Everyone has their own recollection of 9/11, if they were alive on that day. (It’s hard for me to believe that there are now sophomores and juniors in college who were not yet born when that tragic event occurred.) That day is seared in my memory forever, but the days after 9/11/2001 are as well. Although we are now dealing with a different kind of tragedy – a pandemic that seems to go on and on – life otherwise went back to a kind of normal in the months after 9/11.
First, I’ll tell you about the day of the attack.
My husband and I were at home in Mount Airy, MD, that morning. We were expecting an appraiser, because we were going to refinance our home. Ordinarily, we would have been at the Ericsson office in Rockville where we worked, back in the days when Ericsson was developing Bluetooth technology. We were planning to drive in to the office after the appraiser left. We were up early to see the kids off to school, and then we lounged in bed with our coffee, just talking about ordinary things. The phone rang at about 8:55. It was the appraiser.
“I might be a little late today,” he said. “I’m watching the news.”
I thought that was an odd thing to tell me.
“Do you have any idea when you’ll be here?” I asked. “We’ve got to get to work today at some point.”
These were the days before Zoom and Teams and other remote work options.
“Do you have the news on?” he asked. “Something’s going on in New York. I’ll call you back later today.”
I hung up and nudged Paul. The remote was on his side of the bed. “Something’s happening. Turn on the TV.”
We tuned in just before the second plane hit the World Trade Center. At that point, the news anchors were saying that it was unclear whether it was a small plane whose pilot lost control or if it was something worse. The fire and smoke pouring out of the building were incredible. Paul said he didn’t think a small plane could have caused that much damage. We didn’t have long to speculate that.
A passenger jet came into view, banked, and struck the South Tower. A giant fireball bloomed on the opposite side of the building.
We both gasped. I reached out and took Paul’s hand. We moved from sitting on the bed to perching on the edges of the recliners in our sitting area.
“That was deliberate,” I said, stunned. “What’s happening?”
Just two short years before, I had been at the World Trade Center on a work assignment at Citibank, supervising the installation of firewalls. I had stayed in the Marriott. To see the buildings attacked and on fire was shocking and painful. I wondered how many of the Citibank employees I’d worked with were hurt or killed in that attack. I had no idea things were about to get even worse.
While we were trying to absorb the impact of that attack in New York, the news broke that the Pentagon had been hit by a passenger jet. I began to sob. “We’re under attack.”
Soon, we heard fighter jets overhead and several helicopters. I believe that if Paul had been able to don his Marine uniform that day, he would have done so and would have headed toward the Pentagon. He said, “I’m going back in.” (He tried, but an old injury prevented it.)
I wondered if that day would be the day we would die. We had often talked about being in the radius of the nation’s capital and what that would mean in the event of a nuclear attack. Paul and I were of the generation that had been raised during the Cold War with nuclear attack drills and the fear of Russia. If the next thing to happen were a bomb in D.C., we knew that we’d be gone.
On the news, they were telling us to stay home. “Do not travel unless it is an emergency or you are emergency personnel.”
“Our kids,” I said. “We have to go get them!”
But soon the news was that all school districts in the D.C. metro area would be bussing kids home. All we could do was to pray that they arrived home safely. They were in their first or second classes of the day.
The news just didn’t stop. I don’t remember them cutting away to commercials at all that day. We all wondered how many more targets were going to be attacked, how many more tragedies we would see that day. I felt like I was going into shock. I felt helpless. I remember being cold.
We were still in our nightclothes. We couldn’t seem to leave the television.
And then the South Tower collapsed. I felt it as much as saw it. The tears started again. How many people were unable to get out, I wondered. How many people just died in front of our eyes? We didn’t hear until much, much later about the people who jumped to their deaths rather than be burned alive.
By the time the kids came home, the North Tower had fallen. I embraced them and showered them with kisses until they pulled away. They each went to their rooms and engaged in other things – reading, playing video games. They were young but not so young that they didn’t understand what had happened. Unlike us, though, they didn’t want to keep watching it happen. While we kept watching to try to understand and to try to get the latest details (and warnings), the kids needed to do something that felt normal.
