Ok, I have been dreading this and avoiding it all week.
I don’t buy into hype. So, in late August, it dawned on me that the 10th anniversary of 9-11 was coming soon. I knew that all of America would soon be sucked into the media frenzy that always happens when someone drops those two words : Nine Eleven. Ugh.
It is not as if I was not profoundly affected by the experience. It is the day that changed America. I was moved by all of the people who, instead of fleeing from the scene, ran into the crumbling infernos. My heart aches for the families who suffered incredible losses. And I am infuriated at the injustice of it all.
Too many people have used the deeply impacting experience of 9-11 for the wrong reasons. Many have used it for personal gain. Other political leaders have used it as a scare tactic. It has totally bastardized the true nature behind this. 9-11 was the profound tragedy that woke America from it’s safe slumber.
Most of us who are blogging here today are old enough to remember the disturbing event in great detail. We have all heard the heart-breaking stories that followed. But, no one ever asked the rest of us. How did we see it? How did we feel? And on the tenth anniversary, how do we remember it?
I’ll tell my story.
I was in high school at the time. My high school had many wings. I spent my entire morning in the music wing, which was attached to the middle school. We were very isolated from the rest of the school.
I had remembered that I had forgotten to take my handful of pills that morning when I started to suffer from shortness of breath. I had terrible asthma and allergies at the time. So, I went to the nurse’s office to have her call home for them.
My mother was there in 20 minutes. She looked very upset as she walked into the office. I asked her if everything was alright. There was a brief flash where the nurse caught my mother’s eye. She simply replied, “I’m OK. I just saw something bad on the news.”
I dismissed it. Every day, she’d spout on and on about news stories that featured girls getting killed, kidnapped, and / or raped. I figured it was something like that.
In retrospect, I recall the halls being abnormally quiet. It was quite a hike from the nurse’s office in the main building to the music wing. There were usually a couple far away voices in the girls’ bathroom or a low rumble of a class in progress. Everything was just murmurs and whispers.
But, it was business as usual in my chorus class. I took my rightful place as section leader of the altos, and was lost in the music. Next period, it was more of the same. I had select chorus in the same classroom, with some of the same students. Even the ones who came from the main building had nothing unusual to report.
It wasn’t until 11:15AM, over 2 and a half hours after the first tower was hit, before I knew. I returned to the main building to have lunch. It was the heart of period break and my peers were running and screaming through the halls. We’re all going to die! They’ll kill us all! I tried to stop someone to ask, but it was complete havoc. Teachers came out into the halls, ordering us to move along.
I sat down in a booth in the lunchroom with my friends. Some sat solemnly staring at the table. Others were shaking in a frenzy. “What the hell is going on?”, I demanded.
They gave me the abbreviated version. Terrorists hijacked four planes. One hit one of the twin towers, another hit the other. One plane hit the Pentagon and one went down in Somerset County, about 93 miles southwest of our high school. It was alarmingly close, and everything was on lockdown. No one knew if there were any other planes were out there. And no one knew what the targets were.
Was Pittsburgh a target? Sure, it’s not a large city. However, we have the best hospitals and research facilities in the world here. We couldn’t know if we were safe.
It was the first time in my entire life that I felt like I could be in mortal danger far beyond my control.
Suddenly, I didn’t feel like eating.
Next period, I had Geometry. But there was no math. It was the first time I had
any imagery of what happened. CNN was on every television in every classroom. I didn’t even really hear what the reporter was saying. I watched the north tower smoldering with plumes of smoke bellowing into the air above New York City. You could hardly see the people leaping from the windows, plunging to their death.
Then, they showed the footage of the second plane smashing into the south tower as people let out blood-curdling screams in the background. I watched in horror it as if it were happening in real time. I realized the towers could fall to either side and create a domino effect. I worried that it would.
They skipped to the blazing inferno that was now a hole in the Pentagon. Then, the blazing hole in the earth too close to home in Somerset County. Again, back to the towers. With what looked to be another explosion, the north tower crumbled onto itself, floor by floor. Dust and debris covered the crash site. I thought of all of the people who lost their lives attempting to rescue others. So many brave men and women gave themselves in the line of duty now perished under the rubble.
It was like something out of a movie.
The horror wouldn’t end. For the next two and a half hours, I watched the footage repeatedly. The only reprieve was class changes. CNN announced the declaration of A State of Emergency. Another announcement stated that all air traffic would be completely halted until further notice.
The ride home from school was sullen. The roads were practically deserted and it looked like a ghost town. Pittsburgh was still on lockdown, with the exception of necessary traffic.
It didn’t end when I returned home either. My family was glued to the television, watching CNN in awestruck terror. I finally cried as I watched the people leap to their deaths. I listened intently to people’s final words to their loved ones. There was so much pain and fear. I heard the brave story of the passengers of Flight 93. And I mourned their lives when they still perished after fighting so hard to live.
It was then that it became real to me.
That’s why it was a grizzly sight when Building 7 went down later in the evening. Although the World Trade Center had long been evacuated of civilians, many rescue workers and civilian volunteers remained. How many more people have to die? There was so much uncertainty. Is this the end? Or is there more to come?
The days following were a blur of fear, sadness, and more CNN coverage than I had seen in my entire life. It was a whirlwind of press conferences with various politicians and interviews with witnesses. I don’t remember most of it, to be honest.
I do recall this moment very clearly.
Nika, my next door neighbor, and I laid in our connected yard the next day and stared at the sky. There was nowhere else to go to escape the news coverage. The sky was blue, and the air was warm and eerily silent. Our street was a main street, and yet, it was less than a rumble. We lived close enough to Pittsburgh International Airport that you could hear the air traffic overhead. It was rare that you could look upward and not see a plane. But the sky was completely empty.
“It’s too quiet.”
We heard it first before we saw it. It was definitely a plane engine. And still, in my entire life, it has been one of the most terrifying sounds in my entire life. I ran to get my dad. He came out and squinted at the sky. He said, “It’s a military plane. Probably headed to the air force base.” The long sigh that escaped me was not enough to relieve the fear. It took a long time to relieve that fear.
It’s ten years later. Here in Pittsburgh, the PAT busses have been running a 9-11-01, NEVER FORGET message for a week. But no one here is really thinking about 9-11. The Steelers played today at 1PM. Business as usual.
I’m thinking about it, though.