Where We Were Twenty Years Ago Today
On this landmark, twenty years to the day since America was attacked by the forces of Islamic extremism, we invited readers to share with us their reflections, recollections and impressions of what they felt and experienced on the morning of September 11, 2001.
First up is this video retrospective from Tom Logan, who happened to be nearby when Flight 77 hit the Pentagon.
Next, we have this memorialization in verse from contributor Robert E. Blackwell:
September 11, 2001
The years have passed of life, and love, and dreams,
but I am still affected by events
that happened here just yesterday, it seems,
and even now it keeps my feelings tense.
That day began as just another day,
another step in Time’s relentless walk;
the street was still that morning, save the sound
of birds whose song comprised their daily talk.
The bus arrived on time, but I did not,
and so I looked for one to happen by.
The sun awoke and rose; my only thoughts
were fixed upon the brightening of sky.
Arriving at my desk, I settled in
to organize the work that filled my space
with no awareness what my future held:
my life would change with what would soon take place.
A colleague turned his radio to news;
I heard excited voices tell the tale,
and hearing the reporter give his views,
my blood turned cold…my skin turned very pale.
He spoke of skies turned black that stole each breath
from those encased within its lethal cloud,
of planes whose flights brought violence and death
upon a place that once stood tall and proud.
I witnessed people falling through the air…
the ones alive who made their final choice,
whose broken bodies, feeling the despair,
were shattered without cause, without a voice.
Eventually, I heard the sirens scream,
a herald to assistance and relief,
and prayed in vain for this to be a dream
instead of a scenario of grief.
While gazing through the window at my town,
the city’s streets became a frenzied maze:
re-routed cars and buses up and down,
while people milled about, confused and dazed.
Policemen stood in vigil, guarding shrines
of government and each commercial place;
the city filled with slowly moving lines
of anguish etched upon each person’s face.
The boss declared our working day at end,
and sent us home believing in the hope
tomorrow would find better news to send,
to help us find the ways and means to cope.
I wandered through the endless human sea
and pondered all the questions of our fate:
who and why, and most important, how
could anyone be guided by such hate?
That night, with every child asleep in bed,
I wept at every image shown anew:
the carnage turning living into dead,
the brave ones helping frailer people through.
My prayers, then and now, are all the same:
for healing for the loved ones left behind;
protection for the ones God knows by name;
and as we face our future, peace of mind.
© 2001, 2013, 2021 by Robert E. Blackwell
Laura Williams describes what it seemed like a lot of us and our co-workers were processing on 9-11-01:
I was working as a customer service representative for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas at the time. We only had a few people on a desk for walk-in business. The majority of the inquiries we handled were received by telephone.
The floor of the building where I worked housed ten “units”. Each unit consisted of 8-10 representatives and a supervisor. In other words, there were a lot of voices talking simultaneously during business hours.
Representatives were allowed to keep a small radio on our desktops, as long as we kept the volume very low. I was still on a call when my friend and unit-mate popped up over the divider between our desks with a strange look on her face. Softly, so as not to interrupt my call, she said “a plane just hit one of the twin towers”.
I finished my call and answered the next without thinking much about what my co-worker had said. I remember thinking that some private plane had wandered off-course. As I was concluding the next call, the same co-worker again loomed over the divider. This time, she had no color at all in her face. “Laura,” she said, “it just happened again!”
I hustled my caller off the phone because I wanted to find out what was going on. I realized that it was probably a wasted effort; we always had another call waiting. This time, though, the line remained clear. In fact, over one hundred phones slowly stopped ringing.
The volume on a few dozen radios went up as representatives who didn’t have their own clustered around the desks that did. Those radios were the only sounds to be heard on that floor.
The supervisors had an urgent meeting with their boss, conducted in hushed voices. Immediately afterward, the VP in charge of customer service said that anyone in the department who wished to leave would not be charged with an unscheduled absence. I don’t think anyone stayed.
My heart was in my throat, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried all the way home. I was genuinely terrified. I had no idea what was happening or if it was over. All that I knew was that I had a one-year-old baby in daycare, and that America was going to war.
Nothing has been the same since. That baby turned 21 in August, and has no idea what this world was like before that day.
Sarah Keller shares her recollection and impressions:
My recollection of 9-11. I had just been laid off by a major telecom company and was home that day. Just walked into the Living Room when the 1st Tower was hit. I was horrified, thinking , “oh my God, how can this happen? What just happened?”
I stood in front of the TV just mesmerized at what I just witnessed. Then moments later, the 2nd Tower was hit. I knew then, this was no accident.
When the towers both fell, I just felt sick to my stomach. Sat down and just cried. As the morning and hours moved on, with the attack on the Pentagon and the United Airlines Flight 93 that went down, and Todd Beamer’s last audible words were “Are you ready? Okay. Let’s roll.”— I knew the world we lived in would be forever changed.
