number 3.
Later in life I replaced Buddy with Jackie Robinson. My mother grew up in the shadow of Ebbets field and as a child when I couldn’t sleep, she would tell me stories of Jackie stealing home under the tag of Yogi Berra rather than reading Winnie the Pooh. I read a book about him as a teen and learned of his courage and strength. That’s when he became more than a ballplayer to me. I wore his number 42 in college.

Through most of my adulthood no one could replace Jackie Robinson until twenty years ago.

I was standing on the corner of Broadway and Rector Street when the south tower came down. My back was to the building, so I never saw it. I had just turned down Broadway to work my way home when I heard the deafening roar. I worked at Kennedy Airport as a summer job during college, so I thought I knew what that sound was. It was a third plane. Heading towards the New York Stock Exchange or the Statue of Liberty. From the sound I was sure it was right on top of me. I took off. Running down Broadway chanting “Oh my God” over and over. I looked back once and saw a brown wave of dust and debris. When I allow myself to go to the dark place I’ve pushed away for years, I can still feel the whoosh of a large piece of metal flying by my head. As I waited for my imagined plane to emerge from the brown wave, I thought this is when I will die.

The brown wave hit me with a shove in the back. I kept running since I thought the plane was still coming.

There was no plane. I lived. The effect was as if someone put a gun to my head and pulled the trigger, but the gun didn’t fire. A trauma I’ve buried deep only to surface once a year when they ring the bells and call the names.

That’s when I saw him. A man in uniform running past me into hell on earth. In the depths of deepest panic, I was clear headed enough to understand what I had seen. A man ran into the epicenter of death and destruction. His instinct was to help others. To attempt to save another human. There wasn’t time for him to think, he didn’t have a plan of attack. It couldn’t have been more than thirty seconds since I heard the roar. He heard a call to serve, a duty to protect and help. This call was within him long before September 11th. It was part of him. He was a hero. I don’t know what happened to that man. I fear the worst since the second tower came down shortly after. That moment, that blur of bravery changed my life. Not overnight of course, lasting change takes time, but I’m a far better man than I was on 9/11/2001.

I have a new hero. My brother Kevin passed away this March. Kevin was a Navy veteran and a retired sergeant of corrections. He contracted esophageal cancer as a result of his time working on the pile after 9/11. His was a different type of bravery. It wasn’t instinct, it was an overwhelming desire to help his fellow officers. Other men were down, missing, he had no other thought than to help. He heard a call to serve no matter the risk, and we all knew there was risk. The stench of death hung over downtown. The air smelled of burnt hair and melted plastic. He knew the danger.

After days of digging and calling out without a response he went home. The sore throats started a few years later. Last Father’s Day he complained of having a hard time swallowing. He died less than nine months later.

We never spoke much about 9/11 despite our shared experience. Tough guys like us stay quiet about these things. I wish we did. He would have become my hero long ago.

I’ve thought a lot about Kevin and bravery since he passed. With the day that killed him and very nearly myself approaching I’m having a hard time dealing with it all. I’m afraid of going to that dark place in my mind in fear that I may not come back for a while.

This anniversary I’m going to take a healthier approach. I’m going to look towards the light not the dark. I’ve decided to make this anniversary my celebration of the heroes. The men and women who sacrifice for us every day. They’re everywhere. They’re in your family, perhaps sitting across the kitchen table like my brother. This past year has shown us that heroes don’t have to be in uniform. They’re the Covid nurse holding a dying man’s hand, the doctor putting on an N95 mask and face shield to step into the ward. The cashier, trucker and janitor keeping our economy afloat. Knowing the risk yet answering their own call to service.

Kind words are always welcome. Thank a hero. Pat them on the back, shake a hand, donate or comfort. This 9/11 I will celebrate the heroes. I hope you will join me.

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John Nuckel

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