For many of us, 9/11 is old news.
U.S. history textbooks spare it few words.
The details grow blurrier every day.
Few remember that Sept. 11, 2001, was a gorgeous fall morning. That because it was Election Day in New York City, people’s schedules were disrupted, changing many lives forever. That the scene on the ground was “organized chaos,” and first responders didn’t know what to do except save whomever they could. That more people jumped from the towers than were reported. That no bodies were recovered, just pieces. That no one thought those buildings could fall. That Ground Zero crawled with 200 people working 10-hour shifts, seven days a week, for two years afterward.
Punta Gorda author Libby Schaefer’s latest book, “Our Brothers’ Keepers,” serves, as Copperfish Books co-owner Cathy Graham put it, as a vivid reminder “lest we forget about those lives that were and still are affected.”
The book started as Schaefer’s projects usually do.
“I talk to everyone,” she laughed. “In the supermarket line. At Walmart.”
People’s stories captivate her until she feels compelled to channel them onto the printed page.
Her friend Helen Wrobbel of Punta Gorda once told her, “What history is really about is people telling their stories as they lived them.”
So, Schaefer mesmerizes readers with oral histories that she believes need to be told.
She wrote her Punta Gorda-based “The Ladies of Punta Gorda,” “Memories of War” and “Cooking with Grandma,” she said, because she wanted all those memories to have an impact on people.
Her latest work took her on a more ambitious journey, far beyond Punta Gorda’s borders.
The book recounts, in their own words, the experiences of 9/11 survivors, responders, families and witnesses, from New York City to Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon.
It was inspired by a friend who asked not to be named, a New York City Department of Sanitation worker who went immediately to Ground Zero to help. As a result of the toxins to which he was exposed—in a deadly airborne dust of diesel fuel, asbestos, building materials, computers, and vaporized people—he’s battling stage 4 cancer.
“We were told it was okay,” he said. “But we knew better.”
Libby Schaefer’s own life experiences made her the perfect sounding board for stories like his.
Teaching, making a difference to students in rough suburban Philadelphia, was as much a passion for her as saving others was for those who went to Ground Zero to help.
The concept of a “sick building” which makes its occupants ill was relatively new then. She became ill from the dozen years that she taught in a toxic environment where black mold behind blackboards and lack of ventilation were largely ignored.
“In order to keep teaching, I was on prednisone, a nebulizer and four inhalers. Even though a pulmonologist told me I should retire, I was only 48 and I loved teaching.”
Schaefer now suffers countless ailments as a result of the steroids she took for years.
Driven by her own experience and her unnamed friend’s lament that “everybody’s forgotten us, except for one day a year,” Schaefer began a two-year quest for stories, told in the voices of those who experienced them. They always had the chance to review, edit, even choose not to be included.
Though it wasn’t always easy for them to talk about, none withheld their account from final publication. Some remembered even more details as they reviewed memories they’d avoided for 17 years.
“It gets a little personal when they try to kill you,” said NYPD senior sergeant Tom King, who told Schaefer how he searched for his mother, who’d fled to safety from her office below the North Tower. He saved himself by crawling out of the rubble but lost over 60 close friends that day.
“It’s not as raw now as it was,” King said. “I used to only talk about it on Sept. 11. I’d get all the pictures out, sit down with everybody, have some drinks, then put it away for next year. We didn’t carry it with us. But our motto is still ‘Never forget.’”
Graham, co-owner with Serena Wyckoff of Punta Gorda’s Copperfish Books, which carries all of Schaefer’s books, once said, “Libby sees the extraordinary in ordinary people.”
This time, she’s written about extraordinary people who, like retired NYPD homicide detective Serge Ruggio, insisted, “Don’t call me a hero.”
“None of them wanted to be called heroes,” said Schaefer. “They just did what they believed you’re supposed to do.”
She asked each interviewee if, knowing what they know now, suffering from toxin-related illnesses, they would have stayed away from Ground Zero.
Although “Our Brothers’ Keepers” could have been published in September, its launch aptly coincides with calls to action for congressional renewal of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act.
Originally signed into law only nine years ago, and extended in 2015, the act provides health monitoring and financial aid to those suffering from exposure to 9/11 toxins. The act is due to expire in 2020, even though it’s estimated that, by 2025 or sooner, casualties resulting from 9/11 will surpass those of the first day.
In her previous book, the autobiographical “Memoir of a Streetwalker,” Schaefer wrote, “we all … can overcome any obstacle if we have the patience and take the time to find a solution.”
“I really believe that,” she said. “All the people I met are a testament to that. They are all survivors, and they aren’t going to give up.”