Updated: Feb 26, 2020
18 Years Later
It’s been 18 years since I watched two airplanes crash into the Twin Towers, and although almost two decades have passed, the sadness I feel when I remember that fateful day only seems to grow with each passing year.
One of my college friends is a middle school teacher, and although it’s difficult to believe, she told me recently that none of the kids she teaches today were alive when this monumental, world-changing event occurred. What was even more surprising is that, according to her, the majority of her students are unfamiliar with this event and its significance. I remember when I was that age, the big tragedy that my parents would recall was the assassination of President Kennedy. In school, there was an entire project revolving around the question: Where were you when Kennedy was shot?
For my generation, for those of us over the age of 25, 9/11 was our Kennedy. This was our Pearl Harbor. This was our D Day. This was the day we would witness, a day that would live in infamy, a moment that would change the entire course of our lives. So, out of respect for the magnitude of this moment, of the lives lost on that day and as a result of that day, and for us, the youth of that time who watched it all unfold, completely unaware of the total chaos that would ensue...
Today, I dedicate this day’s post to:
My personal memory of that day:
I was a freshman in high school. In the South, we start school a couple weeks before Labor Day, so at this point I was a month into my brand new school. I was in the girl’s locker room changing into my PE uniform. I can still remember the smell of that locker room. The facilities were rather new and the walls smelled of fresh paint. I was putting on my gray Crusaders shirt wondering why our PE uniforms were gray and black when our colors were green and black.
One of the other girls in the locker room swung the door open, her blonde ponytail flying behind her, and said, “you guys, did you hear someone bombed the twin towers?”
That was one of the early rumors that had been going around. The Oklahoma City bombings were lingering in recent memory, and it hadn’t been that long ago (1993) when the World Trade Center had been bombed for the first time. It seemed logical to some that this may be the case again.
PE class was cancelled. We were shuffled to the library where some of the teachers were huddled around one of the three televisions that were showing the news, which was now reporting the events live as they were happening. I knew it was bad because some of them were crying. I spotted a couple of my friends who I had attended middle school with.
“So, someone bombed the twin towers?” I asked.
My friend C immediately responded, “No, it was a plane. A plane crashed into one of them.” “On purpose?” I asked shocked.
“Yup, look,” he exclaimed as he pointed to the TV.
To my horror, I watched the scene unfold. The news replayed the first airplane as it flew straight into the first tower. I watched as a ball of black smoke filled the air, and then the second airplane came along faster than the first, slamming into the second tower. As I write this, I still feel the same twinge, the same sense of breathlessness that I felt the first time I saw the attack. My eyes still well up and a lump forms in my throat every time I recall that second plane crashing.
As I watched, I started thinking about the twin towers, the World Trade Center. At that time, I knew the towers were a major monument and I knew it was a hub for finance, but I didn’t quite understand the gravity of its importance to our country and to the world. School became pointless that day. Every class, the teachers were bringing out the TVs so we could keep up with what was happening. Theories swirled around for a while, but eventually we finally understood what was happening.
Our country was under attack.
I was 14 years old, so the whole thing was a bit confusing. I wondered how long the attack would last. I wondered how long it would take to clean up the mess. I wondered how much time it would take to go back to the way things were. It hadn’t dawned on me that there was no going back.
My mom had gotten off of work early and my dad was home with my sister who was sick that day. I got a call saying I was being picked up early. As soon as I got in the car, I asked my parents if they had heard what happened. Naturally, they had been watching all day. When we got to the house, my grandparents were sitting in the family room glued to the TV. I took long pauses to stare at each of the adults, noticing that all of them were making the same faces. Teary-eyed, confused, shocked; the men looking down occasionally, the women gasping and covering their mouths, different manifestations of a shared grief.
My dad explained to me the significance of the World Trade Center, of how it was built in the 70’s as a hub for world peace through trade, and of how it was a beacon of American ingenuity and promise. He reminded me of the blood, sweat, and tears that were shed during the building of New York City, the epic city built on the backs of immigrants who yearned for freedom and opportunity. He reiterated the tale of our great nation as he painfully watched in horror over the destruction of the city where he grew up. Through his thick New York accent, I could detect the breaks in his voice as he named the streets and locations being shown. For him, this was truly hitting home.
Then we learned that the Pentagon had been attacked.
Then we were told that more planes had been hijacked.
Then we learned of Flight 93, where a group of passengers took over and helped crash the plane in order to avoid another large-scale attack.
Our fellow Americans in all their brave, heroic glory, refusing to go down without a fight. In the same moment that I was fearing a lengthy attack, I was reminded of my country’s champion spirit and the strength of its resilient people.
