USA TODAY - September 11, 2023
DEERPARK, N.Y. – Elizabeth Miller had some big news to share with her mom on Sept. 11, 2001.
A 6-year-old at the time, she'd lost a tooth at her Catholic school in Port Jervis, about 90 miles north of New York City. She'd also heard that planes had hit the World Trade Center towers.
It was only days later that Miller got another piece of news: her father Douglas C. Miller, 34, a firefighter and one of 11 members of Rescue 5 Company on Staten Island sent to the World Trade Center towers, was dead.
Miller, now 28, doesn’t know much else other than he entered the South Tower and never came out. He left behind his wife, Laurie, Miller, and her two younger sisters.
“I needed to know everything that I could about why 9/11 happened to put it into the context of my life,” she said
Duffel bags and 'Ghostbusters'
Miller remembers climbing into the black leather duffle bag their father took to Rescue 5’s firehouse, about two hours away from his family. He’d pretend to walk out with her or her sisters still inside.
Then there were the family fire drills: Her father practiced lowering his daughters out of their second-story window or down the staircase. The railing still has rope marks from the practice sessions. They watched "Ghostbusters" squished together on a recliner.
Before joining the FDNY, Miller said, her dad was an electrician and a volunteer firefighter, rising to chief in Millrift, Pennsylvania, where he met his wife. He had been a New York City firefighter for only six years before joining a rescue company, a prestigious role for someone early in their career.
It was normal for her father to be gone for days at work. Miller hadn’t thought much of the Sept. 11 attacks beyond what she told her mom that day after school.
A few days later, Miller remembered eavesdropping when an early morning visitor told her mother that her father couldn’t be found. Miller's mother sat her down with her sisters on the chest that contained all of the family’s VHS tapes. Their father was in heaven, Miller’s mother told them.
Her father's death, she said, really hit in the quiet times, after people left and weren’t at their door or bringing food.
And even though her mother never asked, and even though her grandparents soon moved in, she took on the role of parent to her little sisters.
“9/11 didn’t take away my childhood, because I still had a childhood,” she said. “But I think it took some of my innocence and naivete away at a young age.”
Moving forward with 'bits and pieces'
She started therapy in high school, but when she enrolled at Bloomsburg University, in Pennsylvania, she grappled with her father’s death by studying terrorism and the Middle East. She studied Osama bin Laden’s radicalization before 9/11. She read his writings. She spoke with Peter Bergen, a CNN reporter who once interviewed bin Laden.
She doesn’t like to use the word closure, she said, but studying the origins of terrorism helped her cope with her father's death. “It helps me move my life forward when I have as many bits and pieces of information as I can get,” she said.
In 2017, she graduated with dual degrees in history and Arabic, and a minor in Middle East studies. Bergen encouraged her to intern at his left-leaning Washington, D.C., think tank New America, where she focused that summer on international security and terrorism.
She later earned a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies from the City University of New York. In one course on prison literature, she read about Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who was detained without being charged at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp in Cuba for 14 years, where he was tortured by U.S. officials.
She felt guilty that her father’s death helped lead to U.S. policies and actions that caused more harm, including torturing men like Slahi and Islamophobia in the country.
“It just felt like all of the violence that came after 9/11 was in part for 9/11 family members,” she said. “It just didn’t sit right with me.”
In 2018, she began corresponding with Slahi, years after his release, forming a bond over shared trauma from 9/11. The two still message over WhatsApp, she said.
Trips to Guantanamo, seeking justice
When she was in graduate school, she worked as a research coordinator at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan. She fact-checked information and wrote labels for exhibits, telling few about her family connection to the site.
While there, her mother texted her a photo of a letter from the Department of Defense inviting families to Guantanamo for pretrial hearings. She wanted to understand all sides of the case. In doing so, she learned about 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a group founded by grieving families who oppose violence in the pursuit of justice. Miller opposes the death penalty and torture methods and found a community with similar views.
The organization worked to bring together people who suffered from the attacks with others who suffered from wars and political conflict, said Terry Anne Greene, 64, a public health specialist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who joined in 2004.
Greene’s older brother, Donald Freeman Greene, an executive vice president for an aeronautics safety company, died aboard United Airlines Flight 93, when passengers took control of the flight from terrorists and crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. He was 52, leaving behind a wife and two children.
“I don’t see any other logical way to proceed in the world,” she said. “We really can’t afford war. It’s not always clear all of the ways out of it, but definitely connecting people is what needs to happen.”
In September 2021, Miller sat in on hearings at Guantanamo for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a lead figure behind the 9/11 attacks. The next year, she became project director for Peaceful Tomorrows. She visited Guantanamo twice more, most recently in March 2022 with the U.S. Defense Department, to see the prosecution’s side. She found the prosecution to be flawed: In a letter, the Pentagon wrote to survivors and families of people killed in the attacks, the federal government said a pretrial deal "may never be finalized" with five men, including Mohammed, held at the military prison.
Differing politics, gathering to mourn
In 2021, Miller ran for Port Jervis City Council in her hometown of 8,775 people and won. She hoped to give back to the city that helped her family after the attacks took her father. A Democrat, she’s now running for mayor.
On Monday, she planned to paint an upstairs bedroom in the afternoon. She has sometimes spent 9/11 with her mother doing chores, all the while her phone alerting her with more text messages than she gets on her birthday. They had talked about about going to TJ Maxx.
But this year, she started the day by attending a ceremony in the parking lot of Deerpark Town Hall just outside of Port Jervis. The ceremony was in a more conservative, rural slice of New York. A few homes sported flags supporting former President Donald Trump. Near town hall, a telephone pole was marked with a sign: “We Will Never Forget.”
“We must continue to remember and honor those who lost their lives on that fateful day,” Town Supervisor Gary Spears, a Republican, told a few dozen people gathered at the ceremony. “It is also up to us to teach these things to the current generation of children who did not experience that day the true spirit of America that showed the world how great we can be when we are united.”
As a local high school choir sang for the ceremony, Miller stood to the side, wearing a windbreaker, jeans and sneakers with gold stars, near a memorial made with a beam recovered from the wreckage.
Next to town hall, elementary school students placed golden ribbons on a cherry tree, planted as the town's memorial for the attacks.
One ribbon carried the name of Miller’s father.
Eduardo Cuevas covers health and breaking news for USA TODAY. He can be reached at EMCuevas1@usatoday.com.
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