Questions And Answers With 9/11 Family Member: Donna Marsh O'Connor

Donna Marsh O'Connor lost her daughter Vanessa Lang Langer on 9/11/2001. She recently appeared at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. on 9/11/2006. The purpose of her appearance was to call for a new investigation into the attacks of 9/11. I thought it would be prudent for people to know a little bit about Mrs. O'Connor, and her story.

1. I understand you taught writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University for 20+ years. What was the average day like in your classroom, and what kinds of topics did you cover? How did you become involved in that track, and why did you retire?

I did not retire, I stepped down. There were very few average days in my classroom. For 20 years, I taught students to describe what they see before their eyes, what the smell, what they touch before they came to the point of judgement. My focus in teaching writing was always to ask students to think of themselves as individual agents in the center of a public text, to think about the way pronouns work to mask their agency (I, We You, etc...) and the way those pronouns obviate questions a writer needs to have in order not to simply replicate ideas in the collective air. In short, I taught my students to be more conscious as American writers and to begin to sort through American discursive polarities and to try to account for more sophisticated nuances and differences. Most of my years in the classroom were life changing for me and (my students often reported) for them, too. I never taught or suggested students believe what I said. I simply helped them to understand in complex ways that writers must come to a deep understaning of "others" before coming to judgements. My courses were difficult, but (I was told) worth it. Increasingly, after 9/11, I saw that my own individual agency as a teacher and a creator of text in the classroom was changing. At the same time, the American public texts were becoming more explosive. Students (not all of them) wanted to back away. The media always feature into my teaching. Now, increasingly, the media was becoming more and more about covering up the key details of issues. I saw that if I stayed I would become less able to postpone judgement myself. Rather than teatching students processes of questioning and understanding, I would have been (perhaps rightly (interesting word!)) accused of putting forward an anti-administration agenda. For me, that meant time to step down.

2. Where did you meet your husband, and what kinds of things do you guys do for fun?

We met at a pool in Westchester County, NY where he worked as a lifeguard. That became in many ways for me a metaphor for our marriage. He is a lifeguard, strong and deterimined to protect his family. He is also a writer. He wrote the novel "Buffalo Soldiers", and it was made into a film and premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on 9/8/2001. I don't like to talk about our private times. Obviously, though, we read and see films, talk about them, joke and laugh often.

3. You have two sons. Tell us about them.

They are both kind people, though that quality presents in difference ways. James is a college student, majoring in communication studies and a volunteer firefighter and an EMT/Paramedic. I'm sure you can guess what inspired that. Perhaps a need to save his sister. Jack is younger. He plays football, baseball and basketball, and sees the world through those three seasons and is always the kid to stop fights. They miss their sister. They are very kind to me.

4. How did you choose the name Vanessa for your lovely daughter?

Vanessa means butterfly in greek. I believed that any daughter of mine would never leave the comfort of her jeans and graty tee shirts and so I chose a more feminine, a more dramatic name. Vanessa, though, was her name, stunning and dramatic, fiercely beautiful. Her season, like the butterfly's, was fall.

5. How often do you see Vanessa's husband? How is he holding up?

Vanessa's husband died last year in July of Alcoholic Hepatitis. It was a long and determined suicide.

6. If you can, please describe the day of September 11th as it happened for you.

I have done this so many times, in so many ways that it is exhausting. I wrote about it in an open letter to George W. Bush and that text is still accessible online. The shorthand: I was in Toronto on my way to the Elgin Theatre for the second showing of "Buffalo Soldiers." It was a brilliant morning, so clear. The clarity of the sky is in Ironic contrast to what I could not see coming. My cell phone rang. It was my brother-in-law. That was the end of that part of our lives.

7. Were you among the family members that lobbied Washington D.C. for the original "independent investigation?" If not, when did you begin to question the events of September 11th, 2001?

I questioned the events from 9/11 on. In 2000, when Bush did not win, I told my husband we would be at war with Iraq. He told me, no. He can't go to war without Congress. He's just a Republican. On the 13th, when he stood on the pile that encased Vanessa's body and talked about Iraq, I knew. There was an agenda that had to be uncovered. I did not live in NYC or New Jersey. I was not in contact with the group that originally lobbied Washignton. I have been from the beginning, and remain alone in my efforts. At least that's how it feels.

8. How many hours have you spent researching that horrible day? What are some of the things that stood out to you the most during your research?

Hours? Would you like me to take that on as a research project because I won't. I live with this every moment of my life. Vanessa was pulled from the rubble whole and intact. She was not crushed. She did not fall. She should have been warned that Ashcroft and other Top U.S. Officials were not flying on commercial airliners for some time before 9/11. She should have known about the Presidential Daily Briefing of 8/6/2001. She should have run for her life instead of waiting at least five full minutes at her desk with this piece of information from those in authority: You are safe. She was not safe. She was five minutes late to the rest of our lives. That is the key piece of information that leads me to demand a real investigation.

9. In your words, why is it important for this country, and this world to really take a look at the attacks of September 11th, 2001?

Bush/Cheney and their agenda was enabled by the events of that morning. They are the chief beneficiaries of that event. If they are not held accountable for their criminal negligence, what does constitute criminal behavior? The greater the power (in my opinion) the greater the responsibility to your fellow human beings. They have placed the world in jeopardy (I don't need to innumerate the ways here). 9/11 was their ticket to ultimate power, power that may at this point be difficult to curtail.

10. Are there other family members that are standing behind you, calling for a new investigation?

We know there are. Why does my story need more bodies behind it for force? Is it my responsibility to list each and every one who has questions?

11. What are some of the things people can be doing to help you achieve your goal?

Call, write, make your voices heard to require an investigation that is comprised of persons from the international community, that is bi-partisan, that includes family members from the beginning, middle and through the end. Force the individuals (Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, Tenet, Card, Clinton, Berger, etc...) to answer questions fully, under oath, no matter their station in society or role in this Government. Let no questions be off limits. And make this an investigation that does look at culpability and motive. Call, write and lobby every day in Vanessa's name. Because Vanessa Lang Langer and her unborn child died on Bush's watch. And they should be here today.

Thank you so much Mrs. O'Connor for the chance to speak with you. Hopefully this will open up a lot of people's eyes in regards to the tragedy of 9/11. Let it be said... you are FAR from alone Mrs. O'Connor. Far from alone.