I was thinking about what to write about today, and it just seems like the only thing i should write about is 9/11. Everything else seems so trivial in comparison. I had trouble falling asleep last night, so i was thinking about how things have changed in the last five years. I was also thinking about the fact that September 11th was such a watershed moment for everyone who experienced it, and that for those who didn’t experience it, like my children, they will never know what it was like to not have the threat of terrorism looming in the background of everyday life. I also thought about a conversation I had with my Grandfather, who turned 90 this year, about September 11th. I asked him if the event seemed similar to Pearl Harbor. He said that it seemed much worse, probably because the whole thing took place right in front of our eyes on television; we watched it in real time (my words, not his) and he said that Pearl Harbor was something you just heard discussed on the radio afterwards. He also said that at the time, Hawaii seemed like a world away; it wasn’t even a state at the time. I am glad that I’ve had the chance to ask Pop so many questions about his life, and about what he thought of world events. I think almost daily about things i should have thought to ask my grandmothers: Which of my Grandma Smith’s grandmothers was the one who found a dead civil war soldier while picking berries with her sister? What did she think about seeing the lynching in Louisiana as a young girl? (She never told me that story. I only heard it later from her niece.) Why did she marry and divorce before meeting my grandfather? What was her mother like? What were her grandparents like? What stories did they tell her?
I decided last night that I would just write about my memory of September of 2001, so that one day my grandchildren won’t wonder what my experience was during that time. I might even add it to the online archive of September 11th Stories. Most of the stories I read on the site are generic, “Where I was on September 11th” recollections, much like my own, but there are also some really graphic depictions of what it was like to live in D.C. or NYC that day. There are also some interesting stories about being on flights that morning and diverted to other countries, or about being in labor. Many of the stories just reminded me of how our country was somehow made better in those first days after the event; Strangers were kinder to one another, and we told each other we loved one another more. We were all stripped bare and frightened and angry and sad; We all experienced the same event and the same emotions, some of us more closely affected than others, but all of us changed in some way by the tragedy of it all. We were more unified for a few days and weeks than I remember being before or since.
Here is my recollection of the events before, during, and after that day:
In early September of 2001, Todd and I were newlyweds living in a two-bedroom bungalow in East Atlanta. We had married in April of 2001 and in those first days of September, we flew to Seattle for a friend’s wedding over Labor Day. Looking back on that weekend, there was something of a “last stolen moments of naivete” feeling to the weekend; A carefree feeling that we didn’t know to milk the most out of, but later would look back upon as being a calm, relaxing, fun weekend that we could never quite recapture. A few days after returning from that trip, Todd turned to me in bed one night, and said he thought maybe we could try to have a baby the following spring. I remember being so thankful that I had a husband who was so ready to start a family, and whom i didn’t have to push or nag into marriage or fatherhood. I have the luxury of knowing that he wanted me to be his wife, and he wanted to have children with me; I never had to ask him for either of those things. Those days just before the 11th were so, pardon the pun, pregnant with possibility for us and our future. I remember feeling like the luckiest girl in the world.
On Tuesday September 11th, I woke up alone in our little house, and went about getting dressed and leaving for work. Todd was out of town on a shoot in Baltimore, and I had that luxury of married people: The house to myself. I remember thinking to myself as I left the screened porch and went out to the driveway that it was a glorious day, sunny, and as so many people have said since, strangely bright, beautiful and clear. The sky had not one cloud in it, and the air had the first hint of Autumn in it, a crisp, clean smell that only those first days of Fall can have. The next thing i remember about that day was pulling my sunglasses out of my purse; it was so unbelievably beautiful a day that I had opened the sunroof, and I was wishing I could play hooky. I was listening to a cd, but don’t remember what, and then I flipped over to WSB 750 am., because I like to listen to Neal Boortz, and his show starts at 8:30. It was about at the point that I took the 400 N exit ramp and there was first discussion of a plane hitting the World Trade Center. The first reports were of a small plane hitting it, and then the local station cut over to the CNN feed and there was a woman on the phone with CNN. She was in her apartment in Manhattan and saw the plane hit and said she thought it was not a small plane. I knew from the sound of her voice that it was a big deal and that she was scared by what she was seeing. I continued listening to the radio as I pulled up to my office building near Lenox. By the time I got out of the car, the second plane had just hit. I walked in the parking deck, and it was so quiet and normal there, just like any other day. I think that people didn’t necessarily know what had happened yet. Some were laughing, or talking business on their cel phones. A few other people looked a little somber, but even then, I hadn’t seen the footage, nor had any of the people walking in from the parking lot, so I know there had been no realization yet of how serious it was.