It was all anyone could talk about. Everyone went to sleep that night overcome with the solemnity that was collectively felt by a nation in mourning. We woke up to zero commercial planes in the sky, an eerie, strange sight, and one that I’ve never seen again. It was all anyone could talk about. The radio stations, the teachers, even tv shows were announcing their condolences prior to airing, except of course for “Friends”, who made the historic move of not mentioning it at all in order to give viewers a much-needed escape.
The US had been attacked. We had been attacked.
A group of extremists, a group of terrorists carried out a meticulously planned mission and they cut to the very heart of our country. We watched people jump out of the burning buildings, we heard screams as the towers crumbled to the ground, we felt the fear as first responders willingly went into the destruction, not knowing if they would ever get out.
As the weeks went on, stories came out of passengers who were on those flights. Voicemails of them saying goodbye to their loved ones were played, often followed by tearful interviews by those they left behind. For a 14-year-old, it started to sink in. We, as a people, had suffered a great loss. Our country had experienced a horrific, vicious attack, and the road to recovery that we faced was long, dark, and uncertain. This I knew. What I didn’t know was how these events would ripple for decades to come.
As a kid, when a loved one would travel, we would go with them past the gate and wave goodbye as they would walk onto the plane. That was now over. Airplane meals used to be served with real, metal silverware, but not anymore. As expected, the economy took a turn for the worst. When we graduated college, we graduated in a recession, so suddenly there was a plethora of highly educated individuals and not enough well-paying jobs to match them. Many of us went to grad school only to find a saturated market and a jaded work force.
Many died on that fateful day, but many more died because of it. It has been reported that over 241 NYPD officers have died due to 9/11 related illnesses, a staggering number compared to the 23 officers who lost their lives that day. 343 members of the FDNY died on 9/11, and 200 have died since due to World Trade Center illnesses, most commonly being some form of cancer from the pulverized dust and smoke they had to inhale, dust that contained everything from asbestos to lead. Most recently, Luis Alvarez was the face of the suffered first responders. His pale face and sunken body were a sobering reminder that for some, this day never really ended.
One of the most beautiful things that happened on 9/11 amidst all the misery was that the country banded together. I remember feeling so empowered by my fellow citizens as everyone vowed to never forget, as we vowed to love one another and stand by one another in defense of our nation. It was a wonderful sentiment, but sadly, it did not last.
14-year-old me never imagined the division that would ensue. With the shock and horror of that day, I never would have imagined that there would be a willingness to not only forget the event, but to dishonor the memory of those that gave their lives in the name of rebuilding the country they loved. The cynicism, the ungratefulness, the blatant disrespect, actions I never expected from my fellow countrymen and women who watched the events of 9/11 unfold.
That’s the thing about grief, though. Grief affects us all differently. For some, it turns into anger. For some, it turns into action. For those of us who were kids, the children of 9/11, it was a day that made us grow up. With this event came war. With this event came friends enlisting the day they turned 18. With this event came fellow graduates encountering difficulty finding jobs, which sparked an entrepreneurial, independent spirit unlike anything previous generations have seen. The traditional way that we had been taught was not working for us, but we had to carry on, just like the rest of the country did.
Grief doesn’t go away. It changes shape and the way it manifests, but grief is something you carry with you forever, which is why we still feel the pain of 9/11 as if it just happened. Although we all acted differently in our grief, I witnessed my country come together after one of its greatest tragedies, and I believe we can feel that same solidarity again. Never forgetting doesn’t mean we simply remember in our minds, it means we actively remember and honor the day. It means we choose to live in a way that honors those who lost their lives, to honor those who continue to fight for our freedom so that we don’t have to.
Listen to one another. Respect each other’s differences. Agree to disagree. Most of all, be thankful. Be thankful to live in a country where we can disagree, where we can speak as we wish, where we can create businesses and work our way up, where we can post what we want without fear of imprisonment, a country that so many people around the world risk their lives every day trying to escape to. Let us remember to count our blessings, to hug our loved ones, and to never take moments for granted.
September 11th changed the world and it changed us as citizens in ways that we still may not know. Through all the pain and confusion of that day came a pride and love for my country that will never cease. I have seen who we are and what we are capable of when we come together for a purpose that is bigger than us. As we remember the events of 9/11 18 years later, let us beam with pride over a country that rose from the ashes, let us bow our heads in honor of those who lost their lives, and let us vow to NEVER FORGET that catastrophic day.
Please share your story. You are welcome to share here, but if not, I urge you to share it with someone today. *Never Forget*