– Sarah Keller
And bringing this special edition to a close is Senior Contributing Editor, Tony Wyman with this essay:
The weather was beautiful in Salem, Oregon at 6:30 A.M. on Tuesday, 11 September 2001. Cool, clear, a soft breeze blowing from the west, the rain that normally is an omnipresent reminder that living in the Pacific Northwest comes at a cost of spending more on rainproof gear than on sunscreen was still two months away.
I was thinking about the staff meeting we would have in the office in an hour, about how successful my plant had become after years of hard work, about how normal life without worry, without struggle, without uncertainty had become.
Ten minutes later, former Air Force colleagues of mine in the Northeast Air Defense Sector, the command and control unit charged with maintaining America’s air defense over states in the country’s upper righthand corner, got word from the FAA that a civilian airliner, American Airlines Flight 11, had been hijacked.
I trained for years for such a scenario and can see now in my mind how they reacted. A colonel, the battle commander, took charge of the operation. A Weapons Assignment Officer ordered a Weapons Director and tech to scramble fighter aircraft from the nearest Air National Guard base, in this case F-15s from Otis Air National Guard Base outside Cape Cod, to intercept and monitor the jetliner.
Each member of the team followed their checklists, executed the proper commands, and searched their radar screens for the symbology of an aircraft squawking 7500, the transmission code for a plane that’s been hijacked. “I don’t know where I am scrambling these guys to,” said the Weapons Controller, “I need a direction, a destination.”
That squawk never came and the National Guard fighters were still on the ground when the 767 crashed into North Tower, killing everyone onboard and many, many more in the doomed skyscraper.
I heard about the crash on the way on the 25-minute drive to work from NPR. The report at first suggested a small plane had accidentally struck the tower, but within minutes of entering my office, the second plane, United Airlines flight 175, crashed into the South Tower, making it clear to all that America was under attack.
Thirty-four minutes later, while still stunned by the devastation of the two attacks on the iconic symbols of American wealth and power, American Airlines flight 77 crashed into the western exterior of the Pentagon where my friend, an USAF colonel I’d served with worked.
Hours later, after we shut down production in the plant and gathered all the men and women who worked there into the breakroom so I could deliver the first of several briefings to our people that day, I got a called from my friend, the colonel. “You know what is happening, right?” he asked, remarkably calm and composed like the professional warrior he was. “I do,” I replied. “How are you, are you okay?”
He told me what he’d seen, about the explosion, about how no one panicked or lost their military bearing. He talked about how a general appeared out of the damage and started issuing orders and about how everyone went to work helping the wounded and securing the building. “I’ve never been more proud to serve,” he said, before saying he had to hang up so he could call his wife and let her know he was okay.
Yes, he was calm and professional, but he was also in shock. As were we all.
I spent the rest of the day trying to get back into the military, starting first with the Air Force, my branch. After the Soviets folded and the Cold War appeared to end, the military offered officers money to leave. I took the money and went to work on the re-election campaign for George H.W. Bush. “You took the money, sir,” some young-sounding recruiter said when I called. “Can’t take you back,” he added. “I still have it,” I replied. “Get me back in and I’ll write you a check.”
The Army and Marines had the same response, both claiming they had more former and trained members calling than they could handle.
So, like millions of other Americans I sat and watched and grew angrier by the moment, full of anger and hatred, frustrated, waiting for the son of my president Bush, George W. to lead.
“The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them,” he said in an address before Congress.
To be frank, those weren’t the words I wanted to hear. I wasn’t ready even then, nine days later, for anything short of broad condemnation of the Muslim world. I wanted righteous fury and a call to vengeance.
All I could see was Americans leaping to their deaths to avoid burning in the inferno of the World Trade Center. All I could hear was the words of the brave men who brought down Flight 93 in a field in Pennsylvania, a field that is now marked by a memorial designed by the brother of a friend of mine.
“Let’s roll,” said Todd Beamer. He and others, like Jeremy Glick, whose daughter Emerson, I named my daughter after, charged the cockpit of the Flight 93 and fought the hijackers, preventing them from crashing into another iconic American building, likely the White House or Congress.
That’s what I wanted. I wanted to roll over every damn Muslim state that supported terrorists like the ones who killed so many good people on 9/11. And if our president had called for vengeance, I would have joined the mob.
But, thankfully, he didn’t. For all his faults, George W. Bush, like his father, is a decent man. He reminded us that Americans are decent people, that we don’t strike out blindly, unjustly, at innocent people to satisfy our hunger for vengeance. Instead, we hold the guilty accountable for their crimes.
It strikes me, 20 years later as we leave Afghanistan, that today’s America may not be the nation it was then. Then, Americans accepted the necessity of sacrifice for the good of the country. No one threatened violence against our own government for shutting down airports or for the restrictions we placed upon air travelers to prevent another 9/11.
The attack on America then drew us together as a nation. The attack we face today from a mutating virus, one 217 times more deadly, is tearing us apart. It is time for us to remember the way our people responded after 9/11 so we can defeat today’s enemy.
It is time for us to act together. Let’s roll.