This is my memory–as far as I can remember it–of September 11, 2001. Every year at this time, I feel strongly pressed to remember what happened that day. For me, it’s a form of catharsis. The events of that day sixteen years ago I am not likely to ever forget.
A normal Tuesday morning in a sleepy commuter town in Connecticut, I rose groggily from the comfort of my bed to get dressed for school. I was looking forward (not really) to another long day of monotony and boredom, with not much else in the way of excitement, or even enthusiasm. The only cloud with a silver lining on the horizon was my first period English class with the teacher I harbored a crush for. Other than that, a big fat yawn.
My class had a way of getting loud and obnoxious by the end of the period. The teacher always had a difficult time getting us to quiet down as he tried to explain the assignment he had for us to complete. He was young (and cute), and very wet-behind-the-ears. He was trying to shout over the raucous voices in the back of the classroom, while I stared dutifully towards the white board at the front of the room (while surreptitiously peeking at the teacher) when the intercom crackled. There was a collective “Shhh!” and a few, “Shut ups” as the principal’s voice traveled through the now-dead-silent room. “There has been an accident at the World Trade Center in New York City”.
Every breath in the room stopped.
And then the bell rang.
There was an explosion of movement. I made a mad dash across the instantly packed hallway, as everyone else seemed to be doing the same thing in every other direction. There were television monitors in every room, including the cafeteria, and everyone moved ten times faster than their usual lethargic, I-am-in-school-and-I-wish-I-was-anywhere-else pace to get somewhere where they could view what was happening in New York. My next class–ironic as it was–was Middle East History, which was right around the corner from where I had been.
I walked in, mildly breathless, and the teacher had the TV already turned to CNN. The image that met my eyes was one for the movies. Billows of smoke were coming from one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. I barely remember sitting down. I hardly noticed the other students filling in around me. And we all just sat or stood and stared at the screen as history and horror unfolded right in front of us.
As the news rolled, we learned about the Pentagon and Pennsylvania as well. By then we knew this was definitely no accident. There was no definition for this in our adolescent minds at the time. We all gasped as we watched the second plane hit the South Tower. We saw people leap for their lives, choosing to take their final moments into their own hands, rather than be choked and burned alive. We watched in horrified silence, dotted here and there with moans and muffled screams, as first one tower, and then the other fell. Many were crying. Others were inconsolable. There are no words to describe the utter shock and trepidation we all felt that day.
There was a lot of shaking heads and utterances of “Oh, my God”, “What the *bleep* is going on”, “My (fill in the blank) works there. I hope they’re alright”. There was a flurry of cell phones as those who had them dialed home, demanding answers about relatives’ or friends’ whereabouts, or begging for a parent to come pick them up from school. Phones were shared, and all the pay phones were in constant use–yes, pay phones were a thing if you didn’t own a cell phone–like me.
All I kept thinking was, My Aunt works there. Where is she? I don’t remember if I borrowed someone’s phone or used the pay phone, but I did call home and ask what was happening. I was told to stay put and come home at the regular time. My parents encouraged me to stay with my friends and stay together. So I did. One teacher tried to get us to do actual work, but that didn’t last long. No one could escape what was happening.
Meanwhile, my mom had gone to pick up my sisters at their school. The pick-up line was a mess. One little girl was in hysterics asking where her dad was–he was a pilot. He was not, as it turns out, one of the pilots killed that day. But in that moment, no one knew anything beyond the fact that something major, completely unprecedented, and absolutely terrifying was happening in our country, no more than a two-hour train ride from us, in one of the most powerful cities in the world.
A family we knew had been flying back from Germany, from a world-class German Shepherd dog show, and when the order came to land all the planes, they were faced with a huge problem of how to get their dogs the care they needed while stranded in a field in the middle of nowhere. Cell phones were not what they are now. The reception was spotty at best and there were very few available social media outlets to speak of. They were barely able to call home and inform their loved ones that they were safe–stranded, but alive.
I was in complete and utter shock the entire day. It felt surreal. My fourteen-year-old brain couldn’t, or wouldn’t fully comprehend what was happening. My thoughts kept coming back to my aunt and her unknown whereabouts.
My aunt had been a school teacher when I was younger. She got into the world of finance later on. I remember when I was young she would talk about her students quite a lot. She absolutely loved teaching. We have a shared love of books–a common theme in our family–and she has a wonderful, bubbly personality. Not knowing where she was for an entire day, not knowing if she was alive or dead, was one of the worst feelings I have ever had in my entire life.
It wasn’t until I finally got home that day that I learned about what had happened to my aunt. My dad had been at work, and a co-worker of his alerted him to something happening in New York. My dad immediately phoned his sister’s office at the World Trade Center. She answered. She told him that the building was being evacuated (the South Tower) and that she would call him if she could, later. And that was the last time they spoke that day–until almost midnight that night.
I spoke to my aunt either that night or the day after. She hadn’t seen what we had seen all day until she got home that night. There are no words for the relief I felt–the relief we all felt–when we knew that she was alright. I won’t even begin to imagine the relief that my grandmother felt when my aunt walked through that door, alive and safe. I won’t begin to know the intense shock my aunt felt when she realized her office–the whole building–was just–
The days following 9/11/2001 were some of the most difficult we have ever faced. My parents made me go back to school and back to a regular schedule. Everyone in the community made a concerted effort to make sure that everything remained virtually the same. Bullies only react to strength, and strength is exactly what we gave them in the days that followed. Charities were donated to. Volunteers went down to Ground Zero to help with search and rescue. Firefighters collected money in their boots at intersections to help fund the first responders in New York City. Candle-lit vigils were held for the fallen victims in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC. Prayers were sung. Hands were held. Shoulders were offered. We all stuck together.
It has been sixteen years to the day, and the shock and veritable grief I still feel to this day for all those who died, who lost loved ones–it lingers on, as does the fierce pride for those heroes who rose up to the ultimate challenge and did their ultimate best to save innocent lives. The names of the fallen are emblazoned on the wall of Ground Zero Memorial, remembered always. ♥♥♥
(I own neither of these pictures.)