9/11 twin balances life without other half, finds out what it means to be ‘okay’


Art Powell lost his twin brother, Scott, at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. (Bonnie Jo Mount/WASHINGTON POST)

SECOND IN A SERIES.

Almost 10 years later, Art Powell is by himself in his garage, looking through storage bins when he finds a lavender envelope, palm-size and almost square.

He had been sifting through old photographs of himself and his identical-twin brother, photos of them together as babies in matching outfits, together in high school, together in a band after college, together in a studio producing music, together in the apartment they shared until American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon.

He sees the envelope, his name written on the front: “Art.” He pulls out the paper and reads the first words: “I apologize for intruding at such a painful time . . .

Art slips the letter back in the envelope, walks inside to the sunroom and hands it to his wife, who says, “Gosh, that looks like my horrible handwriting.”

She looks closer. “Oh my goodness.”

Stephanie Powell wrote that note on Sept. 19, 2001, when she was Stephanie Dawson and didn’t know Art nearly as well as she knew his brother Scott. Almost 10 years later, she reads the note. She reads it again and turns to Art.

“My tears are in here, somewhere,” she says. “Dried up.”

*

Everyone who knew them mourned Scott when he died at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Everyone worried about his twin brother, Art.

To see one was to see the other, as it had been nearly every day of every week of every year since they were born 15 minutes apart in 1966, the youngest of five children.

If one died, how could the other live?

“I’m okay,” Art likes to tell people. He smiles when he says it. “I’m good.”

What does it mean to be good, though? What happens when you lose the only other person on Earth who could be you?

What does it mean to be okay?

They had shared a room as babies, rattling their cribs until they were close enough for one to climb over the railing to be with the other. By age 2, they were banging pots and pans in the kitchen, then drums in the basement where their father played guitar. When they were 5, their mother took them to Port-au-Prince, where she studied dance and they played with master drummers. Back home in Pittsburgh, they drummed on a children’s television show.

They looked so much alike that no one bothered with their names, not even the twins themselves.

“My brother and I . . . ” they would say.

“How come you don’t dress alike?” friends and strangers would ask.

“If I hit one, will the other feel it?”

The twins had their own questions.

“Who’s who?” they’d ask, daring anyone to figure out what made them different.

*

Stephanie Dawson was 14 when a friend told her about the brothers who were getting lots of attention at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in D.C. They were musicians, well-mannered, clean-cut, good-looking and cool.

A double date was arranged. Her friend matched Stephanie with Scott, and the two of them became good friends. Stephanie confided in Scott. She went to movies and concerts with him. She went to see his band perform.

The twins left for college, and Stephanie moved away. She didn’t see Scott again for more than a dozen years, until July 2001, and only because she bumped into him on the Metro.

“Scott!” she said.

“Stephanie, how have you been?”

She told him about her recent divorce and that she had moved back to D.C. He told her about his three children, how he and his brother had formed Dem Twinzz Productions and signed recording deals, about their day jobs in IT.

Scott got a job at the Pentagon, followed by Art, who then moved over to the Securities and Exchange Commission. They lived together in Silver Spring and rode the Metro together to and from work.

On Labor Day in 2001, Scott and Stephanie went for a walk in a park. They sat on a bench, looked at photographs of Scott’s kids and talked about their work. The park is where Scott liked to relax. If you’re ever looking for me, he told her, this is where you can find me. At dusk, Scott drove Stephanie home.

Eight days later, Scott was dead. Eight days after that, Stephanie went to the building where Art and Scott had shared an apartment.

“Who do you want to see?” the doorman asked.

“Art Powell,” she said, and then realized she didn’t want to see Art because to see Art was to see Scott and that would just make her cry all over again.

The doorman was on the phone with Art while she wrote the note and tucked it inside the lavender envelope that he would rediscover 10 years later in the storage bin in their garage. Then she drove away.

*

Art Powell was in London when he saw on television that a plane had struck the north tower of the World Trade Center. He was still watching when he learned that a second plane had hit the south tower. He called Scott at the Pentagon.

A woman answered.

“You know what’s going on in New York?” he asked.

“We know what’s going on,” she said, laughing nervously. “It’s the end of the world.”

She said Scott had stepped away from his desk.

Half an hour later, Art found out that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon. He called his brother again. No answer. He called his cellphone. No answer. He called their apartment. No answer.

By that night, he was grappling with the idea that his brother could be dead.

Art had gone to London to play music and spend time with a woman he loved. Their plan was that she would move to the United States and that they would be together.

