Public Servants of September 11


On May 6, 2002, a special and unprecedented John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for Public Service was awarded to the thousands of selfless public servants who demonstrated extraordinary courage and heroism in response to the tragic events of September 11. 

In defining public servants, the Profile in Courage Award Committee included all private citizens who, at a time of grave challenge to their country, acted courageously to save the lives of others. 

“The heartbreaking events of September 11 brought to our families, to our communities, and to our nation overwhelming loss,” said Caroline Kennedy, in presenting the special award. “But in those terrible moments thousands of ordinary men and women put their own lives on the line in order that others might be spared, making real the face of courage and inspiring a new generation to want to serve others. 

“The extraordinary bravery of our public servants – firefighters, police, medical teams, and our elected officials – saved thousands of lives,” Kennedy continued. “These men and women put their lives on the line, as they do every day, and a new generation recognized that there are no greater heroes than those who serve others. We honor too all those civilians who demonstrated the most extraordinary bravery in New York, at the Pentagon, and in the sky. They became public servants in the very best sense of the word, saving each other, protecting the rest of us, and giving their lives for their country. 

“They have been joined by the men and women of our armed forces who make courage their career, who face danger half-way around the world because they believe freedom is worth dying to defend,” said Kennedy. 

During the ceremony, Caroline Kennedy and Senator Edward Kennedy presented the sterling silver lantern to four individuals invited by the Kennedy Library Foundation to represent all of America’s public servants. 

U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Marilyn Wills was presented both the Soldiers’ Medal and the Purple Heart for her heroism above and beyond the call of duty on September 11. After a hijacked airline with 300,000 pounds of jet fuel was used by international terrorists as a weapon to attack the Pentagon, military and civilian personnel alike were left in a state of shock. Without regard for her own life, Lt. Col. Wills aided in the rescue effort by leading a group that was trapped in an inner conference room through the smoke and falling debris to a window. Once there, she helped to lower all individuals out of the second story window and then risked her life by remaining at the window. She used her voice to direct more casualties to the escape route before being ordered to evacuate. 

New York Police Department Officer Michael Gerbasi was a member of the NYPD a little more than three years when his Manhattan Precinct 1 Police Department rushed to the scene of the World Trade Center twin towers. While working to save others, Officer Gerbasi suffered a severe injury, nearly losing his arm. After his recovery, Officer Gerbasi did not hesitate to return to the New York Police Department where he continues to serve. 

Chief Brian O’Flaherty has been a public servant for nearly four decades working for the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). On September 11, he and his Engine 54, 9th Battalion team responded to the scene along with two other chiefs who were not on duty that day. Chief O’Flaherty and his comrades were in the ground floor of the South Tower when it collapsed upon them. They struggled to get the civilians and others around them out trying to reach the North Tower command post. Chief O’Flaherty’s shoulders were crushed, and his comrades, Chiefs Lawrence Stack and Raymond Downey, helped him toward an opening to escape the collapsed tower. Chief O’Flaherty made it through just as the second tower collapsed. Tragically, his selfless colleagues, Chiefs Stack and Downey, lost their lives. 

Firefighter John (Jack) Dewan from the Brookline Fire Department is part of a family that has served the city of Boston through its fire and police departments since 1900. His grandfather, father, two uncles, and two brothers have all served the public in this capacity of public safety. His brother, Gerard, was the first and only family member to move from the Boston area to join the New York Fire Department more than five years ago. Gerard Dewan was a member of Ladder 3 of the FDNY. On September 11, Ladder 3 responded to the scene with ten men – two officers and eight firemen. All ten were killed in the North Tower.