The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, flight attendant Paul “Paulie” Veneto watched in horror as United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the World Trade Center’s South Tower. He had worked the same route a few days before without incident.
“It was a just a fluke that I didn’t end up on that plane,” said Veneto, who had that day off, but regularly worked Flight 175, which flew daily from Logan International Airport in Boston to Los Angeles International Airport.
“I realized that was my crew on the plane,” said Veneto, who started working for the airline in 1997.
Veneto reconstructed the scene over and over again in his head, imaging the fear his nine colleagues, most of whom he considered dear friends, must have felt in those final moments.
“It was an insane situation that they were under, and they were still comforting people and doing everything they could in those conditions,” Veneto said, adding that chilling voice recordings showed the stress the flight crews were under, and how they maintained a sense of calm amid the chaos.
As the days following the attacks unfolded, Veneto felt that his co-workers were not properly recognized for their bravery in responding to the horrific hijackings.
In addition to Flight 175, there were 11 crew members on American Airlines Flight 11 that struck the World Trade Center’s North Tower; six crew members on American Airlines Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon; and seven crew members on United Airlines Flight 93 that slammed into a field near Shanksville, Pa.
“I knew deep down in my soul that people were going to forget about these crew members,” said Veneto, 62. “I understand why because of the enormity of the day, but the first, first responders on 9/11 were the flight crews. For 20 years, nobody has recognized these guys as heroes.”
Riddled with unshakable grief over the loss of his colleagues, “my life really spiraled,” Veneto said. “I had major survivor’s guilt. I was angry, I wanted revenge, and I knew I couldn’t get it. I felt like I was never going to get relief from that feeling.”
He said he became dependent on drugs to numb the pain. Just one week after the attacks, he was prescribed a muscle relaxant for a backache. It fueled a 15-year-long opioid addiction.
“It got worse and worse,” Veneto said. “I didn’t think I was going to survive it. It was the darkest place I’ve ever been.”
“It really ate away at him,” echoed Veneto’s sister, Annette Rago, 69. “He thought about his co-workers and talked about them all the time.”
As his drug addiction intensified, “we were afraid we would find him dead somewhere,” Rago said.
Going against his family’s wishes, Veneto continued working as a flight attendant with United Airlines for a full decade after the attacks. He taped a picture of the Flight 175 crew to his luggage, which he brought on every flight.
At first, “every time I got on an airplane, I was waiting for it to happen again,” Veneto said, explaining that the only reason he was able to maintain his composure was because the drugs dulled his anxiety.
“I had this anger in me that I’ve never experienced because of what they did to my friends. I wasn’t going to let them take my career from me, too,” he said. “I was single and didn’t have any kids. I was lonely, and I needed to be around other crew members because they understood.”
Plus, being a flight attendant was Veneto’s passion.
“I would have done the job for no money, that’s how much I enjoyed it,” he said. “I loved interacting with passengers. I didn’t feel completely comfortable unless I was on an airplane.”
Over the years, his drug dependence deepened, and after various interventions, Veneto went into treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse in August 2011. He had multiple relapses but has been sober for nearly six years.
The Sept. 11 date is significant to Veneto for another reason: It is also the anniversary of his sobriety. His first sober day was Sept. 11, 2015.
“It was a long road, and it’s one day at a time,” said Veneto, who is now retired. “A second chance at life is such a gift. It truly is a miracle that I’m here.”
But when he stopped taking the opioids, the feelings of guilt and grief Veneto had long suppressed swiftly resurfaced. The pain of the attacks — and especially his feeling that his late colleagues did not receive the recognition they deserved — loomed. He longed for closure.
With a renewed sense of hope, Veneto vowed to honor his fellow flight attendants, and he came up with a way to do it that felt perfect.
To mark the coming 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Veneto is pushing an airline beverage cart — which he covered with photos of the crew members from both United Airlines flights — all the way from the Boston Airport, where the Flight 175 departed, to Ground Zero.
A catering company employee at Logan International Airport donated two beverage carts to Veneto to use on his journey, one of which he will keep as a backup, and he plans to fill it with a water cooler. His goal is to walk 10 to 20 miles every day — depending on the terrain and weather — and several different hotels have offered to host him free of charge during most nights of his trip.
“This just felt like the most meaningful way to honor them,” Veneto said. “I’m doing this because it’s a miracle that I survived, and now I’m going to do what I can to recognize these crew members so their families can see that they were heroes.”
He has been training for the 220-mile trek since October 2020 and has walked roughly 16 miles a day — beverage cart in tow — around his hometown of Braintree, Mass.
Veneto’s two childhood best friends are accompanying him on the journey — which he decided to call “Paulie’s Push.” He started the trip on Aug. 20 and plans to finish on Sept. 11 at Ground Zero.
“We are his support team, we are going to be with him every step of the way,” said Dennis Morrissey, 62, who has known Veneto since seventh grade.
“He wakes up every day thinking about September 11. It affected him directly,” Morissey said. “This is visceral for Paul. It is inside of who he is. He has those scars that won’t heal.”
Now, though, “he’ll be able to exhale. It’s all about bringing recognition to his friends and colleagues. He wants to spotlight them.”
Veneto has received several messages from airline workers who plan to join him on various legs of the trip, as well as some of the family members of his flight crew who hope to take part in the journey.
“I’m looking forward to that,” he said. “This is therapy for me, and I know it’s going to help them, too.”
Veneto will be chronicling the entire experience on social media, and in the process, he is raising money for the flight crew members’ families, as well as Power Forward, a nonprofit which aims to support those struggling with addiction. So far, he has raised more than $20,000.
Beyond the monetary proceeds that may come from the initiative, “my main mission is to recognize these guys. This is important. All of us as Americans should be proud of what they did that morning.”
He wants their names to be known, especially his United Airlines co-workers: Victor J. Saracini, Michael Horrocks, Robert Fangman, Amy Jarre, Amy King, Kathryn Laborie, Alfred Marchand, Michael Tarrou, Alicia N. Titus, Jason Dahl, LeRoy Homer Jr., Lorraine Bay, Sandra Bradshaw, Wanda Green, CeeCee Lyles and Deborah Welsh.
“When I’m pushing that cart, I’ll look down and see their smiling faces,” Veneto said. “I know they’d do it for me, and I know how lucky I am to be the one that’s doing it for them.”