Ties That Truly Bind
The first responder and the family of the victim; it's a 9/11 kind of story
With instincts honed over years spent working in collapsed buildings, Mike Regan eyed the wrecked innards of the Pentagon for spaces where victims might be buried. It was Sept. 13, 2001, two days after American Airlines Flight 77 had smashed through the Pentagon's west wall. Regan led an eight-man search-and-rescue team through tangled piles of smashed office equipment. Flash fires flared around them. Finally, the team reached a charred work area. As they began to lift debris, they uncovered a conference table. Then bodies. Some were still sitting in chairs.
Regan approached one of them and coaxed a wallet from the trousers. There was a driver's license that belonged to Dan Shanower, 40, of Naperville, Ill. Regan noted the info on a pad and sent the wallet out to the FBI. Then Regan and his team continued searching. Keep moving, that was the ethos of the rescue squad. Focus on the work. Don't let it become personal.
Yet when Regan and his wife, Janice, commemorate the fifth anniversary of the attacks next week, it will not be in Virginia, where Regan spent five days combing through the Pentagon rubble. It won't be in New York, either, even though Regan grew up in Brooklyn and lost two close friends, both firefighters, when the twin towers fell. Instead, the Regans will spend Sept. 11, 2006, in Naperville, attending a memorial service in the Chicago suburb and visiting with Dan Shanower's parents, Don and Pat. It's a connection that has grown organically out of the ashes of 9/11. "They have a lot of the same emotions we have," says Regan of the Shanowers. And while seeking solace from the rescuer, the Shanowers have reached out to him, too, exerting a steady, gravitational tug. "It's hard to say no to them," Regan confesses. "We've stayed in touch because of the type of people they are."
It's a new experience for Regan. As a member of Virginia Task Force 1, a group of Fairfax County, Va., firefighters who double as a federal search-and-rescue team, Regan has faced many traumatic scenes: the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, earthquakes in Turkey and Armenia. Until 9/11, he had never gotten to know a victim or his or her family. But once Regan's work at the Pentagon was finished, he called a firefighter from Naperville he knew, Chuck Wehrli, and said he had found a victim from Naperville. "Dan Shanower?" Wehrli interjected. The Shanowers were well-known, thanks to five active kids and a schoolteacher mom. Dan had been bright, mischievous, and popular. He had joined the Navy after college and become an intelligence officer, bringing home stories of his travels. Wehrli asked Regan if Dan's parents could call him. Despite reservations, Regan said sure.
So on a Sunday in mid-2002, the Regans' phone rang. Regan and his wife were heading out; Janice was already in the car. When Mike didn't materialize, Janice went back inside. "It's the Shanowers," Mike whispered. Haltingly, Dan's parents asked what Regan had seen at the Pentagon. There were long pauses. After an hour, the Shanowers asked a question the firefighter knew was coming: "Do you think he suffered?"
"I don't think he suffered," Regan answered.
Medals. A 9/11 memorial went up in Naperville in 2003. The Regans were iffy about the Shanowers' invitation to the dedication, but they decided it felt right. Afterward, the Shanowers asked the Regans to their home. Janice noticed pictures of Dan, surrounded by his Navy medals. Thinking of their own three kids, Janice picked up the medals and asked about Dan. "That felt good," recalls Pat Shanower. "A lot of people see the pictures and the medals, but hardly anybody examines or asks about them."
The two families stayed in E-mail contact. They had dinner together when the Shanowers visited their son's grave at Arlington National Cemetery. And now, both sides are looking forward to reconnecting in Naperville for the fifth anniversary. For the Regans, it will be a refreshing moment of solemnity in a world they see growing indifferent to the events of 9/11. "What I like about Naperville is they have a memorial to the people who were killed," says Mike Regan. "I live in Herndon [Va.]. People who lived here were killed. And there's no memorial here."
The Shanowers still crave information about their son. If it feels right, they may ask Mike more questions about the Pentagon. And if not, they will still cherish the Regans' presence. "We have a bond with them because they've had an experience we haven't," says Don Shanower. "They recovered our son, and we haven't."
This story appears in the September 11, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.