HE MESSAGE CONTAINED just five words and two numbers that Randy Scott, a husband and father of three, wrote on a piece of paper on Sept. 11, 2001. It floated down from his office at Euro Brokers Inc., on an upper floor of Two World Trade Center, to the chaotic streets below, and was tenderly preserved as it traveled from hand to hand over the course of a decade.
12 people trapped"
Denise Scott learned of her husband's last message in August 2011, just weeks before the 10th anniversary of his death in the World Trade Center's collapse. For those 10 years, his family members believed he had died instantly when United Airlines Flight 175 flew into the south tower at 9:03 a.m., near the floors containing Euro Brokers' offices.
"The note," as his family refers to it, changed everything. The voices of Denise and her children overlap as they consider how the note changed their oral history of Randy's final moments. Each delivers a piece of the agonizing account as though trying to spare the others.
"I spent 10 years hoping that Randy wasn't trapped in that building," said Denise, 57, at her Stamford, Conn., home, with two of her three daughters, Rebecca, 29, and Alexandra, 22, at her side.
"I thought he was killed instantly," Rebecca interjected.
"It was so close to impact," Alexandra said.
Randy Scott's daughters fought tears as his message again triggered new mental images.
In a steady tone, their mother explained the power of the note. "You don't want them to suffer. They're trapped in a burning building. It's just an unspeakable horror. And then you get this 10 years later. It just changes everything."
It is not the words alone that change the narrative of Randy Scott's final moments. On the note is a dark spot, about the size of a thumbprint. It is Randy's blood, which provided the clue that eventually enabled the medical examiner's office to trace the source of the note through DNA tests and deliver it to his family a decade after he apparently tossed it from the 84th floor.
AFTER THE FIRST plane hit One World Trade Center, Randy, 48, called Denise at Springdale School. She was in class with her first-grade students, so someone picked up the school line and passed along the message. Thinking the first crash was a minor incident, he just wanted her to know he was fine. The full news of the terrorist attacks would not reach Denise until later that morning, when Rebecca called her from Ohio, where she was attending college.
For the next few days, they considered Randy a missing person, checking bars, restaurants, and hospitals.
In the years to follow, Denise recorded key information in a black notebook. Four days before another Sept. 11 anniversary, she consulted the notebook to ensure she was accurate in sharing details. She refers to the space in the front of the house as "the 9/11 room," since it is here that so many friends and family members gathered nearly 11 years ago, waiting for news and consoling one another. Though Denise quickly dismissed her own name for the room, it is accented by reminders of one of the most famous days in U.S. history: The New York Times book Portraits: 9/11/01 on the coffee table, the faint names of the victims woven into an American flag on the wall over the piano, photos of Randy with family members and at play.
The house, which they moved into two decades ago, is blue with white trim. Red shutters were added to complete the color scheme weeks before Sept. 11, 2001. Now they make an indelible reference point. "We're the red, white, and blue house," Rebecca says wryly when offering directions.
AFTER RETURNING FROM a day with her second-grade class at Springdale, Denise tells the story of the note like a schoolteacher. She avoids dramatic embellishments ("I try not to personalize it; just the facts") and references her black notebook when needed. Her account is punctuated by flashes of emotion; she pauses to ensure accuracy, and laughs when describing her husband.
Denise was out of town visiting a friend in August 2011 when she received a call from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of New York. With the passage of time, and the evolution of DNA technology, the office will sometimes call families with news that something has been identified, most often fragments of remains. This call, though, came from Dr. Barbara Butcher, chief of staff and director of Forensic Investigations at the ME's office.
"I said, 'What kind of fragment?'" Denise recalled. "She said, 'No, it's not a fragment. It's something written.' And that's when I just fell apart."
Denise did not know the contents of the note, or how it had been linked to Randy. The uncertainty made her grateful that she was able to process the news alone, away from her daughters, for fear of upsetting them.
"I was a mess," she said. "Because I didn't know what it was."
She slowed her cadence for emphasis. "It...was...10...years...later. It was the 10th anniversary, and they started replaying everything. It was hard enough anyway, and to get a phone call 10 years later. It's not even…to learn there are more remains, more fragments. They call them fragments. It's 10 years, and now it's something else again. And it's something I had no idea existed."