I went into my office, grabbed coffee, and the place was pretty quiet. My office rarely kicked into high gear until ten or so; it was a fairly young company and people often came in late in the mornings, or drank coffee and chatted for the first hour or so. I turned on the clock radio I kept on my desk, and it became apparent, just in those few minutes it had taken me to get into the office, that this was very serious. There began to be discussion of other planes being hijacked, and early on, there was misinformation about the White House having been hit. I think that was actually when the Pentagon was hit. A few coworkers heard my radio and we huddled in my cubicle trying to make sense of the rapid information coming in. There were reports of D.C. locations being evacuated. Around that time, our office manager came by our floor and let us know that the customer presentation area big screen televisions were up and running, so we grabbed coffee and headed up to that floor. We had two huge television screens and most of the employees were sitting on the carpeted floor watching CNN and a local news station. Other employees were using phones and trying to reach employees who were flying or in New York for business that day. At this point, there was almost constant replay of that second plane hitting the tower. I am still haunted by the images of people lining the windows in the upper floors of the buildings. I remember thinking that they needed to get helicopters there to help them out. It just hadn’t yet entered my mind that those towers would collapse. Everything about the day was unthinkable. It did not sink in until I realized I was watching people jumping to their deaths. The quiet in the room was heavy, and the only thing I heard was people muttering, “Oh My God,” in disbelief, over and over. Occasionally one would say “Fuuuck.” I heard an occasional sniffle, and saw men and women wipe tears from their cheeks. When the first tower fell, there was complete silence. People openly had tears running down their faces and just sat awestruck with their jaws open.
One voice in the room was becoming a little more panicked – a coworker’s friend or family member was on a plane that morning somewhere in the Northeast. She was not sure where the girl had been going as she evidently traveled all the time, but for about fifteen minutes, the coworker thought that her friend was on the plane that went down in Pennsylvania. She was almost physically trying to keep herself calm and choke down panic. When the call came in from her friend, she absolutely lost it, and there were a number of us who became really choked up hearing the relief in her voice.
We continued watching as the other tower fell and it became apparent that there was no control in the situation: News reporters were scared and cut off from what was happening; false reports of attacks on other targets came in; Everything was in a constant state of confusion and there was a sense that anything could be a target at this point. It was at about this point that our building was evacuated and we were sent home for the day; We shared a building with part of Bank of America, who had evidently received terror threats.
I left for home, calling my sister, who also left work and was meeting me at my house. When i got there, two guys were finishing putting up our backyard fence. They hadn’t even heard anything about the attack. I told them to get lunch, and if they didn’t want to come back that day, I would understand. They never came back.
When I got home, I called my husband, just to hear his voice. I figured he was okay, but it made me a little nervous that Baltimore was so close to D.C. He said that he watched the whole thing in a sports bar where they were shooting, with televisions everywhere. He had called his friend who lived in D.C. He was okay. We didn’t know anyone who lived in NYC that hadn’t been accounted for, although I did think of an ex-boyfriend that I knew lived there, and I hoped that he was okay. Todd planned to rent a car and come home that way, once we realized he would not be flying out any time soon.
I sat watching CNN for a long time before my sister got there. By this point, it was apparent that many, many people had died, and there began to be stories and callers who had talked to loved ones who were trapped. In particular, i will always be haunted by one girl who had talked to her brother and he had told her to tell his parents he loved them. She didn’t talk to him again.
