Tuesday, September 11, 2001
20 years ago this day,
I woke up early in the morning, getting ready for school as per usual. I was 2 weeks into my sophomore year of college, about to head out the door to my finite mathematics class.
I came downstairs. My parent’s eyes were glued to the television. They said “There’s been a plane crash into one of the towers.”
0846: Plane Strikes the North Twin Tower
We watch the news play repeated videos of a plane crashing into the 1st New York World Trade Center Twin Tower located in Manhattan.
Reporters say it was unclear as to what exactly happened. My faint recollection of chaos was that of The World Trade Center bombings when a truck bomb in 1993 was detonated below the North Tower. I was only a child at the time.
Today was just starting. Skies are a clear blue, not a cloud in sight. Hardly any smog, everything appeared peaceful. The familiar symmetry of the sky scrapers extending above the horizon. Iconic high rises I never got to see in person. I was used to waking up to the view of them on the t.v. as part of my morning routine. My family, with avid awareness of happenings in the world, particularly politics and the stock exchange, the towers always a backdrop for the Financial District of Lower Manhattan.
But here right before us on the screen was this commercial plane soaring toward the North Tower’s side. Nose and wings not perfectly level, but also not severely tipped one way or the another. No spiraling. No faltering as if an engine went out. No signs of loss of complete control, no distress. The flight appeared rather smooth as it maintained speed, slicing through the air without overt struggle or interruption.
The plane sailed right into the first tower. An unexpected impact followed by large billows of smoke.
Live news commentary not revealing much. Speculations of an accident.
We had many questions. It didn’t make sense. A direct hit like that? That trajectory? At that level in the sky? Isn’t that restricted airspace? Why was it flying that close to the towers in the first place? This distance from the airport? Where was it taking off from? Where was it headed to? Who was on the plane?
The people on the plane, in the towers.
0903: Plane Strikes the South Tower
More live news. Views from many different angles began to play now. All cardinal directions. From the street. Ariel views. Levels from surrounding buildings. Some zooming in.
We watch for information updates about the North Tower, which was pouring thick streams of smoke which grayed out the blue.
A second commercial plane enters the screen. Floating across, time slows.
It’s gonna hit, it’s gonna hit…
OH MY GOD. It struck. I can’t believe it. It hit the other tower. Just some floors down, this other plane, flew right into the second World Trade Center Twin Tower.
We’re shocked. News headlines now really questioning an attack. This has to be an attack. Every single channel without exception was covering. Replays of the flights. Speculations, What in the world is going on?
With a nervous energy, we say our Be safe and I love you’s, and I drive off to class.
Walking a quietly emotional, somber campus, late, sitting there in a sparse classroom. Of course we didn’t expect classes to resume as normal, although there was no formal way of messaging cancellations much less the sharing of circumstances at the time.
Some students are finding out what happened at the time of their arrival. As a college student in the early 2000s, if you just woke up and hadn’t turned on the t.v., listened to the radio, or received a direct phone call, the news was striking to hear. Two terrible tragedies had transpired in a matter of less than an hour. Text messaging wasn’t much of a thing. Not to mention phone lines were intermittently down, both landline and cell. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube wouldn’t be around for another few years and newspapers were already printed for the day.
We sat on chairs and desks huddled into a small group. Some out-of-state admissions, miles away from their families. My friends and I in deep thought. Barely processing all that was going on. We wanted to talk about it and share every detail, but didn’t know what words to say. Just replays of the planes hitting the towers and commenting on what little information we knew. A few of my schoolmates had family and friends in NYC and we could follow the news together.
The usual How are you? strangely, awkwardly absent. Just a quiet This is terrible, followed by long draws of silence, followed by I can’t believe what happened. One classmate says his calls still aren’t going through. The last he heard was that 911 dispatch was overloaded, everywhere.
We hug and say our Keep in touch and prayers, keep us updated, and you’re welcome to come over, and I head straight back home. Thoughts start getting cloudy, it’s really hard to process anything now.
0937: The Pentagon
The government starts tracking down flights. There were discussions of freezing traffic from all major U.S. airports as well as talks about other potential hijackings.
Planes along with their departures and destinations were being identified. The first was American Airlines 11, followed by United Airlines 175.
Would there be more?
There were reports that another plane might be headed for The White House.
By the time I got home, news displayed smoke arising from the Pentagon. A 3rd plane had taken a sharp turn, Flight 77 crashed right into it.
Panning scenes from each point of tragedy played over and over alongside bits of new footage and a few personal interviews.
Reports of both rescues and deaths. Sirens coming and going every which way. Confusion over what was transpiring.
9:59: The South Twin Tower Collapses
Ideas of the towers coming down was introduced and there were multiple speculations as to how that might happen.
What exactly was the impact of the planes? Could they fall over? Which one? Was that even possible? Aren’t high-rises supposed to fall a certain way?
Input from experts includes architects and safety officers involved in the blueprinting and construction.