Her sole confidant was Steve Ernst, Randy's best friend. When they went to New York to see the note, she took a substitute for her traditional notebook.
"She leaves the house with this [black] book, we know something's up," Rebecca said.
Denise also brought a sample of Randy's handwriting, thinking she would need it for identification.
"The minute I saw it I didn't need to see the DNA test," she said. "I saw the handwriting. It's Randy's handwriting."
Butcher retraced the note's path through the years. Someone on the street found it immediately and handed it to a guard at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Just then, the world changed.
"The building was gone," Denise said.
The Federal Reserve kept the note safe, eventually turning it over to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. The museum worked with the medical examiner's office, which traced it to Randy in the summer of 2011.
"I'm speechless that they actually were able to identify it," Denise said. "This note was written on Sept. 11. It came out of a window. Somebody had it. People had their hands all over it."
Butcher posed a question for her to consider. The museum wanted to exhibit the letter, with Denise's permission. She agreed, asking only that they embargo it until she told her daughters.
Jan Ramirez, chief curator of the museum, said the note is "exceptionally rare. I don't know of anything else like it."
"There have been other pieces of paper that came out of the towers that day, to which we have been able to attach some powerful stories, but none have been quite as rare and unusual and inspiring and sad and touching as this particular one. It really is in a class by itself," she said.
Denise's decision on the exhibit came easily; choosing the right time to share the news with her daughters became a tortured process. The 10th anniversary passed; Alexandra had started her fall semester; holidays came and went.
In January, Denise's father died. She decided the time was right to bring her three daughters—Rebecca, Alexandra, and Jessica—into the family room and share the news.
"I was bawling, because I recognized his handwriting," Rebecca recalled.
They knew it had changed not just their father's narrative, but that of the 11 other people referenced in the note.
"Everyone hoped that it was right on impact. That he didn't suffer," Alexandra said. "Not only to know that he was trapped but what he was going through? And we knew the guys in his office too. And they had kids and they had families, and to think that they were terrified."
Rebecca, Alexandra, and Jessica dismissed their mother's anxiety about her decision to delay delivering the news. The Scotts also knew they had to widen the circle, reaching out to other relatives and to the families of Randy's co-workers. The five words and two numbers had written a new narrative for them as well, a narrative Denise found herself repeating in the months to come, "again, and again, and again, and again, and again."
In March, Denise and Rebecca took a hard-hat tour of the 9/11 Memorial museum, which is not yet open to the public. They were shown the area where Randy's note will be displayed as part of an exhibit to document the final moments inside the World Trade Center.
"It's so amazing to think that Randy Scott wrote it and it eventually ended up with his wife and three daughters," said Ramirez, the museum's curator. "We are incredibly proud to be able to show it, and I think it will be one of the most powerful artifacts in the museum."
The Scotts are aware that if not for the spot of Randy's blood, they and other families could have one day seen the letter in the museum without knowing its origins. Over the past 11 years, some families have chosen not to be notified by the medical examiner's office when fragments are found.
"I can't do that. I can't do that," Denise said. "The last notification of remains I got was in 2008. And I can't do that. I can't leave him there. I cannot leave him there."
Better to know the truth, even when it comes in the form of a message that took a decade to be delivered.
"It tells people the story of the day," Denise said.
In just five words and two numbers.
©2012 by the Stamford, Conn., Advocate, Hearst Conn. Media Group. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
- How does chocolate milk stack up as a sports drink?
- Why Republicans shouldn't get too excited over Obama's stumbles
- Diagnosing the Home Alone burglars' injuries: A professional weighs in
- The 10 worst-reviewed movies of 2013
- The last racial taboo
- TIME chose Pope Francis as its Person of the Year. And it was the perfect choice for the Upworthy era.
- 10 things you need to know today: December 11, 2013
- 7 enduring lessons from It's a Wonderful Life
- How did Love Actually become so controversial? A theory
- Watch The Daily Show mock the NSA and the gamers they're spying on
Subscribe to the Week