It was a sunny, virtually cloudless morning in Manhattan. All indications on the ride to work likely indicated that a beautiful, perhaps even uneventful day was ahead.
Twenty-four-year-old Joshua Birnbaum had arrived for work at his job as an assistant bond trader at Cantor Fitzgerald on the 104th floor of One World Trade Center. For Josh, a career in finance was a logical step. He was extremely close to his family, and his dad worked in finance as well: one might say that it was in his blood.
But Joshua’s real passion was his music. He spun his aural concoctions of trance music under the name DJ Samsson, a name that served as a tribute to his father, Sam: “Sam’s Son.” He had spent a summer internship at Atlantic Records, where his mother, Marcel, says he made a “lasting impression.” His work at Cantor Fitzgerald was helping him save up enough money to one day build his own recording studio.
His best friend, Leehe, said his smile “always managed to light up the faces of those he surrounded himself with. He had a special charm, or aura, that always followed him wherever he went. His family and his music were the most important influences in his life.”
At 8:46am, American Airlines Flight 11 hits the north side of One World Trade Center between the 94th and 98th floors, just six floors below Joshua. Eyewitness accounts of those in the building at the time say that the impact caused vibrations that could be felt through the building all the way to the foundation. Those below the point of impact began evacuating. Those above those fire floors, Josh included, were trapped.
At some point after the crash, Joshua phoned his mother. He told her that something had hit the building and that there was smoke everywhere. He told her the ceiling was falling down around him. A news crew from the station I worked for at the time interviewed his family. I’ll never forget the footage of his mother recalling through tears the next thing he said in all-too-short conversation:
“I need to tell you I love you. I’m going to die.”
As further evidence of this close-knit family’s love, Marcel does something extraordinary at this point. Rather than trying to keep him on the telephone for every possible moment, if he was living his final ones, she selflessly offers a final piece of advice to her son: she tells him to find someone else on the floor and stay with them so that he won’t be alone. Shortly after that, the telephone line went dead.
Fast forward to January, 2002.Josh’s sister, Jill, stands at the finish line of the San Diego Marathon to fulfill a final promise to her brother. The two had planned to make the trip so that Josh could run in his first marathon. She promised him that she would be standing at the finish line, cheering him on. Since 9/11, she is even more determined to keep that promise.
Jill would later write, “You did it, You crossed that finish line like a true champ. OK, so maybe you didn’t physically cross the finish line in San Diego, but in your life, with all you accomplished and all the obstacles you overcame… you crossed that finish line. And the greatest part about it was that I got to keep my promise. I stood there, with tears in my eyes, sorrow in my heart, and you on my mind.”
She approaches organizers of the marathon and asks for Josh’s medal. When they learn who she is and the circumstances of his death, they are deeply moved. As a result, the San Diego Marathon awards the “Spirit of Joshua Award” as a lasting memory to Josh and recognition of one’s achievement over adverse conditions.
Marcel called her son, “a preserving spirit” who “influenced a lot of people in his life along the way to do positive things.” Sam told our news crew that the important lesson to be learned from Josh’s life is that “in your darkest hours, you can never give up.”
At one of many tribute sites for victims of 9/11, another friend wrote to him, “I wish more people had gotten to know the person you were.” I wish I had gotten to know him. He sounds like the kind of person so many of us need in our lives. I’d have been honored to have been able to count him as a friend.
If there are friends or relatives of Josh who are visiting this blog for the first time because of this tribute, I can only offer my condolences. I can’t begin to imagine the depths of your loss, but I do hope I have done this incredible young man’s story justice.
I hope you’ll join me in saying a prayer for Josh and those who knew and loved him today. I’m sure that for them, these anniversaries will never get any easier.
Additional Reading about Joshua, from which some of this material has been compiled, can be found here:
September 11, 2001 Victims
Remember September 11, 2001
CNN’s ‘September 11: A Memorial’
San Diego Marathon’s ‘Spirit of Joshua Award’