Our heroes

By Mubarak Dahir

Originally published on Advocate.com October 09 2001 12:00 AM ET

Normally Chris
Young wouldn’t have been anywhere near the World
Trade Center. But on the morning of Tuesday, September
11, the 33-year-old actor was temping for the Marsh
insurance firm and had volunteered to shuttle reports
from the company’s midtown office to the 99th floor
of 1 World Trade Center. He delivered the reports by
8:40 a.m. and then got back in the elevator for what
would turn out to be the longest and scariest ride of
his life.

Thousands of feet
below, 38-year-old attorney David Draigh was just
getting out of a taxi. His metered receipt recorded the time
as 8:39 a.m. He then walked through the north
tower’s revolving door and headed toward the
elevators to go up to his 54th-floor office. Before he could
get there, the building shook around him as American
Airlines Flight 11 hammered into it. “Next
thing I knew, a fireball of debris was headed right at
me” says Draigh, who dived for shelter behind a steel
planter. As black smoke mushroomed through the lobby,
he choked for air and then jumped through the
lobby’s blown-out windows. Once outside, he says,
“I thought about my mother and my boyfriend,
John. I was just glad to be alive.”

Directly across
the street, Artie Van Why felt a tremor in his 23rd-floor
office and ran out of the building. When he got outside, the
city was unrecognizable. “It was like a war
zone,” he says. Insulation, plaster, soot, and
paper were everywhere. Van Why looked up to where the first
plane had torpedoed the north tower of the World Trade
Center and stared in disbelief. Then a disturbing
realization hit him. “It wasn’t debris
dropping from the buildings,” he says in a whisper.
“It was bodies.”

Close by at
Bellevue Hospital, “Ed,” a 23-year-old gay
medical student who asked that his real name not be
used, geared up to help with the anticipated deluge of
casualties. He waited for hours. “There were no
patients,” he says, “because everyone was
dead.”

Now stuck by
himself for about an hour inside the 1 World Trade Center
elevator, Chris Young started to think he wasn’t
going to make it out alive. By this time he’d
felt two violent explosions. Never imagining that they
came from airplanes pounding into the buildings, he figured
they must have been bombs. He ripped off his shirt and
covered his mouth so he could breathe; dust was
creeping into the elevator. He tried to calm himself
by reciting a monologue from Man of La Mancha, a part
he’d recently performed. But as the air thickened and
his emergency calls went unanswered, Young felt more
and more trapped.

In Washington,
D.C., Bill Craven was about to feel trapped too. Still in
workout clothes from an early-morning session at the gym,
where he’d seen the awful images from New York
on TV, Craven, 42, hopped into his car and rushed to
work. Traffic was crawling, though, and at 9:40 a.m. he
found himself stalled in front of the Pentagon. The
odd noise of a commercial aircraft overhead caught his
attention. “It was flying way, way too low,”
he says. “Then it came down like a kite doing a
nosedive.” The plane plowed into the side of
the Pentagon, producing a column of black smoke topped
by brilliant orange flames. Oh, my God, I’m dead!
Craven thought as chunks of the fortresslike edifice
flew his way. He scrambled to lie flat on his stomach
in the car while shards of debris rained from the
skies.

In her 15th-floor
office on Wall Street, Peg Byron, 45, communications
director for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, read
of the first crash on the Internet. She then heard the
other plane exploding into the second tower. She
scrambled outside and had a clear view of the World
Trade Center. “You could see a gash, and you knew
people were dying,” she says. “But we
didn’t grasp the magnitude.” After she
returned to her office, the south tower collapsed, and
Byron’s building was immediately evacuated.
Coughing, she pulled her shirt over her mouth and groped her
way outside into a street scene that was harshly different
from the one she’d seen just minutes before.
Particle-clogged wind had turned the clear day gray.
“It looked like a hazy winter afternoon,” she
says. The grainy air stung her eyes, coated her hair
and clothes, and pricked her skin. She kept spitting
grime to clear her mouth. Punching fruitlessly on her
cell phone to reach her father, she joined hundreds of numb
New Yorkers in an uncertain march to an uncertain
future.

It was 10:05 a.m.
when the south tower of the World Trade Center
disintegrated into a graveyard of steel, concrete, and ash.
The collapse violently shook the north tower
elevator—where Chris Young was still
trapped—for the third time that morning.

“I really
started to freak out then,” he says. “I
thought that whatever was wrong, it should be under
control by now.” Then, for the first time, he
tried to pry open the doors. It was impossible. He tried
again when the power went out in the building 20
minutes later, and they opened easily.

When he was
finally able to step out of the elevator, Young discovered
he had been marooned on the first floor the entire
time. Fallen building parts and shattered glass
covered the lobby floor. Everything was coated in pink
and gray dust. No one was in sight. Dazed, he just stood
there for a moment until two firefighters yelled,
“We’ve got to get you out of here!
Run!” Two minutes later Young felt the earth shake
for a fourth time. And as he sprinted from the
building, he looked over his shoulder and saw the
north tower crumble like a sandcastle.

In the hours and
days that followed the catastrophe, life for gay men and
lesbians in New York City and Washington, D.C., completely
changed—as it did for the rest of the nation.

The southern tip
of Manhattan—including the gay mecca of Greenwich
Village—became a militarized zone. Only residents
flashing photo IDs could pass beyond the patrolled
border. At the far end of Christopher Street, military
and fire trucks zoomed up and down the West Side
Highway. A closed sign hung in the window of the famed
Stonewall Inn.

Overnight,
“thousands of fliers of missing persons went
up,” recalls Jeffrey DiGangi, a 36-year-old
designer from the West Village. Lampposts, sides of
buildings, and telephone booths were wallpapered with the
images of lost strangers.

But in the
devastation, there was also a sense of community that many
had not seen since the worst days of AIDS. Another
West Village resident, 39-year-old Gary Spino, says he
walked around the neighborhood those first nights
“because I wanted to be with others, and the streets
were filled with gay and lesbian people. Everyone was
crying and hugging.”

Spino eventually
made his way to the Hudson River and joined friends from
his gym in a human assembly line—spreading mustard on
bread, piling on lunch meat, slicing tomatoes, and
bagging sandwiches, fruit, and cookies into care
packages for the rescue workers.

“It was
the greatest thing I’ve been a part of in
ages,” he says. “It wasn’t about
being a gay person or a straight person or a financial
person or an artist. There were little women in nuns’
outfits standing next to gym bunnies in tight shorts,
and we were all pitching in together.”

In this issue,
The Advocate salutes some of the brave gay men
and lesbians who gave their all—sometimes their
lives—during the attacks. We tell their stories
so that their voices as American heroes, and
particularly as gay and lesbian citizens, are not lost.

But we know these
are just some of the tales of loss and courage. In the
coming days, as more names and stories of American heroes
are unveiled, other gay men and lesbians will surely
be among them.

The Advocate joins the the nation not just in
mourning our collective losses but also in celebrating
the finest our community has to offer.