My sister arrived not long after that and I realized it was after noon and I still hadn’t eaten. We went to Grant Central pizza in East Atlanta, ran into my next-door neighbor and his friend, and ate a slice and drank a beer and watched the coverage. There was a sense of guilt that I felt having a meal that day. Everyone on the street and in the restaurant was subdued and quiet, glued to the television, as if somehow someone would finally come on and explain the whole thing to us.
That night, I sat alone and watched more news – there was nothing but news on all day. What I remember about the later news that day was people in New York holding flyers of their loved ones, hoping someone had seen them. The whole thing was gut-wrenching and I could not stop watching, because for days and weeks after that, there was a sense that we would be hit again. President Bush spoke on television that night. I am not sure how he will be remembered as a president over the long haul, but at the time, he was pretty universally lauded as doing a good job immediately after September 11th. It seemed surreal to watch members of congress stand on the steps of the Capitol and sing together.
I will never forget hugging Todd when he came in from Baltimore, tired and relieved to be home. In the days following September 11th, the thing that I most remember is how unified we all seemed to be as a nation. Even in my ultra-hip neighborhood, people had hung flags on their houses and porches. There were flags on mailboxes and in yards, dogs wore flag bandanas and I couldn’t believe how many cars had patriotic bumper stickers. There was a commercial at the time that showed a typical american street and said something to the effect of “they tried to change America forever. And they did.” The next shot was the same street, but completely decked out in American flags. It was very much like that everywhere in the United States.
A close college friend was getting married on September 20th, and her bachelorette party was the weekend before. I had plans to fly to both. It was only a short flight to Greensboro from Atlanta, but the thought of getting on an airplane that Friday terrified me. Air traffic resumed on Friday morning, and my sister and I went to the airport to catch our flight. We were warned to get there very early, and we did. What surprised me was not the level of security (there were military personnel there with what looked like machine guns, and every bag had to be opened and searched before being checked), but how nice everyone was to everyone else. The other thing that struck me was the number of people who were there just to cheer on those of us who were flying that day. Some people were even handing out little American flags to people boarding planes.
The flight itself was downright eerie. It was almost empty. Everyone was a little jumpy. It didn’t help when they pilot came on the speaker and told us that they would do everything they could to get us to Greensboro safely and that they would expect us to do whatever was necessary to protect the safety of the aircraft. This was, I guess, a reference to those passengers who brought down Flight 93 a few days before; it was not exactly reassuring, though. I would be lying if I said I didn’t look around the cabin to see if I saw any suspicious passengers. Or if I said I didn’t order a drink as soon as it was allowed.
My friend’s bachelorette party was held at a cabin in the NC mountains and it seemed very safe to be away from the city. That may sound stupid, but there was an ongoing sense of being under attack for weeks after the tragedy. The girls there that weekend were impressed that Lisa and I had gotten on the plane. Truth be told, I was terrified to do so, but it somehow seemed like something one had to do for their country. We had fun, and there was much drunkeness and laughter, but there were moments where we were all a little sad. The wedding the following weekend was the same way. A lot of people didn’t fly in for her wedding, though, because they were scared to fly.
In so many ways, life went back to normal in the weeks afterward, but then in so many ways, they didn’t. There was a black cloud hanging over everything. But there was also a sense of hopefulness that I think has been lost in the ensuing war with Iraq and in the dissension between political parties. I do not know if that will ever be repaired, and that worries me, because I think another attack will happen and I think we will have a much harder time coming together as a unified people when it does. I fear the infighting and finger-pointing that will take place when the time comes. At the time, though, I thought of the child Todd and I wanted to make and I wondered if it was such a great idea to bring a little one into such a wicked world. In the end, though, I knew that what makes humans so amazing is their ability to keep living after events like this one. I knew that the best thing I could do was give birth to and raise exceptional children, children who would value the freedom and responsibility that comes with being an American.