Metro

Fifteen years after the Sept. 11 attacks, struggling to recapture a spirit of unity and generosity

Peter Guza of North Andover lost his father in the World Trade Center on 9/11.
Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff
Peter Guza of North Andover lost his father in the World Trade Center on 9/11.

When neighbors heard Cindy McGinty’s husband was working in the World Trade Center that morning, they lit candles and brought her food. When she went to New York to look for him, a cab driver repeatedly refused to take her money. And after it was confirmed that Michael McGinty was among the nearly 3,000 dead, neighbors accompanied her children to school in Foxborough and a local landscaper mowed her lawn for eight years.

“My community loved me back on my feet,” McGinty said.

Fifteen years after the Sept. 11 attacks, she fears the spirit of unity and generosity that lifted her up has been crushed by the anger, bullying, and division she has seen sweeping across the country and that have come to a head in this supercharged political season.

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Like many who lost loved ones that day, she says she feels called to perform acts of kindness on the anniversary as a way to rekindle the sense of togetherness that buoyed her and so many other victims’ families.

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“I have to believe, for my own sanity, that love wins,” McGinty said. “That’s how I get through every day.”

In the 15 years since the attacks, every life that was touched has been transformed. Children who lost parents when they were in elementary school are now in college. Those who were in college have married and started families of their own. Some who buried spouses have married again. The pain has also been transformed but still remains.

“The farther away from 9/11 we go, it’s harder for people to relate to what we’re feeling and what we still feel,” said Christie Coombs, whose husband, Jeff, was a passenger on American Airlines Flight 11, which hit the World Trade Center. “You don’t get over it. We wake up every day feeling the loss. The loss feels different. But we still feel that loss very deeply.”

The country, too, has been reshaped by wars, recession, and the emergence of ISIS and repeated lone-wolf attacks that have, in some ways, broadened and sharpened the fear of terrorism.

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Just as troubling to some is the dark mood that seems to have settled over the country and given rise to the vision that Donald Trump evokes of a nation belittled by rivals, overrun by criminals, and under threat from Muslims at home and abroad.

“I think it is disturbing that a lot of that feeling of unity seems to be wavering these days,” said Peter Guza, a 35-year-old North Andover father of two who was a college junior when his father, Phil, was killed in the World Trade Center. “The perspective that I created coming out of Sept. 11 is more focused on appreciating those who are still here, and how privileged we are to have them and to be in this country.”

Elinor Stout, whose son, Timothy, a 42-year-old father of three, died in the World Trade Center, said she blames Trump for stoking the kind of fear that she tried to battle after Sept. 11 when she spoke to church groups in Boston with Zainab Al-Suwaij, a cofounder of the American Islamic Congress.

“I’m very saddened by the division in our country, and I feel so badly that Muslims are being singled out,” said Stout, an 82-year-old Concord resident. “They are not religious fanatics, and I really do feel it
was fanaticism that killed my son.”

When Stephanie Gardner, whose mother was on Flight 11, taught her sixth-grade class in Acton about the Sept. 11 attacks last week, she emphasized how America rallied together afterward.

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“For me, there wasn’t a religion to blame or a country to blame; it really was a small group of people” who orchestrated the attacks, she said.

‘We wake up every day feeling the loss. The loss feels different. But we still feel that loss very deeply.’

She said there was some discomfort and silence as she told her students about the hijackings and the death of her mother, Cora Hidalgo Holland, a 52-year-old Sudbury resident who loved the Patriots and sports talk radio. But after class, she said, one student told her, “I need to give you the biggest hug right now.”

“When I get disheartened, when I watch the news or watch the election, I think of the kids, and it makes me hopeful,” Gardner said.

Many say the charitable acts they undertake every Sept. 11 have taken on greater meaning this year as a way to repudiate the violence and animosity that seem to dominate the news these days.

Guza is running a 100-mile road race to raise money for a scholarship named for his father. McGinty organized face painting, music, and games to raise money for scholarships named for her husband. On Sunday, she plans to join other victims’ relatives who are making care packages for service members and veterans.

“That’s how I’m going to commemorate my husband’s death,” she said. “Otherwise, he died for nothing, and I’m not going to let that happen.”

Debra Burlingame, whose brother, Charles “Chic” Burlingame III, was the pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, which hit the Pentagon, said she hopes the country will mark Sept. 11 by vowing to confront the growing threat of radical Islam.

“I’m focused on the future and what we can do, as a country and as a nation, to prevent this from spreading, because it’s a cancer, and it is spreading,” Burlingame said. “That’s important to me. I can’t get my brother back, but I desperately don’t want others to have to go through this.”

On Sunday, both Trump and Hillary Clinton have agreed to stop campaigning and pull their ads, in keeping with a request made by 9/11 Day, a group founded by victims’ families that has called for a “political moment of silence.”

Ysuff Salie — whose daughter, Rahma, was 28 and seven months pregnant when she died on Flight 11 with her husband, Micky — said he hasn’t spent much time thinking about politics or terrorism, though both have been nearly impossible to avoid.

On Sunday, he said, he plans to open his shop, L’Aroma Café on Newbury Street, lower the flag to half-staff and — after saying a few words about his daughter and son-in-law — “get back to our normal day.”

“It is difficult to do that, but we have to do that,” Salie said. “We can only go on living for the people who aren’t living. We have a double obligation — one obligation is to live our lives, and the other obligation is to live our lives for the people we lost.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@
globe.com
. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.