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Reflecting on the anniversary of September 11, 2001

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This Sunday marks the anniversary of September 11, 2001, also known as Patriot Day. This day is incredibly profound for our nation and for me, as I expect it is for you, too. Twenty-one years later, the tragic events of this day are indelible memories. We will never forget the suffering, the lives lost, the vulnerability we felt when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and United Airlines Flight 93. Nor will we forget the closeness we suddenly felt to one another as a unified nation, as fellow Americans. We realized we were all neighbors, we were compatriots. We stuck together, looked out for one another, and helped each other process the magnitude of what had occurred.  

The events of 9/11 brought out the best in many of us. Everyday people became heroes. And first responders became superheroes. So many sacrificed their lives for others. Some years ago, I worked on a research project on firefighter safety during which I was assigned to accompany firefighters for a full shift in an FDNY station in Manhattan. I worked on this project with my friend and fellow researcher Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell, then at the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and now the U.S. fire administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

I distinctly recall a memorial at the fire station celebrating the lives of the ten first responders from that station who died on that tragic day (photo below). Seeing it was emotionally moving, even years later. 

Our Census Bureau family was directly touched by the 9/11 tragedy. Two of the thousands of victims were Census Bureau employees. Please join me in pausing to honor the memories of Marion Britton and Waleska Martinez, employees in our New York Regional Office who were passengers on hijacked Flight 93 that went down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Today we pay tribute to them and their fellow passengers, and all who lost their lives at the Pentagon and World Trade Center. We will never forget them and offer comfort to their families.

One of the distinct honors of my statistical career was working on a research project to document the survivor experience of individuals as they exited the Twin Towers prior to collapse. Commissioned by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the project called for a sample survey of survivors as well as some in-depth, in-person interviews. As part of that study, we also interviewed loved ones who had received phone calls or voicemails from victims who did not make it out that fateful morning. 

Conducting this research was heart-wrenching. But we recognized the importance of this work. We were contributing to the creation of stronger, safer, and easier-to-evacuate buildings. Yes, the stories of escape were horrific and profoundly personal. Yet they were also inspirational as they described how people helped one another to escape danger.

To this day, I still get emotional when talking about the project, as some of my fellow Census Bureau staff know well. But the truth is, I don’t ever want to feel unemotional about it. It was real and the research mattered. And we still care. As a result, I carry a deep sense of patriotism with me as part of my life experience. And my passion for contributing to this research and helping make society and our nation better has continued to grow over time.

On Patriot Day, we mourn this tragic loss of life and reflect on ourselves as one nation. Many of us still feel the emotional and physical wounds inflicted upon our great nation. But we also cherish the strength and resilience we demonstrated, the sense of unity we achieved, and the commitment we collectively made as a nation to recover and overcome the challenge that faced us. We need more of that unity and commitment. I’m here to do my part, and I hope you will join me.

I wish you a peaceful and reflective Patriot Day.


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