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2003-09-11

Sept. 11, 2001: Pakistani Family Mourns Loss of Son Who Went From Terror Suspect to 9/11 Hero

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Salman Hamdani died two years ago today after he raced to the Twin Towers to help survivors. He earned a mention in the Patriot Act for his bravery yet because he was a Muslim immigrant, the New York Post and others considered him a suspect until his DNA was discovered. [Includes transcript]

Click here to read to full transcript On the eve of the second anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Democracy Now! spent the evening with the parents of a young man who died in the World Trade Center 2 years ago. They were 2 of the hundreds of victims’ families who marched from Union Square in New York to the spot where the twin towers once stood.

Standing in front of Ground Zero last night, Pakistani immigrants Talat Hamdani and her husband Saleem remembered their son, Salman, as a hero—a New York City police cadet who died attempting to save lives at the World Trade Center 2 years ago this morning.

Even though their son was singled out by President Bush and mentioned by name in the Patriot Act as a hero, that was not how their son was portrayed in the immediate aftermath of 9-11. The New York Post and other media outlets portrayed Salman as a possible terrorist on the run.

The article from the New York Post was from October 12, 2001. It was called: "MISSING–OR HIDING?–MYSTERY OF NYPD CADET FROM PAKISTAN"

Here is an excerpt from that article:

“The NYPD is hunting for one of its former cadets, initially reported missing in the Twin Towers attack, issuing an urgent "hold and detain" order for the Pakistani native.

Hamdani was last seen, Koran in hand, leaving his Bayside, Queens home for his job as a research assistant at Rockefeller University, but he never made it to work.

His family distributed missing-person fliers in the fear that the 23-year- old, who is trained as an emergency medical technician, went instead to the World Trade Center to help and was killed.

But investigators for the FBI and NYPD have since questioned the family about which Internet chat rooms he visited and if he was political.

Hamdani, a graduate of Queens College with a biochemistry degree, had been in the NYPD cadet program for three years. He became "inactive" because he needed to work full time, his mother said.

Police sources said he hadn’t been to work at the NYPD since April, but he still carried official identification.

One source told the Post: "That tells me they’re not looking for this guy at the bottom of the rubble. The thing that bothers me is, if he is up to some tricks, he can walk past anybody [using the ID card]."

Hamdani’s mother, who has been in the United States for two decades, denied her son was political or a religious fundamentalist. Cops at the Midtown Tunnel reported spotting someone who looked like Hamdani yesterday morning."

Eleven days after this article was published, Congress passed the Patriot Act, singling out Salman as a hero.

  • Talaat and Mohammed Hamdani, Queens family who lost their son in the World Trade Center attacks, interviewed blocks from Ground Zero.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: Today, though, we’ll begin our show with the most recent September 11th attacks. Last night I spent the evening with the parents of a young man who died in the World Trade Center two years ago today. They were two of the hundreds of victims’ families who Marched from Union Square in New York to the spot where the twin towers once stood. Standing in front of Ground Zero last night, Pakistani immigrants Talat Hamdani and her husband Saleem remembered son Salman as a hero–a New York city police cadet who died attempting to save lives at the World Trade Center two years ago this morning. Here is Talat Hamdani, Salman’s mother, describing her son as she stood at the site where he died.

TALAT HAMDANI: He gave his life to save his fellow Americans. He didn’t care whether they were Muslim or Christian or Jew or Hindu, or any of the faith, or whether they were Chinese or American or Afghani or Liberian for all I know. He just went down to help, you know. And he lost his life.

AMY GOODMAN: Even though their son was singled out by President Bush and mentioned by name in the USA Patriot Act as a hero, that was not how their son was portrayed in the immediate aftermath of 9-11. The New York Post and other media outlets portrayed Salman as a possible terrorist on the run. In a moment we’ll hear more about the story of how Salman went from suspected terrorist to hero. But first we begin with Talat Hamdani, Salman’s mother, describing September 11th, 2001.

