Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of the tragic events on Sept. 11, 2001.
The most devastating terrorist attack on American soil, the events of 9/11 have changed the U.S. forever. As East County residents reflect on the day two planes were flown into the World Trade Center towers, another was crashed into the Pentagon, and a fourth went down in a field in Pennsylvania, Brentwood resident Victor Brandstetter remembers his two cousins who were in the towers on one of the most infamous days in American history.
“I had two cousins, who didn’t know each other, who worked in the World Trade Center,” said Brandstetter. “One was Mike Hingson. He was in the second tower on the 78th floor. It was very smoky and there were 20 or 30 people and they were trying to get out. He had his dog and he said, “Follow me, folks,” and the dog led them right out and it was amazing.”
Hingson’s story was one of the few with a happy ending. Born blind, he was working for a technology company in 2001. On Sept. 11, he and his guide dog, Roselle, were able to lead a group of people down a stairwell to safety moments before the tower collapsed. He now travels the world speaking about his experience and what can be learned from the attacks. He said despite the passage of two decades, he feels there is still much to be learned from the mistakes of the past.
“More than anything, I am feeling a lot of disappointment that we haven’t learned a whole lot more of what we should have learned from Sept. 11,” said Hingson. “Why did that attack happen? Well, it happened because we totally mis-assessed, didn’t understand, and didn’t seem to have a whole lot of interest in people across the world from us who are different than us, who have different beliefs than us, and by ignoring them, they got away with murder, literally. Nineteen people brought the world to its knees . . . I’m very disappointed that people haven’t learned more about working together.”
Brandstetter’s other cousin, Victor Wald, did not have the happy ending Hingson did. Wald was married to Brandstetter’s cousin, Becky Wald. Brandstetter said Becky became concerned when Wald did not return home from his job in one of the towers. Brandstetter called her that night to check in and to offer his prayers and good wishes.
“Another day went by, and I got this survivor’s story in my email,” recalled Brandstetter. “It was written by a guy named Adam and it was his story of how he survived the events at the World Trade Center . . . he was in the stairwell and came upon this guy named Victor, and it sent chills up my spine.”
Brandstetter said Adam’s email described Victor as heavyset and out of breath, a description that matched Wald. Brandstetter sent the email to Becky’s brother, who then forwarded it to her. Becky read the email and began searching for Adam.
“She tracked Adam down and went to his door and showed him a picture of her husband, Victor, and asked, ‘Is this the man?’ and Adam said it was,” said Brandstetter. “She had two young daughters, so this helped them know Victor was in the building, and months later, they found his body in that stairwell on Thanksgiving morning. So on Thanksgiving, the good Lord sent that to Rebeca so she could live in peace.”
Brandstetter said he did his best to help Becky after her husband’s death. He became close with one of Wald’s daughters, flying out that year to attend her Bat Mitzvah, and later, her wedding. Brandstetter also visited the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City, and said he was moved to see Wald’s name on the memorial.
As the survivors and descendants of the victims of the 9/11 attacks prepare for a landmark anniversary, Hingson said he is filled with many feelings, including gratitude.
“I’m sad about what happened on Sept. 11,” he said. “But the other side of it is people ask if I feel survivor’s guilt . . . My answer is no, I don’t. I didn’t have control over whether I survived or not. I think the fact of the matter is I was given the opportunity to live, and it isn’t a question of whether I should be sad because I didn’t die and other people did. The real question is what I’m going to do with my life. I think that is what should be true of anyone who experiences an unexpected life change. You were able to survive it, so what are you going to do now that you have whatever you learned? What can you do to move forward? For me, it also means what can you do to help other people move forward.”