Anyone who has ever lost a loved one knows the infinite pain that resides in the heart, like a bottomless pit that is omnipresent.
Within that black hole of heartbreak lies loving remembrance, even reverence, coupled with a broad range of emotions and memories. Although times may change and decades may pass, these memories are everlasting — even as the pain never ends.
However, in the two decades following 9/11 we have likewise learned that out of the worst tragedies can come glimmers of hope for the future.
To wit: countless post-9/11 support groups, volunteer efforts, non-profit organizations and memorial funds have proven this truism over the past two decades, and will continue to do so well into the future.
As the Dalai Lama XIV of Tibet reminds us:
- “Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength.”
- “No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful the experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s the real disaster.”
It’s possible for some good to come out of evil, for some love to supersede hate, and for endless pain to be met with endless promise for the future.
Like many native New Yorkers, I lost someone close to me on 9/11.
And even though it’s been many years since my childhood friend died during the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, I still think about him. I often wonder what might have been for a young life tragically cut short.
My friend Doug Irgang and I grew up together in Roslyn, a small town on Long Island’s North Shore. In fact, Doug was just one day older than me and we shared a mutual group of friends since grade school.
Doug was the type of person that other people strived to be like.
Doug had an immaculate disposition, including an attitude that was always positive and uplifting; a sense of humor like a professional comedian, which could always put a smile on your face; and a sense of empathy, mindfulness and kindness that were rare for a young person from an affluent area.
Following the death of his father in elementary school, Doug watched over his mother and became her true protector. Then, after high school, Doug left home for college at Tulane University in New Orleans, where he became a member of the fraternity Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT).
In his early 30s, Doug worked for a financial services firm on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center’s south tower. Tragically, Doug was in his office when the planes hit and the towers fell.
Prior to that day from hell, Doug had big plans. He had unexpectedly met his fiancée while commuting to work on the NYC subway. In fact, Doug was engaged to be married in December of 2001. He and his fiancée had attended my wedding, and I was looking forward to seeing them tie the proverbial knot.
While Doug’s future was bright, his wedding day never arrived. Instead, a memorial service was held in our hometown to honor his life and legacy — and mourn his untimely death.
Lucky at Love
The New York Times wrote the following about Doug in a tribute entitled, “Lucky Beyond the Odds”…
- “Doug Jason Irgang had the kind of jaw-dropping luck that could win a lottery, or save a life. A financial trader, he was there when the trade center was bombed in 1993.”
- “And he was on board the Long Island Rail Road train when Colin Ferguson went on a [random shooting] rampage.”
9/11 Memorial in NYC. Photo courtesy of author.
- “Mr. Irgang was even lucky in love.”
- “Riding the №4 train to work daily, he noticed that the same young woman was reading his newspaper over his shoulder. This being New York, they barely exchanged hellos.”
- “Then one day, the woman scribbled her phone number on the newspaper and told him to call. He did. They were engaged a year and a half later, and set a wedding date for Dec. 22 .”
Since 9/11, Ground Zero has been transformed into a somber memorial to honor the fallen and help families heal.Freedom Tower (video) now graces the pristine skyline next to where the Twin Towers once stood.
Doug’s story is just one among thousands…
These are tragic stories of innocence lost and dreams crushed under the rubble of a once iconic landmark gracing the skyline of lower Manhattan.
Hope for New Generations
Doug loved swimming, a sport in which he thrived. He was a role model for younger aspiring athletes, some of whom Doug took under his wing and trained for free on his own time after work and on weekends.
To honor his life, a memorial fund was established in Doug’s name to provide equal opportunities for minority swimmers in New York City. The goal is to help swimmers with financial hardships to reach their full potential by providing the freedom to compete on a fair and level playing field — one without barriers based on race, ethnicity or gender.
The fund, called Swim for the Future, awards scholarships to aspiring professional swimmers to train and compete on a Manhattan-based elite swim team, which might otherwise be cost prohibitive.
Swim for the Future alumni include a black female from the Bronx who became a two-time Olympian.
Lia Neal received a memorial scholarship at the tender age of 8-years old, and ultimately won two swimming medals for Team USA (more below).
The memorial fund’s home base is Asphalt Green in Battery Park City. Their motto: “Making the Impossible Possible.”
According to its web site (above):
- “The Asphalt Green Unified Aquatics (AGUA) Swim Team is one of the most diverse youth swim teams in the country. This is due in part to the Swim for the Future Scholarship, which gives children with financial need a chance to pursue the dream of competitive swimming.”
- The Swim for the Future Scholarship was created in honor of two Asphalt Green Unified Aquatics (AGUA) Masters swim team members — Andrew Fisher and Doug Irgang — who tragically lost their lives on September 11, 2001.”
- “This scholarship honors their spirit and passion for swimming. Since 2001, 381 scholarships have been awarded to deserving swimmers on the AGUA Swim Team.”
- “Over the years, Swim for the Future Scholarship recipients have excelled in the swimming world at regional, national and international competitions while breaking personal, team, and national age group records.”
- “Recipient Lia Neal brought the Swim for the Future Scholarship to a new level of prestige when she won a bronze medal in the 2012 Olympic Games in London and a silver medal during the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janiero, both in the 4x100m freestyle relay.”
Doug’s somber story demonstrates — like so many others — that while the colossal cloud of September 11th can never be eclipsed by smaller silver linings (no matter how many), these noble post-9/11 efforts can still make a positive difference in people’s lives.
In fact, the outgrowth of ongoing charitable volunteer work of those connected to 9/11 victims continues to change the lives of younger generations for the better— in addition to benefitting all generations who continue to mourn and suffer incalculable loss.
As paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould writes in his award-winning book, The Mismeasure of Man (National Book Critics Circle Award):
- “We pass through this world but once.”
- “Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identifies as lying within.”
The bottom line, as reiterated often, is that we must always remember and honor the victims of 9/11.
We must never forget the pain and sacrifice of their families — of children growing up without parents; of husbands and wives having their spouses cruelly taken from them in an untimely manner; of brothers and sisters losing siblings; and of a freedom-loving nation in which healing will never end, yet one where better days always lie ahead.
As noted above:
It’s possible for good to come out of evil, for love to supersede hate, and for endless pain to be met with endless promise for the future.
God Bless America: land of the free and home of the brave.
AUTHOR’S NOTE on Swim for the Future Scholarship: “The application process for the 2021/2022 season is complete. Please contact Eamon Hanifin at 212.369.8890 x2257 or [email protected] with any questions regarding the Swim for the Future scholarship,” according to its website.
This is part 2 of a 3-part series. You might also like part 1 and 3…
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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Photo credit: Dan Gold on Unsplash