TALAT HAMDANI: I was in school, actually, you know. I was in school that day, so I got the news at about 10:30 when I came out of the classroom. I saw teachers huddled, you know, over talking about the twin towers being attacked. So I called home to my husband said they must be crazy. So when I called home my husband was on the other end and he said the twin towers collapsed and Salman is there. So I told him he didn’t work there, he wouldn’t be there, he worked in Manhattan, so don’t worry he’s not downtown or near the towers anyway, so you don’t have to worry about him, you know. And I got home right about 4:30 because we had to volunteer to keep the children in school safely until they were picked up by their parents. So when I got home we tried to contact him on his cell, Salman, but he wasn’t answering. And then I remembered the day before when he came home he had forgotten his cell phone on the job. He worked at Rockefeller which is 65 Street and York Avenue. So being the type of person that he was–an EMT and a police cadet and... and apart from being an EMT and police cadet he was a very, you know, kind person, very generous, very helpful. We knew we go down to help down there–if he saw such a disaster, he would respond to it. There was a call given out for all the EMT’s to come forward for the rescue help. And finally his brother, my husband’s brother went to his office and told him that he never reported to work. And we waited for him to call home that night. The first night I wasn’t worried, my husband was. I wasn’t worried. But the next...that’s how the day went by, you know, just waiting for him to call–the call that never came.

AMY GOODMAN: : The next day, September 12th, what did you do?

TALAT HAMDANI: I had called in my school and told them I’m not coming, my son hasn’t come home. And we went down to his office, we decided to go to his office to retrieve his cell phone. We were both very shattered, very distraught, we were crying. They tried their best to help us out. And there was a security guard over there, the security of the building, he says he knows people in the FBI he’ll give them our son’s name, maybe they will be able to find him if he’s helping down there. And then from there we went down to St. Vincent’s Hospital, I think it was, to look at the list of people missing–the hospital’s list, patient list–and finally he was neither on the dead list nor on the patient list. So that was very encouraging, you know that everything is okay, hopefully he’ll call in today. And we went home like about 8:00 p.m. very tired and exhausted, but more disappointed. The reality started to hit us at that moment. Something did happen to him. And the third day we went down to the center that they had made for the families to come and write their, give their names of their loved ones. Armory it was, yes, it was the Armory. We went down there and we registered his name and we gave our swab samples for the D.N.A. And we made a flier, searching for him. We put down his name as Sal Hamdani. My brother did not put down his name, the first name, Muhammad for certain reasons. And we searched for him. Nobody had seen him. We went down... the following weeks we went down to the Ground Zero itself asking the firemen, showing them his picture, maybe they saw him. But nobody saw him at all. And then it was just a search, we went to hospitals, we went to New Jersey, we went to all the hospitals. Because there were patients, you know, who had lost their memory, you know, maybe we hoped that he would be one of them, we would be able to identify him but we couldn’t go through. They wouldn’t let us see. They just said there were six or seven patients came, but they all left, they were all discharged. We got a list of hospitals, like 151 hospitals to go and find out about him. He could be in any one of them, they told us. The list was given by the Red Cross from the Armory.

AMY GOODMAN: What made you think from the first day even though he didn’t work at the World Trade Center that he was there, that first morning as you were watching the television.

MOHAMMED HAMDANI: Actually, I was sleeping at that time. My sister-in-law she called me and she said, did you heard something. I said, no. And she said that one tower already fall down and the first word from my mouth was that, oh, my, God my son is there.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you first have contact with the authorities and how did it change at first looking for your son, believing he was at Ground Zero since he didn’t call.

