Timothy Welty had finished his 12-hour shift at FDNY Squad 288 in Queens when an emergency call came from the World Trade Center. With no time to sign back in, he jumped on a firetruck headed downtown.
“After the towers came down, nobody knew where Tim was, they thought he had already gone home,” recalls Adele Welty, the 34-year-old firefighter’s mother. “I was just so nervous about him being in the fire department. But he always told me to stop worrying, that if anything happened I would be notified. But after 9/11, I was not notified.”
Tim was officially listed as missing, and Mrs. Welty remembers hoping, like so many other families, that her son had somehow survived the terror attack. When November came and Tim still was missing, the family knew the time had come to schedule a memorial service. By then Mrs. Welty was listening to daily reports of American bombs falling on Afghanistan.
She didn’t know it at that time, but the thought of bombs falling in Tim’s name would eventually motivate her to travel to Afghanistan, and later to Iraq, on humanitarian missions. The goal was simple: To relieve the suffering of civilians like herself, who had lost loved ones in the War on Terror.
“After 9/11, I heard people talking about how we were going to bomb ‘them’ off the face of the Earth. But I didn’t know who they were talking about,” Mrs. Welty said, sitting in her Flushing home, which is decorated with photos of Tim and FDNY memorabilia.
Her son, who joined the FDNY in 1994 and was known for his skill on the department’s hockey and volleyball teams, was married and had two young children when he died.
“Over the next year I began reading more and more, and eventually decided there had to be a stop to this rollercoaster of retaliation. When we started talking about invading Iraq, it didn’t make any sense since most of the 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia,” she said.
In March of 2003, Mrs. Welty flew to Afghanistan with Global Exchange, a California-based organization that leads tours around the world to promote cultural exchange and education.
Traveling without a military escort, the small group of Americans met civilians who had lost homes and family in the bombing. Mrs. Welty recalls that most of the Afghans they spoke with certainly had heard of the 9/11 attacks, but none saw how their own lives as peasants and laborers could be responsible for the destruction in New York.
“As many civilians and children had been killed in Afghanistan as were killed in 9/11,” she said. “I visited hospitals where I saw children the same age as my grandchildren who had lost limbs from cluster bombs we dropped. When you see this you know there has to be another way of solving international conflicts.”
In Afghanistan, Mrs. Welty met a 15-year-boy who had lost his parents to the American bombs. He told her that there would never be peace in the region. She didn’t argue.
Shortly after a memorial service at Tim’s Masbeth firehouse on Sept. 11, 2004, the same place where she will spend this anniversary, Mrs. Welty was denied a visa to enter Iraq. She remained in Jordan and helped Iraqi doctors and nurses who snuck across the border to bring supplies into the war-torn country.
Their accounts of some American soldiers’ brutality haunted her.
In other conversations, she asked the doctors what they did to relax. She was surprised to learn that they enjoyed watching “Seinfeld” with their families. The very same TV program, she points out, that many American soldiers were likely watching behind their fortified walls in Iraq.
Perhaps the biggest tragedy of this war being waged partially in her son’s name, Mrs. Welty says, is the continued ignorance about just how much the two sides have in common.
Americans, she says, still have a lot to learn.
“I hope all of us will understand that life means just as much to people in other countries as it does to us. That the lives of the people they love and the pain of loss is the just the same for them as it is for us.”