9-11-2011 The Moment of Death

The Moment of Death

A contemplation by Rayburn Hesse


A 2.5 hour special late Saturday night presented in voice and photos not just the survivors of 911, primarily in New York City, but reproductions of the actual telephone messages – the final goodbyes and thoughts – of many of those who died.

The special was an enduring audio-visual tableau of men and women facing the final moments of their lives – their bravery and their love for family on heart-wrenching display.  More, the video renewed our acquaintance with the survivors, demonstrating how they were coping with their losses. The special was also a testament to the painstaking research and documentation which generated the presentation.

“Voices from the Towers” used photos and graphics which illustrated where many of the victims were located in the Towers before they fell – underscoring the number of first responders who were in those towers when they fell – and died with those they attempted to rescue.

Remarkably, many of those informing their wives and loved ones that there was no way out did so very calmly, with what had to be a gallant summoning of consideration for those they were leaving behind.  The fear which must have pervaded so many was not detectable in their voices, overcome by what could only be a universal yet individual determination to leave a legacy of dying bravely to their families.

“Voices from the Towers” was followed by a documentary highlighting the findings of the 911 Commission, which was organized only after the government acceded to the demands of the families who wanted to know how their loved ones died – and how 911 might have been prevented.  The bottom line is that warning signals, such as pilot training by the attackers, were ignored, primarily because government at all levels did not believe there would be a terrorist attack on our shores – despite the earlier bombing of the World Trade Center.

I can remember standing at Ground Zero a few days after 911, and contemplating the first details of “what we knew and when we knew it” which were just being revealed.  I thought back to a day when I knelt at a window in the Texas School Book Depository, the firing post from which Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy – and the many seemingly isolated factors which combined to make that killing possible.  Our intelligence failed us in Dallas, and again on 911.

Listening to those 911 voices led to a contemplation of what do people think at the moment when death becomes inevitable.  Do they give voice to those thoughts?

The New Testament informs that when Jesus was dying on his cross, having forgiven the people of Jerusalem,  he cried out “Eli, Eli, sabachthani,” which means literally “my God why have you forsaken me?” According to Luke, Jesus’ last words were: “And when Jesus had cried out with a loud voice, He said , ‘Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.’ Having said this He breathed His last.” (Luke 23:46).

Joan of Arc, the deeply religious Maid of Lorraine who was burned at the stake in Rouen, in a conspiracy between the English and French clerics who feared her influence,  reportedly cried out “Jesus, Jesus” before the flames consumed her.  No last minute plea for mercy, no yielding to the demands that she renounce her claims of heavenly messages in order to save her life.

If I were Private Eddie Slovik, who was executed for in essence going AWOL during the fighting in Europe, I might well have gone out cursing General Eisenhower, who refused to grant clemency because he wanted to “teach a lesson to cowards.”  There were 21,049 soldiers sentenced for desertion during WWII, with 49 of them receiving death sentences. However, only Slovik’s death sentence was carried out. He was the first U.S. soldier to be executed for desertion since the Civil War.  Yet, records of his execution indicate that he was shot by firing squad while saying the Rosary.  Of course, Eisenhower suffered no repercussions, but he will never be forgiven by many Russians for Operation Keelhaul.

Ironically, witnesses say legendary bounty hunter Tom Horn walked silently to the gallows, when he might well have lambasted the cattlemen who hired him for offering him up to salve their sins for the ordered killing of homesteaders.  Whatever grievance Horn felt for what his defenders called an injustice was not exposed during his final moment.  Was his stoicism merely an affirmation of the brutality of the life he lived, or did he accept his fate because he truly had killed that boy.

If people die silently or alone, we know not their last thoughts.

There is scarce record of the last thoughts of those who died on Titanic although there are some accounts of survivors attesting to certain acts of bravery.  Surely, as the ocean consumed his great vessel, Captain Smith regretted having heeded the urging of White Star owner Ismay to speed through the known ice fields.  Ismay of course saved himself and largely blamed Smith, telling the Board of Inquiry that he had not ordered the speed or course.

Even wonder what thoughts flooded through Amelia Earhart as the Electra sucked the last drops of fuel and descended to the Pacific, apparently many miles from Howland Island, her destination.  Her last radio communications recorded by the ship Itasca reflect no fear.  Was she silently cursing navigator Fred Noonan for his failure to find Howland.  Did she fault herself for not learning how to operate the new Bendix receiver/range finder – or for failing to test her communications after her final takeoff – or more simply  her decision to leave her life raft in New Guinea?

Did Custer’s enormous ego permit him to accept that his foolhardy decision to attack the Sioux at Little Big Horn was the direct cause of the deaths of the 7th Cavalry?

The great explorer Roald Amundsen detested Umberto Nobile but he volunteered to be on the rescue mission when Nobile’s dirigible crashed near the Arctic Circle – and died when his plane crashed.  Was he thinking negative thoughts about the Italian, or love for his own family, or regretting the risks he had accepted in flying into the icy wilderness. 

Was the French aviator Nungesser consumed by the thought he would not make the trans-Atlantic crossing ahead of Lindbergh when he crashed into the ocean?  Or did death come so quickly, as so often happens, that mind and body are consumed with averting the oncoming calamity?

Medal of Honor winners can attest to the latter, those who survived saying they were totally absorbed by the challenge, which usually involved saving others, with little thought of dying.  I can attest to the latter phenomenon; when the airplane I was piloting caught fire, I did not think of family or friends, or even pray; I was consumed with calculating whether I had enough lift to make a dead-stick landing at the country airport I could see ahead of me.  Only after, did I curse myself for not having lifted the cowling to remove birds nests which had accumulated after a previous flight.  They soaked up oil and caught fire.  Then, I remembered to thank God I had not died from my own carelessness.

Undoubtedly, the scenario changes when death is imminent.  This weekend there were editorial suggestions that we are over the top in our remembrances of 911.  I disagree.  Those who died must be admired for their courage, respected for their thoughts of family, and remembered because they did not deserve to die as political martyrs in a world in which intolerance and hatred are twin evils.


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