The sky overhead was silent. Living where we did, we were so accustomed to hearing the planes in the flight pattern to BWI that we no longer noticed them. When they stopped flying, however, the silence was deafening.
We eventually called our office. We were told not to come in (not that we would have left the kids). They were sending everyone home. Those who were already in the office that day crowded into the cafeteria around the television that was hung in the corner. No work was happening. The country was holding its breath in shock and fear. We eventually went to the office later in the week, but still, very little work was happening. It felt as though we were all trying to process what was happening and how to pick up the pieces of our lives. Even those of us who were not directly affected by the attack, those who were safe and had fortunately lost no one close that day, were damaged.
The days that followed.
On 9/12/01, we still had the television on. I think we watched it for three days straight. All of us in America were wondering if they would find more survivors, but as time went on, that became less and less likely. The fire had been intense. The planes were full of jet fuel, having all been hijacked and diverted shortly after takeoff. So many lives were just gone.
It was a confirmed attack, claimed by Al-Qaeda. We had been attacked by Osama Bin Laden and his acolytes. I thought about the ideas I’d heard in church, that the last war on earth would begin in the Middle East. I wondered if they had been right, but I couldn’t talk that through with Paul. He had stopped believing in God years before.
Over that first week, it began to feel like I had PTSD, though I wouldn’t have called it that at the time. It was disorientation and disbelief. It was sadness and intense anxiety all at once. It was chills and tremors and fear. Insomnia. All of our feelings of certainty and safety were gone. All of the normal routines were gone. Schools remained closed for a while. Even the thought of going to the grocery store seemed like it was too hard. But we had to eventually leave the house and begin to function. We had to eventually tear ourselves away from the news for our own sanity.
The thing I immediately noticed was that we and all of the people we encountered were locked in a sort of brotherhood. We smiled at each other and looked each other in the eye, a rare thing in this area. We spoke softly to one another. There were many “thank you”s and “how are you”s. People hugged one another.
When we finally did go back to the office, we were shocked at how drivers were behaving. People’s road rage was gone. They let one another merge or change lanes. Everyone drove safely and sanely. No one blew their horn at another driver. We began to see flags on antennas and flag magnets on the backs of vehicles. In fact, I bought a two-pack of these magnets and gave one to my brother, who also worked at Ericsson at that time. The magnets had the American flag and the words “God Bless America” on them. Everyone was a patriot.
But in the days that followed, another story unfolded, one that affected one of our co-workers. People who felt helpless and angry began to turn on anyone who appeared to be Middle Eastern. In the midst of all the love we were sharing, suddenly there was this xenophobic hatred rising. If you had brown skin, and a certain look about you, you became a target. These were our fellow Americans who had done nothing to cause the attack, some of whom had already lost much in the attack.
Our co-worker was a devout Muslim. We all knew that if his office door were closed, he was praying. His prayer rug was always in sight, rolled up and leaned against a file cabinet in the corner. He said that the way some people at the office looked at him began to change on 9/11. It must have been apparent to management, because a memo was circulated calling on everyone to remember that we were all colleagues and that we couldn’t blame an innocent person for the actions of others. We all continued to work together.
But before the week was over, his grandmother was attacked at the shopping mall in the parking lot. She was shoved and hit by several people as she tried to load her purchases in her car. They called her a terrorist and a traitor. She barely spoke English, because she was already old when her children had brought her to America. The assault was on the news. It was another layer of the tragedies that piled one on top of another in those early days.
I could say more, but it has exhausted me just remembering all of this. I cannot imagine how it feels to those who were there or who helped in the days afterward. The only help we were able to give was to donate money and try to keep putting one foot in front of the other despite the shared grief we all felt. Today we remember the kindness we showed to one another in those early days of this new era, but I will not forget my co-worker and his grandmother, who were blamed for simply being of another nationality and religion. Please be kind to one another.
And although I have disagreed with President Bush on so much, he did give a moving speech yesterday. I’ve shared it here in case you want to see it. He seems to forget about the Muslims who were attacked in America in the wake of 9/11, but memories about that aspect don’t seem to be as long.