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Hope, Strength Highlighted in 9/11 Observance on Bldg. 1 Lawn

By Rich McManus

Photos by Lew Bass

It could have been a depressing experience all over again, and employees knew it as they streamed by the hundreds from all quarters of the campus to attend NIH's brief observance in commemoration of the horror of Sept. 11, 2001, on its first anniversary. "Got any tissues?" asked one woman to a friend walking from Bldg. 31 toward the gathering on the lawn in front of Bldg. 1. "I might need some."

NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni leads service.

It didn't help that, in eerie evocation of the smoke of Ground Zero, a white scrim of dust blew toward Bldg. 1 as strong winds lofted dirt from the construction zone surrounding the new Clinical Research Center. Nor did fighter jets patrolling the skies over metropolitan Washington, or a phalanx of fire trucks and ambulances parked along Center Drive, contribute serenity to the occasion. But an uplifting address by NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni pointed the crowd away from darkness and terror and toward a spirit of hope, pride and resolve in the face of tragedy.

The crowd listened attentively to brief remarks and witnessed the presentation of colors by an honor guard.

Perhaps the largest crowd ever to appear for an outdoor event near Bldg. 1 heard Zerhouni — standing on the portico of Bldg. 1 and looking into the sun, the crowd and a flag poised at half-mast — pledge that "we as a family will overcome any obstacle, any challenge" and hail a sense of spirit and compassion at NIH that prompted employees here to respond immediately to the disasters.

The crowd — larger than any CFC rally, or Bond Drive kickoff, or relay race — assembled quietly and reverently on a morning nearly as perfect, with respect to weather, as a year ago. The ceremony began with a version of "Auld Lang Syne" played on the public address system, followed by a brief welcome by Zerhouni, the presentation of colors by an honor guard composed of NIH fire and police professionals, then the Pledge of Allegiance, led by the director. Next came the "Star Spangled Banner"offered by Cpl. Cilvanus Wood of the NIH Police. Then Zerhouni recounted the events of last September, "which will remain in our memories forever. I still remember what I was doing a year ago, and I'm sure all of you can remember, too. All of us could not believe what was happening."

Hundreds of NIH'ers streamed from all parts of campus to attend the ceremony in front of Bldg. 1.

After acknowledging the initial shock that marked the event so indelibly, Zerhouni shifted to the positive: "Within hours, the nation was unified in one movement of solidarity and compassion...This event has made us stronger." Out of tragedy, the country knit a new sense of family, he suggested. "We shared the pain with our brothers and sisters."

The enemies of America who perpetrated the acts "thought that we could not muster the moral strength" to respond and recover, he said. "NIH was one of the first institutions to respond courageously...Members of the Commissioned Corps were in New York within hours of the event."

He continued, "In life, it's not the way that you get hurt that defines you — it's the way you respond to the hurt." NIH was a leading responder, he said, crafting within 90 days of the 9/11 and anthrax attacks a plan for biodefense that was so well done it is still in place today.

Participants were solemn and somber.

"But we are here today not to make speeches," he said. "We are here to demonstrate that we are one family...Nobody will ever forgot those who suffered, and every year we will commemorate this event." He saw great hope in the fact that 1,000 new infants have been born to the families of 9/11 victims. "The new generation will be here," he asserted, "and we as a family will overcome any obstacle, any challenge we may face."

From the size of the crowd, he observed that "NIH has a spirit of compassion, and of sharing" that will bear the institution through both the "joys and pains of being American." He urged listeners that "now is the time to send an email or a card to those who were affected," and concluded, "God bless you, and God bless America."

He asked for a moment of silence, after which "Taps" was played over the PA. After the colors had retired, the director simply said, "Ladies and gentlemen, God bless you" to end the ceremony.

Employees gather on Bldg. 1 lawn for memorial observance.

Where Were You When...?

In addition to the 9/11 observance that took place on Sept. 11 of this brighter year, there were several other high-profile events on campus that enabled NIH officials to tell stories about where they were when they learned the awful news of the terror attacks on New York, Washington and aboard an aircraft streaking over Pennsylvania. At a special hour-long Grand Rounds that kicked off the new academic year, NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci offered his views on "Bioterrorism and Biodefense: One Year Later" and was introduced by NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni, who filled in details of a story he had only begun to tell at the public ceremony earlier that day in front of Bldg. 1.

"I likened it (9/11) to the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963," said Zerhouni. "Those who were alive at the time never forgot that moment...It's something that will be with us for the remainder of our lives, and of the life of the nation."

Zerhouni recalled that he had been in a symposium at Johns Hopkins (where he was executive vice dean of the medical school before becoming NIH director last May). "Someone handed me a note and said there had been a major accident in New York, and that we had activated a Code Yellow at Johns Hopkins. I called the chief of surgery to inform him, then I was told that a plane had hit the Pentagon. I jumped in my car to go to the (Hopkins) hospital, where we called the governor (of Maryland) and Tommy Thompson (HHS secretary). We immediately stopped all operations at the hospital," he continued, thinking all hands would redeploy to casualty response. "Unfortunately, the number who made it out alive was not that much."

His principal memory of that morning? "Every institution in the area responded, and NIH was among the first."

Fauci told the Masur Auditorium crowd that he had actually been in New York City on 9/11. "I was coming out of the Queens-Midtown Tunnel in a taxi, and I looked up and saw some smoke on the skyline. I thought that the air conditioning unit on top of a building had malfunctioned." He had been enroute to a meeting, and when he got there, the television was on. Only then did the magnitude of what had happened sink in. "I had no idea then how it would transform our nation," he said. "As the smoke cleared, it was clear we (NIH) had a major role, which was confirmed by the anthrax attacks so soon after."

Only a few hours after Fauci's Grand Rounds talk ended, Masur filled to capacity again for a talk whose title was practically begged of the preceding events: "The Future of Life" by Harvard professor E.O. Wilson (see coverage in an upcoming Record).

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