On Sept. 11, 2001, I was working as a general assignment reporter in Upstate New York. A couple of days later I was told to go interview the mother of Ed Beyea, who perished on the 27th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower.
It was not my ideal assignment. The thought of shoving a microphone in the face of a grieving mother had always made me cringe. But I was a new reporter with strict marching orders.
On the way, my cameraman urged me to hurry things up to make air. Ed’s mom lived in Upstate New York but her town was a few hours away from the station. We had a short window before having to rush back and edit the story in time for the 11 o’clock news.
“Do not turn on that camera until I say so,” I told him. We weren’t going to rush her.
To my surprise, Ed’s mom, Janet, welcomed us with a warm smile. I sat down on her living room couch and asked to tell me about her son, never taking the camera out of its case.
“Are you sure you’re up to this?” I finally asked. It was a risky question to ask. If she said no, I would have to explain to my bosses why I came back empty-handed. It was my first on-air job at a tiny station. I was not only the lead reporter that night, I was the ONLY reporter. There would be no piece to head the night’s broadcast.
To my relief, she said, “Yes.”
I signaled to my cameraman to start shooting.
Before I knew it, Ed’s mom was telling me one of the most incredible stories I’d ever heard, one that comes to mind every 9/11.
Ed, his mother told me, had become disabled decades earlier after a diving accident at age 21. He was a large man who used a wheelchair. He had an aide who would bring him to work every morning and help him get set him up in his cubicle before heading to her job on the 43rd floor. When the plane hit the tower, she rushed to Ed’s side. She found him with his friend Abe Zelmanowitz. Zelmanowitz told her he would stay with Ed until the firefighters arrived and urged her to leave. She barely made it out. Zelmanowitz had saved her life.
Ed called his mother that morning to assure her that he was fine. Zelmanowitz dialed and held the phone to Ed’s ear.
“He said he was calling to tell me he was OK,” she told me. “I was so relieved. I thought he was telling me he was going to make it. I now know he was calling to tell me he was OK with the fact he was going to die. He was calling to say goodbye.”
Zelmanowitz and Ed had worked together for 12 years. They became close friends. Even though Zelmanowitz could have saved himself, he decided to stay by his friend’s side until the end.
That selfless act would cost him his life. Zelmanowitz would perish with Ed as the towers came down.
Three days later, President George W. Bush mentioned Zelmanowitz during a prayer service at the Washington National Cathedral as an example of courage and heroism.
“We have seen our national character in eloquent acts of sacrifice,” Bush said. “Inside the World Trade Center, one man who could have saved himself stayed until the end at the side of his quadriplegic friend.”
Ed’s mom never cried as she spoke about her son. She was dignified and strong, despite her incomprehensible tragedy. She then told me she had suffered another unbelievable loss, when her other son died years earlier.
“How do you keep going?” I asked her.
“It was hard the first time,” she replied. “I never thought I’d survive. But time does help. The pain never goes away, but you learn to live with it. You realize that, like it or not, life goes on.”