An American Hero: Then and Now

Written by Dana Karnowski with input from John McElligott and Sean Berry

Today marks the 20th Anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack. It has taken 20 years to absorb the meaning of September 11, 2001. Those of us alive that year will always remember where we were when we heard the devastating news that a plane had hit the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. While we remember the sorrow of that day and many of the days that followed, we also remember the dedication, commitment and strength of those that responded to the tragic events. Though lives were changed , Americans faced the change together in unity.

Sadly, Sean Berry remembers a time when Americans did not stand together. Like many, he left for Vietnam a young boy and returned a broken man. Of note, Sean was an HM2 Medevac Corpsman and met John McElligott (MHS 1963) while serving in Vietnam. When Sean arrived home in Los Angeles for a month’s break, he was greeted at the airport by angry protestors spitting on him, throwing things and yelling. The treatment of returning soldiers was tragic. Looking for somewhere to turn for support, he immediately sought comfort from his friend from Midland, Texas. He flew to Midland and stayed at the home of John McElligott for 2 weeks before finally returning to his own hometown in New Jersey. They have remained friends since 1964.

Sean returned to his civilian life and was a renowned and exceptionally talented musician. His talents and gifts were shared with many. However, his commitment and compassion to serve his country and fellow man was suddenly resurrected on that fateful day, September 11, 2001. He watched with the country as the planes hit the towers, and immediately knew he must take action. He kissed his wife and left at once for Ground Zero. What he found was devastation and despair, and it has followed him for the last 20 years. He continues to have anxiety and severe health consequences as a result of the 30 days he spent volunteering at the World Trade Center from September 11, 2001 until October 10, 2001. Here are some photos from his time at Ground Zero.

Badges worn as Sean volunteered at Ground Zero. Because of his time as a Medevac in Vietnam, Sean volunteered in NYC during 9/11 in the morgue and helped transport the bodies from the rubble to the morgue.
Ground Zero
The rubble of the North Tower
Sean and Frank Freeley. Frank is with the NYPD Communications Division. They lost 37 fellow police officer comrades from the Port of Authority Police. Frank and Sean became close friends and remain in contact today.
This is Fred Cassell. He is a firefighter with the Linden, NJ Fire Department. Sean and Fred worked closely together. They have remained in contact for the past 20 years.

Sean’s time volunteering came to a sobering halt after falling on top of the North Tower rubble, while carrying a stretcher. His injuries, including a broken back, resulted in a brain surgery, 2 total knee replacements, 4 spine surgeries and 1 shoulder surgery. He has been left with lasting scars both physically and mentally.

Over the last 20 years he has visited 36 different hospitals, and had 14 different surgeries. However, nothing can remove the anxiety and PTSD that is etched in his brain forever. Sean remains bed ridden in Massachusetts. His PTSD coupled with the Covid pandemic have trapped him in his home for the past 2 years. He has left only once, having been transported by ambulance to a hospital for treatment for one of his many comorbidities. He lives alone and spends his days now in constant prayer and pain.

The small Bible carried during his time at Ground Zero. The cover taped with duct tape is symbolic in many ways. He remains faithful to this day, spending 15 hours a day in prayer and hoping to somehow repair the damage inflicted by the 9/11events.
A priest’s stole that Sean recovered from the rubble. It still is covered in soot and smells of smoke.
Letter of Gratitude from President Bill Clinton sent to Sean for his service.

Today, let us remember the heroes of 9/11, not only those that perished during the tragedy, but also those that responded to the call of duty and helped to rebuild NYC, our country, and the spirit of the American people. May God bless them all.

2 thoughts on “An American Hero: Then and Now

  1. Linda Mills Wofford September 11, 2021 / 11:35 am

    Beautifully written, Dana!

  2. Ron Peavy September 12, 2021 / 9:38 am

    Incredibly moving. Appreciation and prayers for Sean.

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