Voices of 9/11 - Reflections of Three TAPS Survivors

Authors: Lisa Dolan , Zach Laychak , Robert Pycior

Nineteen years ago, we woke up to the most beautiful sunny September day. Little did we know that before the day came to an end, we would be forever changed.

The events of September 11, 2001, marked a turning point, for individual families, for our nation, and for the world. So many in our TAPS family were directly impacted by the terrorist attacks at the Pentagon, at the World Trade Center, and on Flight 93 in the fields of Pennsylvania.

Three TAPS survivors, Lisa Dolan, Zach Laychak, and Robert Pycior, share their thoughts as we reflect on this day.

I don’t remember the first time I heard the term “new normal,” but I do remember where I heard it. I do remember hearing the unsolicited “you need to move on.” I also remember the heart-crushing feeling I got whenever someone shared this supposedly non-judgmental advice. 

The first time I heard about “new normal” was at TAPS in the years just after September 11. I became a member of the TAPS family when my Navy husband was killed at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.   It’s hard to believe I have been living my “new normal” for 19 years. Wow, it’s not so new anymore! 

When I first heard the advice that I needed to “move on,” I was heartbroken. How could someone think it was so easy to move on without my husband beside me? Our plan to grow old together. The next time someone told me I needed to move on — probably just a few days later — I was angry. I would NOT move on without my husband.

I thought about this one night when I couldn’t sleep, which was actually most nights. I told myself, I would “move forward,” which gave me permission to live, but carry him with me always. If I moved on, I left him behind. Moving forward, he moved with me. Moving forward with my “new normal,” life wasn’t a cake walk just because I found some softer descriptive words. Moving forward in my “new normal,” life was mine. I gave myself permission to live. I had a job to do, my children needed me, whether they knew it or not, they had their own “new normals” to navigate.

Both of my children are adults now with their own lives. One is getting ready to purchase her first home. My other is married and getting ready to meet his first little one. It wasn’t my life plan to be a solo empty nester. Just as this empty nester felt like she could soar, the world turns upside down. Another bump in the road…

Nineteen years later, the entire world is learning to live a collective “new normal.” I hadn’t planned on living another “new normal” in my lifetime. To make matters worse, I didn’t have my husband, my best friend, to help ride out this pandemic. This tumultuous time has thrown us all a curve ball. It takes me back to the days not long after his death. Feelings of uncertainty, helplessness, worry and sadness fill my head. Fortunately, I still have my TAPS family to set me back on course. Thousands strong, we pick each other up, and help each other with our newest normals, even though we may not be able to be together in person. That’s probably a good thing, though, as we are a group of big-time huggers — not COVID-19 friendly. 

In today’s “new normal,” we are again moving forward together, sharing our new journey. In the age of social distancing, we stay connected by continuing to share our lives virtually with the help of social media and video conferencing. In the time of coronavirus, we keep our lives, which began intertwined in grief, woven in love.

Something about this year just doesn’t feel the same. It seems like so much has happened, yet I look at the calendar and I think that can’t be right. September 11, 2020. It feels weird saying it. How can it be nineteen years since that fateful day that forever changed my life?

As is the case with most anniversaries, I think about the memories of my father, trying to hold onto every moment I can. What I often find myself doing is reflecting on the past year. Reflecting on what has happened, where I am in my life, and what is going on in the world. Thinking about what I would tell my Dad about what has happened, and what he might have said or thought about it all. Needless to say, 2020 has left us with plenty to talk about.

It would be impossible to think about 2020 without acknowledging the coronavirus pandemic. Nothing seems the same, our world is barely recognizable to the year before. There is one thing that sticks out as being strangely the same - sports. However, not in the way you might think. In March, all sports were put on hold due to coronavirus concerns. This was the second time in my life I can recall something like this happening. The first - September 12, 2001. Sports has always been a huge part of my life, it was my escape, it was something that I shared with my father and brought me closer to him. Sports also serves as a benchmark for me in measuring time and where things are in the year. Sports have since returned and many aspects of life are returning to normal, or what is now our “new normal.” I can’t help but think about the sacrifices we have made as a country and continue to make, doing so for the good of one another, just like those made following September 11, 2001.

Like many people, I often find myself thinking about where I was and what I was doing when everything happened on 9/11. For me, I was 9 years old when my father David W. Laychak lost his life at the Pentagon. Like any other 9-year-old, I was in school and completely oblivious to everything going on around me. Fast forward to this year; schools, offices, and businesses are closed. Nothing in our lives has been normal. It is the American way to overcome any adversity we face and to persevere. That is exactly what we have done. We have seen families home together, trying to go to school and work, and conducting meetings with the occasional dog or baby on a zoom call. We are focusing on the positive. Just as we did after 9-11-01, we came together, sacrificed ourselves, and put the well-being of the country and our communities above our own. That is the America I know. That is the America I knew after 9-11-01, and that is the America our loved ones impacted by September 11, the coronavirus, and all other tragedies affecting this country would have wanted.

I currently live and work in New York City. I recall talking to some friends in mid-March when all of our offices were closed and shifting to our various work from home arrangements. We talked about how our world and lives changed right before our very eyes, and we did not get a chance to acknowledge it. Much like 2001 with the halting of sports, when our world stopped and life was put on hold, an event happened that changed our lives. I implore you on this 19th anniversary of September 11, 2001, to recall your own memories of that day and following weeks, of the unity and American resolve that followed, and to take 2020 and the pandemic to do the same. When thinking about this year, focus on the positive impacts, and most importantly not what divides us, but what unites us, just as we did as a country nineteen years ago. 

My father, Joseph J. Pycior Jr. was killed while working at the Naval Command Center at the Pentagon. 

The years have taken me from an 8-year old living the life of a military child, to becoming a licensed social worker with a wife. I have been blessed with TAPS and other organizations that have guided me personally, professionally, and have taken me to where I am today. 

I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes by Mr. (Fred) Rogers, a quote he first heard from his mother: "Whenever there would be any catastrophe...always look for the helpers. There will always be helpers." The nation faced difficult times in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks; but through it all, there were helpers.  

These helpers acted the second that events began to unfold. The passengers and crew of Flight 93, realizing their situation, all made the ultimate sacrifice to protect the lives of untold numbers of innocents. The man with the red bandana, 24-year old Welles Crowther, went back into the towers over and over again rescuing others before considering his own safety. Responders descended on ground zero, Stony Creek Township, Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon to assist in recovery efforts.  

We also can remember what would become known as the Manhattan boat lift, the removal of people from lower Manhattan which shattered maritime evacuation records.Hundreds of miles away from the attacks in the United States was Gander, a small village in Newfoundland. It became home to 42 flights and housed thousands of individuals from across the globe for six days when they could not continue to their destinations due to the shutdown of air travel. 

These stories are now being passed down to the next generation of Americans who weren't even born when the attacks occurred. These stories all highlight the fact that there are people who are willing to help, and that in darkest times, there is still hope.  

If something is to be gained from 9/11, it is the reaffirmation that there will always be helpers. People will always volunteer and put themselves at risk for a greater cause. The message that needs to be carried forward is one of hope, acceptance, and giving a little of oneself for others.

Photo Credit: User:Aude / CC BY-SA