TALAT HAMDANI: What happened was we decided to go to Mecca, you know, to pray over there. And the day before the departure I said, you know, they were announcing come down and identify your loved ones, their bodies over there. I said I summed up enough courage to call them up and ask them where is the mortuary, and I want to go down there and see them. See the dead bodies. You know, God forbid maybe he’s there, and we we’re travelling from here, so... When I called over there they asked me who are you looking for. And he’s a British citizen. I said, no, he’s not a British citizen. Why did the British... demand him that he’s a British? I said, my sister came from Britain she must have told the the Embassy, you know, that she’s travelling for this purpose. And then they said he’s also registered on the Pakistani list. I said, yes, because we originally came from Pakistan. But right now we’re all American citizens. And so they said, okay, we’ll consolidate the information and we’ll help you find your son, but the Armory has moved, you know, the center has moved from here to somewhere in Pier... some Pier 51 or some such thing uptown, you know, midtown, wherever. And, so, that was Saturday and I think it was a Saturday, whatever day it was. And whoever that officer was, he called us like three or four times on our cell trying to get that information–where my son worked and what time he left home, what time he got back. That was like four or five days before going to Mecca. No, three days before going to Mecca. And then the day we were leaving these reporters came home, you know, first the New York Post guy came home and then shortly later, you know, the Daily News guy came then I think the Newsday. So I asked them, you know, why are you all here again, what happened? It was a month later, October 11. So I says, what happened. What brings you back here to our house? So they told us there’s a flier circulating amongst the NYPD with your son’s cadet picture on it if anyone has seen him to come forward, we need some information about him. And then we left for Mecca. And when we were there, my sisters told us that, you know, this is what the newspaper, the Post printed a very horrible heading, you know, "Missing or Hiding." And amongst the news that the way they presented it, it it had, you know, insinuations, that he was seen near... at 11:00 a.m. he was seen near the Midtown tunnel, and is he really hiding, most probably? Is he really missing? He’s not missing but he’s hiding and he could be one of the terrorists. I have the article.

AMY GOODMAN: And so what came of this, "Missing or Hiding", suggesting that he was a terrorist? What did the authorities do then and how did you feel?

TALAT HAMDANI: The authorities, what authorities? Who would take action? Who do you think should take action against the newspaper, you tell me.

AMY GOODMAN: : Talat and Muhammed Hamdani, the mother and father of Salman Hamdani,who was killed in the World Trade Center two years ago, speaking to us last night in the procession from Union Square to New York–in New York to Ground Zero. The article from the New York Post she was speaking of was from October 12th, 2001, it was called "Missing or Hiding–mystery of NYPD cadet from Pakistan."

JUAN GONZALEZ: Here is an excerpt from that article. Quote, "the NYPD is hunting for one of the former cadets initially reporting missing in the twin towers attack, issuing urgent hold and detain order for the Pakistani native. Hamdani was last seen, Koran in hand, leaving his Bayside, Wueens home for his job as research assistant at Rockefeller University, but he never made it to work. But investigators for the FBI and NYPD have since questioned the testimony about which Internet chat rooms he visited and if he was political. Police sources said he hadn’t been seen–hadn’t been to work at the NYPD since April but he still carried official identification. One source told the Post, quote, 'that tells me they're not looking for this guy at the bottom of the rubble. The thing that bothers me is if he’s up to some tricks he can walk past anybody using the I.D. card.’ Hamdani’s mother, who has been the United States for two decades, denied her son was political or a religious fundamentalist. Cops at the Midtown tunnel reporting someone who looked like Hamdani yesterday morning."

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to come back to the Hamdanis in a minute.

AMY GOODMAN: Odetta, singing last year in our firehouse studio, here at Downtown Community Television, on the first anniversary of September 11th. You’re listening to Democracy Now! I’m Amy Gooodman with Juan Gonzales. 11 days after the New York Postarticle was written about Salman Hamdani, called "Missing or Hiding, Mystery of NYPD cadet from Pakistan," Congress passed the Patriot Act singling out Salman as a hero. We return now to our interview with his mother, Talat Hamdani.

AMY GOODMAN: We wrote a letter to President Bush appealing him to help us find our son. And if they had detained him for whatever reason just let us know, because, you know, what has to be done for the national defense and security has to be done, like they say. But, you know, if you have them, inform us. So we wrote a letter to President Bush.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you get a response?

TALAT HAMDANI: We got a response in January. The response was that we have forwarded your request to the FBI I think, and then a week later like five days later we got letter from the FBI that we only investigate people who have done some crime. So if your child has done a crime inform us, which of course there’s nothing wrong that he has done. We did call all the prisons, that day we realized that there are federal and there are state prisons and there are local prisons. And we called everywhere, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell me about March 20.

