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Wednesday, September 19, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Among the lost: Muslim mom seeks son she believes rushed to help others

The Washington Post

NEW YORK — Sal hasn't been seen since 8 a.m. Sept. 11, when he set off for Manhattan after shouting a cheery goodbye to his bleary-eyed brother.

His mother has traveled every day from their home in Queens into Manhattan to scan the lists of the missing at the Armory, search hospitals and paste photographs of her handsome, 23-year-old son onto bus shelters and mailboxes. She asks everyone she meets if they've seen Sal, a "Star Wars" fanatic, keen baseball player and police cadet.

The answer is always no.

Similar searches have become a familiar, depressing activity for thousands of families here since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. But there's an added poignancy to the search for Sal. Sal — or, to use his full name, Mohammad Salman Hamdani — is an American Muslim, whose family came to the United States from Pakistan. Sal is one of as many as 700 Muslims who may be missing after the attack.

Sal, the eldest son of Saleem and Talat Hamdani, had set off for his job as a research assistant at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Rockefeller University sometime between 8 and 8:30 a.m. His mother, a literacy teacher in a middle school, had left for work before he was awake.

It usually took the Pakistani-American man around an hour to get to work in Manhattan, but that morning he never turned up at his office. The only assumption his parents can make is that Sal, a police cadet while in college and a trained emergency-medical technician, had heard of the trade-center disaster and rushed there to help.

"He is that kind of boy," his mother said. "He is so compassionate. He would have not hesitated to go to help the rescue effort."

Sal had left his cell phone at work the day before, so his family wasn't unduly worried when he didn't call home immediately, presuming the lines were busy or he'd been unable to find it. But as Tuesday afternoon wore on and there was still no word, they began to feel uneasy. Hamdani sent her middle son, Adnaan, 19, to find Sal at work, but his co-workers said Sal hadn't been there all day.

Still, his mother assumed he was helping the rescue effort, away from a phone. But when he failed to come home that day — or any of the succeeding days — the family's fear about his well-being has become overwhelming.

At home, they keep the mammoth wide-screen TV constantly tuned in to CNN, hoping for some information. All around are the signs of the American and Muslim cultures Sal absorbed as he grew up. A plate of doughnuts and Oreos on the table sits side by side with an English copy of the Koran. Verses from the sacred Islamic text are pasted on the refrigerator near a Pizza Hut flier.

For while his parents, first-generation immigrants, still observe much of their traditional way of life, Sal defined himself as an American whose religion happened to be Islam. "He is a normal American kid," said his mother. "He would never see himself as anything other than American."

Sal is serious but not obsessive about his religion, Hamdani said. He prays five times a day and reads the Koran.

"But he isn't the sort of person to make a huge show about it," she said. "He believes in mankind. When he was rescuing people he wouldn't care if they were Christians, Jews, Muslims or Hindus. Even if someone had insulted him and his religion only 10 minutes earlier, he would still go and save them."

It breaks her heart to hear people criticizing Muslims, she says.

"Don't they realize that there are Muslim doctors down there working, Muslims helping rescue people, Muslims giving blood?" she said.

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