How Fred Danback Saved 12,000 Lives on September 11th

From Makoto Fujimura’s Culture Care ::

In the early 1960s, Fred Danback came home from the Korean War to work at Anaconda Wire and Cable, a copper wire factory in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, thirty miles north of Manhattan.
It was a booming enterprise. But he soon became troubled by what he saw at the factory. To restore beauty to the river he had grown up with, Danback became a whistleblower against his own company.

In a PBS interview with Bill Moyers, Danback said, “I seen all kinds of oil and sulfuric acid, copper filings; my gosh, they were coming out of that company like it was going out of style…” He said that shad fisherman started to lose “their business because there was oil in the water that would cause the fish to be contaminated with it and the Fulton Market refused to take their weekly catch… [Anaconda] and other businesses were polluting a river and hurting a second business, the shad fishermen. I didn’t think they had the right to do that. It used to really infuriate me. I became obsessed with fighting pollution…”

Fred complained to the managers about his fisherman friends’ plight. Each time he did, it seemed, he got demoted. He ended up as a custodian. But Fred never gave up. He worked in that custodian role, literally pushing his broom into every room of the company. He also took copious notes and made maps of the company. What was intended to be a punishment ended up as the best possible opportunity to spy on the company. He had all the keys!

There were few pollution laws at the time.


Fred and a few other pioneers of the environmental movement decided to sue Anaconda under an archaic law called the Refuse Act of 1899, which Fred found while cleaning the local library. In 1972, when the U.S. Attorney’s Office found a way to prosecute Anaconda, they used Fred’s maps and notes as evidence.

“The company was fined $200,000 under the Refuse Act of 1899, you know… even today for a polluter to be fined $200,000 is a big event. Back in the early 1970’s, it was a huge event. It was like a thunderclap,” said Fred later.

Today, three million striped bass go up and down the Hudson because Fred’s efforts led to changes in the laws of the land.

There’s not a day I do not think of Fred Danback. As I used to jog on the promenade of the river, I thanked God for Fred’s sowing the initial seeds of sacrifice. As I follow the bluebirds’ nesting behavior at my farmland now, I think of his work to create cleaner rivers and air. But there’s more to the story.

As the horrific news began to come out on the airline attacks of September 11, 2001, the initial estimate of those who perished was twelve to fifteen thousand. In the next few days, however, the numbers kept decreasing, eventually to 2,977—still unbearable, surely. I have a theory about why the initial estimate turned out to be so wrong.

September 11 was the first day of school. There were eight thousand students around the World Trade Center towers. Parents had just dropped off their children—as did my wife with our three—when the sinister shadow of the first plane passed over them in the schoolyard. Few of these parents made it to work. Those who did came back down the step right away, like many of our friends, ignoring the fatal direction to “stay where you are.”

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You may not see the connection yet with Fred Danback, but there is a direct link in my mind. Here it is: All of the schools around the towers were built since the late 1970s. Because Danback was willing to be demoted, the river became cleaner. Because the river became cleaner, the parks around the river became attractive. Because the parks were good, young couples becoming parents decided to stay in their small Battery Park apartments instead of escaping to suburbia. Because of the resulting tremendous increase in the student population starting int he late seventies, the city built all those schools.

I am convinced Fred Danback made a difference made a difference on 9/11. One person with the courage to be demoted, one person willing to sacrifice for the restoration of beauty, created a ripple effect in culture with immeasurable generative influence. The effects of his action cannot be measured but can only be told in how we live our lives—and so it is worth noting that the children of 9/11, including our three, grew up to be enormously resilient, creative, and community-minded.

Culture Care actions, similarly, cannot be measured by typical metrics of effectiveness and efficiency. The measure of success must be in how our sacrifices to make Culture Care possible manifests itself in the lives of our children.

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See more from Mako here.

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