TALAT HAMDANI: So we were living in this hope that one day he’s going to come home because his name was not on the medical examiner’s, you know, list of dead people. And there was no way according to our logical reasoning that he could have arrived there within that timeframe on that chaotic day. We had the hope that he will be coming home. And there were these stories also, factual ones that people were who were detained and people were being deported, illegal people, immigrants, whoever. So on March 20th we were sitting home, you know, and then 11:30 p.m. it was, two officers came from 111 precinct and they came into the house, we were both standing in the kitchen and as soon as they came in, they said, your son is dead. He has been identified through DNA, call this number, the medical examiner’s office, do it right now. And so we just sat down on the floor crying. So I told them, you know, I told him, don’t believe what they say. And they said you don’t believe us, I say no, I don’t believe you. No, you call them right now, and I said we’ll do whatever we have to do whenever we feel like. And they left. And we thought about what to do and calling the family again at midnight didn’t make sense just to disturb them again as much as we were disturbed. So we went to sleep. In the morning we got up we told our family and we went to California to my sister because I knew reporters would come again. I didn’t have the courage then to stand in front of all those, you know, people and talk about this event. But now I have the courage.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you have the ceremony for him at the mosque?

TALAT HAMDANI: April 5th. We had it on April 5th because family members, my sister, his brother, his sister they had to come from Pakistan from, Dubai. So we had it on April 5th, it was a Friday. We had it in the mosque in Manhattan, where he used to go and pray every Friday.

AMY GOODMAN: At his funeral, at the ceremony at the mosque, the mayor came?

TALAT HAMDANI: Mayor Bloomberg came. Commissioner Kelly came, my brother contacted the NYPD requesting them how to handle his funeral services and the department said they will handle it. So the police department handled it from there onwards.

AMY GOODMAN: Because he was a police cadet.

TALAT HAMDANI: Because he was a police cadet and Congressman Ackerman came. While we were in Mecca Ackerman’s office had contacted our home to help us find our son so we were in close touch with him. So he came to the services also and he brought a flag with him which was flown on top of Capitol Hill in Salman’s name. And Commissioner Kelly also came, a wonderful man. Last year after the, you know, March 20th, I requested him to give me a shield in my son’s honor as a–in remembrance. And he honored us, last year, first anniversary. He made a shield in his name, Lieutenant’s shield. He said never has–it has happened in the history of NYPD.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you feel saying that his first name is Muhammad now?

TALAT HAMDANI: It’s difficult times right now. Difficult times. Not that we experienced any such thing. But, we have nieces and nephews in second and third grade they were at that time. They were in second grade. And believe me, they changed their names. Armeen became Amy, and one became Mickey and the other one became Mikey and the fourth one became Adam. And we asked them why you change their names. And they said, because, you know, we don’t want to be called terrorists in the school. We are Muslims. There was a natural backlash, I faced it in my classroom. The kids also spoke about it, I gave them, a–do now, you know, define a terrorist, what do you call it. I brainstormed them, you know, define terrorist. And the first word everybody echoed was "Muslim." Then I told them, the second brainstorm topic was define, you know, "Islam." And first word that they came up with was, Bin Laden. So it came at that moment, you know, like, a year and half ago, like Islam and terrorist were synonymous terms. And that is where I find myself defending myself, my faith, my people, my community, my fellow Americans who are Muslims. Islam and terrorism are not synonymous. And if they are synonymous they’re as much synonymous as any other faith, as any other faith. And it is the ignorant people–I was so amazed when one of the pastors in the South said, you know, to his own priests, his own group of priests, that Islam is a religion of terror. And I said, you know, that it’s a shame that he had to say that without reading the Koran. He said, he apologized he said, oh it was only meant for my people not for the world to hear that. Isn’t that prejudice?

AMY GOODMAN: We wanted to have you in the studio when we did this interview this morning of September 11th. You won’t be in New York at this time, why?

TALAT HAMDANI: I don’t want to relive that again, what happened last year and two years ago. It’s traumatic. It’s very traumatic for me. In my mind I have–my family says I’m in denial, maybe I am. If that’s the way I can survive, why not. If I don’t think of him as dead, I just think him of gone away to his work, or maybe he’s in London doing his studies. But I feel at peace at home.

AMY GOODMAN: Talat Hamdani, standing with her husband Muhammed, remembering their son, Salman, who died at the World Trade Center two years ago today.

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