My dad called me around 8:00 a.m. Central Daylight Savings Time to ask me if I had the TV on. “You won’t believe what they have done”. They. THEY?. They… I was 5 days post-op from having scalp surgery and vein stripping on one leg, and was still a little out of sorts from the anesthesia and healing process from that. I dragged myself out of bed and turned on the TV.
At first it was just too much to process. There was smoke coming from both of the World Trade Centers. They. It was incomprehensible that fighting a fire at that ‘altitude’ was going to work. I was having trouble knowing what to think, what to do, what to feel… and I was a couple of thousands of miles away. They were doing something to us in New York. I saw footage of thousands of people just looking up, their expressions a conglomeration of shock, disbelief, and horror. How many people were in the Towers? At that time, estimates were as high as 50,000 regular employees of the buildings and businesses in them. That number didn’t even register in my head.
I saw replays of the second plane hit the other Tower. The fireball. The people who had to have died instantly and then the ones who were trapped filled my head. The news kept showing people waving jackets and improvised ‘flags’. But they were too high. When I saw footage of the second plane hit, I knew who they were. Bin Laden was the one who had done other attacks, but nothing like this. His minions were attacking the United States. Here. I called my dad back to ask him if I should go get my car filled up with gas. I don’t know why that was important, but it seemed that everyone gets gas during an emergency. Nobody knew all of the targets at that point, and I was in Texas. Lots of military bases in Texas. For some reason gas seemed important. But I was immobilized by what I was seeing.
Another plane hit the Pentagon at 8:37 a.m. CDST. The Pentagon? How could anything get through the Pentagon? More dead. More trapped. More hurting. Families watching, waiting… More fire.
I watched the South Tower implode at 8:59 a.m. CDST. How could that happen? It was a huge building full of people. Full of people. How many were trapped, but alert, as the floors started to fall out beneath their feet? How many knew exactly what was happening as they fell 70-90 stories to their deaths? How many were instantly incinerated when the planes hit? How many really jumped? Then the second tower went down. How many families were watching their loved ones die? Were they alone? Was someone with them as they watched their lives change forever?
At 9:03 a.m. CDST, the fourth plane went down in Pennsylvania, obliterating it. The stories were scattered about what had happened, but word was that the passengers got control of the plane and crashed it themselves. More lack of comprehension, and awe at their presence of mind in the middle of the crisis when I was dumbstruck many states away. What had they felt? How had that group of people been on the same plane, and able to enact a plan to avoid more disaster and loss of life as they heard of what had happened in NYC and DC? How had they been able to call loved ones ahead of time and get word about what was happening? How were those loved ones when they heard news of that plane going down… Was someone with them to offer some token of support in a situation that defies the scope of ‘normal’ grief?
9:28 a.m. CDST- The North Tower falls. The debris and aerosolized concrete and building materials blanket the end of Manhattan, while the rest of the city has amazingly blue skies. The tops of the towers are both gone; the city is engulfed in particles of walls, papers, paint, office equipment…people. The steel frames were bent and twisted when what little of what was left materialized on the TV screen. It was still hard to really understand the magnitude of what had happened. I was numb.
The next two weeks, I was off of work because of the surgery, and 24/7 for much of that time, the news channels were glued to the coverage; cable stations ceased programming. I was immersed in the news about the attacks continuously. For some reason, I couldn’t turn the TV off. I had to know what was going on. Were there more attacks? Were we safe? I’d see the shots of people putting up photos and descriptions of their missing loved ones on fences and walls near the Trade Center site. They had to ‘know’, but also had to hang on to a bit of hope until there was none left to grasp.
Rescue workers were going through the wreckage of the Towers with buckets, pausing only occasionally when a body was found. Everyone stopped working, paying their respects to the person coming out in a flag covered stretcher. The NYFD carried out their priest on a chair. Dead. Both the NYPD and NYFD lost SO many of their own. How unfair that anybody die, but they died going in to help the others. And the buildings caved in. They didn’t have a chance up in those buildings or near the bottom where the twisted pieces fell.
Dogs wore special boots to keep from shredding their paws on the steel and glass. They were there for survivors at first, and then those who were temporarily buried in that burning metal tomb.
In total, 2,606 people died in NYC, 125 at the Pentagon, and 40 in the plane crashed by heroes in a field in Pennsylvania. The youngest to die was 2 1/2 years old. Ninety countries lost citizens. Nineteen highjackers also died, but I refuse to add them to the total victim count. In total, more than 2975 people were killed in the span of 102 minutes. For what?
In two days, it will be the 11th anniversary. I still can’t see documentaries about that day without dissolving into tears, and I wasn’t even close to the situation. This had no ‘borders’ or ‘city limits’. This was an attack on America, collateral damage in the form of foreign nationals- our friends- be damned. It still makes no sense. I still wonder how the people in NYC deal with their grief, and how the families of the victims are doing. I wonder how those who inhaled that stuff have fared; various illnesses have been reported- in those who were there to help. My guess is that the actual number of victims is really unknown; the families and friends of those who actually died will never be the same. They are victims,too. And survivors.
September 11, 2001 showed the vulnerability of all of us. While I’ve gone through a personal attack in my home, the magnitude of 9/11 isn’t something any of us could comprehend. There are countries that go through terrorism regularly, but not us. Oklahoma City was the closest we got to knowing what that is like. Even the first WTC bombings didn’t come close to 9/11.
I changed that day. The fact that life can be cut short in a nanosecond at the hands of lunatics was graphically shown for days on end. For the first few weeks after I returned to work, I was overwhelmingly annoyed when my coworkers talked about everyday mundane ‘problems’ (matching shoes to a dress for some 3rd rate banquet? Puhleeze). It took me a while to get out of those two weeks, and back into my regular life.
But I’m so insignificant in the grand scheme of things. What about those families and friends, and now the survivors of those lost in the wars fought in response to 9/11. In many ways it has been a world war. I’ll never forget that day, and I hope those who were too young to remember it will grasp the magnitude of that day and learn from history. I hope that we can regain some of our prior sense of safety without neglecting common sense. It happened once… we can never guarantee it won’t happen again. But we have to go on living if we are to really honor those who were lost. Otherwise they win.