But now his attention was on his brother. It took Art eight days to get back to Washington, and in that time questions began to form.

What if I had been there? Could I have saved him? Why was he the one to die?

Art dreaded the thought of returning home as the surviving twin. “Who wants to walk into that?” he recalled asking himself. “You’re this guy’s twin brother. They’re looking at you with that drama. I ain’t having it.”

The first thing Art saw when he arrived at their building was a shrine in the lobby, a photo of Scott surrounded by candles. Their answering machine was full.

He heard his own message asking Scott to call. He heard another from Stephanie Dawson: “Scott, this is Stephanie. I made it home. I need to know you and Art are okay.” He read the note she had left with the doorman: “I’m here for you and your family. Please contact me when you get a chance.” Weeks later, Art called to invite her to his brother’s memorial service. She felt comforted by the sight of him delivering the eulogy in front of all those people.

Days after the service, they ran into each other in downtown Silver Spring, then at a supermarket and at the Metro station. He called her every so often, then more frequently, then every night at 8 p.m. Whenever he called, they talked about their day, their interest in Buddhism, about what they had eaten for dinner. Everyday things. Sometimes they talked for so long that they fell asleep on the phone.

He liked that she had known his brother. He liked that she didn’t scream or cry, for the most part, and neither did he. He liked that one time when he did cry, standing in her closet and knowing she could hear him, she didn’t press him when it was over.

One day she was in a supermarket, looking at a waffle iron and thinking, “I should buy that for Art because he likes waffles.” Then thinking: “What’s going on here?”

She called Art to tell him she bought the waffle iron, and he felt surprised and a bit strange. He imagined his brother asking: “What are you doing?” What about the woman in London?

“Art?” Stephanie said one day. “Something very weird is going on.”

She asked herself: Why hadn’t anything romantic happened between Scott and her? Would something be happening between her and Art if Scott were alive? Is this wrong?

By September 2002, Stephanie and Art were in love. Nearly a year later, they were married. Twelve days after that, Art brought Stephanie to the opening in Rockville of a memorial for those killed at the Pentagon on 9/11, each of whom was represented by a stainless-steel bench. Art chose one of his brother’s favorite sayings as his epitaph. Two words engraved in metal: “Don’t complain.”

*

Eight years later, on a bright summer Sunday, Art is at his townhouse in Silver Spring, in his favorite room, the sunroom.

“Broccoli, mushrooms and onions?” Stephanie asks her husband, planning their dinner salad.

“Maybe oatmeal for dessert,” he says.

Soon they would be driving to the Pentagon for the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

On the ninth anniversary, they had gone to the Pentagon for the first time since Scott died. They went because an elderly aunt, thinking she might not be alive for another year, asked Art to take her. He doesn’t like, as he puts it, “big to-dos.” But he was there last year and will go again this year because someone needs to take care of the logistics, getting his family in and out, from here to there.

When people talk about missing his twin, Art understands that when they see him, they think of Scott. He listens. He feels compassion if they become tearful. He just doesn’t want to say much. He doesn’t want to cry.

You’re channeling your brother, a friend who played in the band with the twins long ago says one day as he listens to Art play the keyboard.

Art shrugs. After his brother’s death, he changed the name of Dem Twinzz Productions to Minus 1 Productions. Anything can trigger a thought about his brother. But he no longer dwells on the big what-ifs of that day 10 years ago.

Instead, when he and Stephanie bought a new Lexus, they talked about what model Mercedes Scott would be driving now. When he flew to Los Angeles for a music project, they talked about how cool it would have been for Scott and Art to be in the studio again.

For the most part, Art’s life is now with Stephanie.

Every weekday morning, they drive downtown to work together. Every evening, they drive home together. On weekends, they like to eat brunch at a downtown hotel together. They go to the dentist together, the carwash together, the supermarket together.

At home, they sit together in the sunroom, where the note Stephanie wrote 10 years ago now rests in a letter holder on a table. Sometimes he misses his brother so suddenly and fiercely that the feeling can leave him off-balance. In those moments, Art Powell knows what his brother would say: Don’t complain.

He doesn’t. He sits. He is back in the sunroom, next to his wife. He is okay.

First in the series: 9/11 widow still trying to find her new normal

Third in the series: Brought together by catastrophe

Fourth in the series: After 9/11, security guard on high alert at golf course

Fifth in the series: Flight attendant still feels at home up in the sky

Paul Schwartzman specializes in political profiles and narratives about life, death and everything in between.
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