Look at the plane explosions closely. How much fuel did they have? Was there going to be further combustion? Were there also bombs involved? Should we be expecting something further to detonate? Are there other fuel sources already within the towers too?
This attack was strategic.
Evacuations are ordered. Those above the crash sites have no option but to climb up. More reports come of people fleeing, making their way down from the towers while responders went up stairs as multiple elevators remained inoperable. Rescuers returning to help others with multiple passes up and down several flights. Some of the injured crawling their way down the stairwells. Some met rescuers who stopped to offer help only to be told, Go on man, save the others, I’ll be ok, I’ll make it down.
Papers flutter like confetti down the sides of towers.
Responses by people in the towers, couples hand-in-hand, jumping. Plunging to their death to avoid the flames. Close ups on news reels catching glimpses of their horror. Of the phone calls that came through, people tell their loved ones how much they mean to them, telling them to hang on, telling them not to worry… you’ll be rescued… What floor are you on?
A sudden fullness of smoke upward and outward followed by a cascade. Puffs of smoking shearing downward, a waterfall of rumbling, sounds of a train. The South Tower is the first to collapse.
The sidewalks and streets are flooded with people, stopping their gaze up at the towers, now running the opposite way. Reporters and bystanders record panic as they look back behind them. It’s coming down! It’s coming down! Within a few seconds every inch of the this part of the city was covered by a thick layer of gray dust. Visibility is nonexistent. Coughing. Particulate in their eyes, in their nose, in their mouth.
1002: Shanksville, Pennsylvania
Alerts are sent out to avoid any areas of high-density population and government property because they were seen as potential targets. Temporary groundings of planes across the U.S. turn into delays, which turn into complete flight cancellations. Others in mid-flight are diverted to nearer runways. People are stuck at the airports. Some awaiting a reply from friends and family members in and close to the affected buildings.
There is concern for a missing plane. Where is it?
United Airlines Flight 93, plows into a field.
Where was this one headed? What happened? Did the hijacker crash it? Did the pilot divert it to save lives? Did an altercation cause it to lose control? Did we shoot it down to avoid another tragedy of a fourth plane crashing into another building?
Passenger phone calls are being recounted in interviews. Would we ever know of any voice recordings? Are any of the blackboxes intact?
10:28: The North Twin Tower Collapses
Sirens blare. There are concerns over the second tower collapsing. Will it follow the same pattern given the same impact?
Suddenly the second tower collapses just like the first. Streets are littered with more debris. People take shelter in wherever the nearest building. Glass blown out. Cars abandoned. The sun once partially seen, now completely darkened. It’s dark everywhere as if it were late afternoon. The sounds of a train came again and again dampened. Every structure blanketed in fine dust and an eerie, unsettling emotion.
The Following Hours and Days
As the dust clouds settled among the towers, rescue efforts ensued at each place of tragedy.
Where the towers once stood, now being called Ground Zero, videos of bloody, gray-coated, panic-stricken faces dominated the t.v. channels. Victims strewn across shoulders of heroes with near impossible one-man techniques paired with multiple rescuing feats. Some bare-handed going in and out of the collapsed towers without proper equipment. Shuffling through massive amounts of scattered debris. Sacrifices to help anyone trapped in the rubble.
The once colorful surroundings of New York City shrouded in black and white.
Classic NYPD blue police officer and firefighter uniforms with reflective bands are now powdered off-white. Risking their health and their lives. In their long shifts they fought off sleep and exhaustion.
Rescuers worked to locate people among the groaning of steel as it began to settle down even more. Crushing its way deep into the earth. One of the engineering marvels of the towers was a seven-level basement which contained shopping stores, a train terminal, and parking. Both towers were still in the midst of their final collapsing. The steel structures that remained upright were barely standing. Shell remnants and fragments of concrete, no longer resembling the glory and awe of towering buildings.
Into the night there was a fiery glow. There are reports of screams still echoing within the fractured buildings. Intermittent phone calls left ringing and ringing. People attempting to scratch their way out. Bodies pulled from the site, fingernails evidence of that. Burns, smoke inhalation, and trauma. Local hospitals well-over capacity. Some victims remained unidentified as risky searches went on.
People stepped up to offer their help and ideas for solutions. Talks of using cranes to lift the massive amounts of metal were mostly out the question as heat began to radiate out. Dangers and remedies of all sorts were being discussed and initial rescue efforts were coming to a halt. There was no timeline as to when they could resume.
The final collapses continued and the heat would smolder long into December.
Unity was a sense I remember being fond of. On a national level, everyone put aside their differences to come together, both in collective pain and grief. Help and empathy was ever-present. There were celebrations of heroes who stepped up with resiliency.
Time would show a series of airline hijacking and suicide attacks by 19 militants associated with the Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda.
2,997 people were killed in New York City, 184 at the Pentagon, and 40 in Pennsylvania. All 19 terrorists died.
400 police officers and firefighters were killed.
The longterm psychological and physical effects still persisting. Sorting through all sorts of feelings that linger.
