9-11 remembered: beacon in the dust

Sunday, September 11, 2005

They stand tall. The first minutes were hell; each second after, bliss. The three firefighters gaze upon a symbol that throughout this nation's history has given hope to the otherwise hopeless: the flag.

The scene around them is utter chaos. The very air is covered with the putrid smell that only smoke can bring. Each man gazes at the flag, seemingly oblivious to the world around them. All that matters is raising the flag a few more feet.

A single support beam looms behind them, the remnant of a once-mighty skyscraper. The wreckage is vast, a fortress of steel piled up unceremoniously. The dust is still falling, floating in the air and creating a smoke screen, making it hard to breathe, much less see.

The firefighters give off an aura of loneliness and gloom as if they are on a desolate island, stranded and alone. The scene seems to depict a battleground, the structure behind them destroyed. They are scathed and tired. Their comrades are non-existent, perhaps buried under the looming structure behind them. Now they raise the flag after a long battle. They are the Marines now, and this is the present-day Iwo Jima. This scene, like the original, is spontaneous and will live on in the memories of those who witness it for years to come. Despite these coincidences, this is not Iwo Jima. These men are not soldiers. And this is not a war. Their weapons are not meant for other people but to combat the blazing inferno.

All around the firefighters is a scene of absolute anarchy: no order, no function, everything out of place. There seems to be no reason behind the senseless destruction and all the lives lost, just disorder and turmoil. The one remaining beam seems to hold back the wreckage, preventing it from crushing the men. The entire area is a blur of gray: gray flagpole, gray steel rods. The men wear black pants and shirts stained with gray dust. A faint fog rises up around them like a black death, inescapable and inevitable. The flag itself is in direct contrast to the gray background. It shines more than ever.

The flag seems to be an alien object. It doesn't belong in this place. Its colors shine too brightly. The flag is a symbol of our freedoms, and these firefighters seem to fully understand its importance. The flag has been a reason for countless people to persevere, to push on against all odds. Each star seems to shine brighter, maybe in representation of the men who painstakingly heave it to its final destination or in memory of the countless people dead and buried under the rubble. The vibrant colors are in direct contrast to the rest of the world. In this thick fog, even the blind can see its stars and stripes.

The chaos has come and gone. Now there is an eerie calm settling over the area. The world stands still. The desolate island lacks sound as if everything living and dead is holding its breath for this very moment. As the flag is being raised, one of the men watches the other two raise it. A single cherry-red flashlight hangs on his belt, the only piece of equipment he has left. Thousands of questions must burn through his mind. Is he shocked by their patriotism in exhaustion? Maybe he is too tired to help and can only gaze on during this momentous occasion. Whatever his reasons for standing aside, it is obvious that he must feel intense pride for bearing witness to such an event.

The fog is the remnant of the fatal crash, the dust that flew into the air after the skyscraper toppled behind them. Metal on metal: The sound must have been excruciating, like fingernails on a chalkboard. With the exhaustion, dehydration and now the dust in the air, these men are at the brink. The bright sun causes all three to squint. Their jet-black helmets are useless for the kind of protection they need. They all dress the same, making them ordinary, homogeneous. The man in the middle still wears his coat, black with yellow stripes. It matches the rest of his uniform to a tee.

In the end, without reason this building that soared to the heavens transformed into a pile of scrap metal, a burial for the people and progress it harbored.

But even in chaos there is order. Three men, after surviving the building, stood outside and hoisted a flag to symbolize their freedoms, their rights and their patriotism. They showed that in the darkest of times even the narrowest beacon can give hope to the hopeless.

Mark Dragoni, son of Jack and Gayle Dragoni of Chaffee, Mo., is a 16-year-old student at Chaffee High School. He was 12 years old when the 9-11 terrorist attacks occurred.

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