Conspiracy theories perpetuated. I remember people folding $20 bills in a certain fashion as representation of a fore-telling of the towers’ destruction.
The regrets, could haves, should haves. Victims navigating they way with survivor’s guilt. Babies born without having met their father.
Changes in the Shadow of 9/11
The memories I have of that day are very vivid.
So many more details flood my mind. Flashbulb memories are what they’re called. Highly detailed, exceptionally vivid “snapshot” moments and circumstances, often associated with surprising, consequential, or emotionally arousing news or experiences.
The events of 9/11 brought about many changes. From policy to social structure and cultural nuances. Everyone remained on high alert.
Discussions geared toward addressing the circumstances came about. Military deployments. Seeking out justice. Preventing another attack. There was a strength, met with feelings of uncertainty and ambivalence.
Lost in the rubble, Ground Zero, terror, terrorists, The War on Terror, an attack on our own soil. Raised up in our own institutions. Safety and security. Peace and security. The Patriot Act. A common enemy. Never forget. These matters dominated the news headlines for years to come.
Every time I see the date or even the clock turn 09:11 I think of the day.
I’m taken back in time by reruns of movies I’ve watched over the years that display the Twin Towers, The Pentagon, and the earlier days of flying that I was familiar with. Die Hard, Coming to America, Independence Day, and Ghostbusters. Happy and less fearful times that bring lots of reminiscing of life.
A few years after 9/11, I gave a lecture as part of a university senior capstone project. It was on bioterrorism. It was hard to fight back the nerves of the public speaking project on a very raw subject. We also did a fund raising project. It was a giveaway of plush teddy bears dressed up in firefighter gear, complete with the helmet and reflective stripes on their jackets. An American flag in hand.
Speaking of traveling, I flew on a plane shortly thereafter. Suspicions everywhere were incredibly high. Passengers suspected each other. We no longer smiled nor struck up friendly conversations of our coming and going. It was an uneasy for quite some time. The airport experience was no longer a carefree extension of any trip.
Stress dominated the airport landscape. I felt the tension when being profiled and being pulled aside for additional searching. From long lines which subsequently included another ticket checking desk and another through security, to no longer being able to greet and see each other off at the gate. Because of the box cutters use in the attacks, anything sharp was confiscated. Nail files, cuticle scissors, even safety pins at one point were pulled from my bag. My belt buckles and steel shanks in shoes setting off alarms, then no shoes, followed by a restriction of liquids. All met with increasing scrutiny.
Things will never be quite the same, even in spirit. I’ve flown many times since then and particular experiences have since left me longing for the less fearful, intolerant, inpatient world of pre-9/11 and the camaraderie I felt we had.
I remember a time when we were asked not to take photos inside malls and amusement parks, also in the name of safety. The thought was that we should be careful in letting any potential attacker know the ins and out of large gatherings of people and structures of some of the busiest places in America.
As I flew into JFK last year, I found my self enthralled by a bright blue and orange sunset. Our plane neared to reveal the outline of high-rises decorated with yellow blinking city lights. I caught myself thinking of the Twin Towers. No longer existing as the amazing structures they were. Once the tallest buildings in the world at 1,368 feet (417 m). Proudly standing together in tandem, sometimes pictured with the Statue of Liberty which stands at our shores to greet you.
Remembering the people and the memorial that rests in their place. This was the last picture I took as our plane approached. Feeling heavyhearted, I put my camera away.
About two weeks ago while traveling through middle America, I noticed how wonderful it was to see symbols of freedom, our American flags proudly on display. I was also reminded of some specific ordinances put in place which resulted from the terror attacks on our country. Where mere extended gravel driveways between farms and homes stemming off of lesser traveled county roads displayed green placard serial numbering systems designated to them. Most never having proper signage to begin with, much less an official name until after 9/11 required every single road in the U.S. to be properly identified.
I’m not sure if I realized in the past 20 years, up until now, how much 9/11 has affected me in ways I didn’t know before, especially in light of most recent circumstances. The deep unspoken awareness and sensitivity coupled with fresh memories of my own personal experiences, which could fill volumes.
In fact it wasn’t until this summer when I finally picked up a book, a fictional one at that, where the main theme included detailed events of 9/11. Nonfiction maybe yes, but even more so for some reason it was the fictional accounts in the descriptions of books I would subconsciously pass up straightaway. I had more uneasiness in picking up The Devil’s Hand by Jack Carr than I did The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War by Craig Whitlock.
In remembrance of 9/11, I am reminded of that unifying spirit. And also a spirit that is not of fear. I’ve met amazing, brave, kind people who are still actively battling with all sorts of issues resulting from the tragic events. Even ones who are eager to learn, who are touched by experiences they never lived through. Inspiring others in the process. Remembering with them the lives we lost that day and the ones lost to the aftermath.
I remember the honor and sacrifice of those who served. Willing hands of passersby, first responders, active duty military soldiers, veterans, many in both my family and friend circles alike.
All who rescued and fought.