I remember it like it was yesterday. Do you? Where you were when you heard that a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center?
I was at home. My husband had just left to take my older kids to school on his way to work. I was in the kitchen, standing at the sink, with my baby playing at my feet when Jim came running back through the front door and said, “Turn on the T.V.”
“What?” I said. “What are you doing back home?”
“Just turn on the T.V.” he said, heading straight for the family room and turning it on himself.
It was everywhere. On every channel. The video replaying, over and over, as the plane flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, along with the initial speculation that it was an accident.
I remember the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and the horror that filled my chest as the world watched just moments later, while another plane flew into the South Tower. Tears poured down my face at the thought of the lives that would be lost that day. Senselessly destroyed. Because of hate.
My motherly instincts wanted to run to the schools and gather my children home so I could protect them from whatever was still to come. Terrorism on US soil was unheard of until that day. At least terrorism on such a grand scale. Before 9/11, you could walk your family to the gate at the airport and sit with them until they boarded. You could go to public places without wondering if fate would place you next to a shooter. You never even considered the possibility that someone might set off a bomb in a public building. Those things only happened in the movies.
Before that day, you didn’t know such evil existed.
One Month Later
One month later, Jim and I boarded a plane to New York City. The company Jim was working for sent some of their employees to New York to be part of the clean-up efforts. My husband was chosen to go. He would be gone on our 14th anniversary so I decided to accompany him for a few days. I hadn’t been to New York City since I was a little girl. My memories were vague–and nearly non-existent.
As we walked through the doors of the airport to catch our outgoing flight, it was immediately obvious that this was going to be a very different experience. The place was empty. The hustle and bustle of the Ontario California International Airport had disappeared and been replaced by metal detectors and security guards. The Department of Homeland Security had been formed just a few days earlier and airport security was still being figured out.
But there was no messing around.
The few people who were brave enough to fly just one month after the World Trade Center was destroyed were going to be treated suspiciously.
Upon arrival in New York, we discovered that all tourist attractions were still closed to the public. The Statue of Liberty. The Empire State Building. The Rockefeller Center. One afternoon, on our way to dinner, we ended up on the beach across from Lady Liberty. I’d never seen her and wanted to get a picture for the kids. A fence had been erected and security guards posted around the closed ticket booth. We approached the fence, camera in hand, to snap a photo of the statue off in the distance. To anyone looking at us with pre-9/11 eyes, we were clearly harmless.
But those days were gone.
The moment we stopped, an armed guard approached and told us to move along. There was no sense of patriotism–no tolerance for someone like me who just wanted to share a bit of history with her children. Fear was the prevailing emotion that hung over the city like the cloud of smoke that hovered above the former towers.
Although it had been more than a month since the day of the tragedy, the fires were still burning at the World Trade Center. An area about a half-mile square had been cordoned off around the site with a six-foot fence and police at every possible entrance. The stench in the air was one I’ll never forget. That, and the haunted look in the eyes of the people. The area looked like a war zone. Buildings destroyed by the falling towers, empty and looted storefronts, and thousands of signs affixed to walls and light posts–missing person signs posted by families who were still looking for their lost loved ones.
We stood on the outside of that fence, peering in at the massive destruction created by terrorists who, for no reason other than hate, had decided to destroy the American way of life. They were so filled with hate that they were willing to kill themselves and thousands of innocent people to prove a point. It was sickening on more than one level.
Military Rule on the Streets of Manhattan
A few days after our arrival, I was privy to another unforgettable sight. Still on ‘vacation’ in New York, I shopped while Jim went to work. As I wandered the streets of Manhattan, ducking into stores like Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, and Saks Fifth Avenue, I noticed a military presence beginning to build up on the streets. At first, it seemed as if there were just a few soldiers, here and there, walking with the crowds or loitering on the corners. But as the day wore on, their presence became more obvious. They were no longer casual. Men in full uniform with machine guns by their sides graced every street corner, sometimes in groups of four or five. They were straight-faced and serious about their jobs, whatever it was supposed to be, and I began to wonder if the US had just been put under military rule.
I contacted Jim and through the work he was doing, he discovered that the US had sent troops to Afghanistan during the past couple of days and had begun to retaliate.
My heart may have skipped a beat or two when I heard the news. Jim and I were both in New York, but we’d left our five children behind in California with a babysitter. Having our family divided, literally on opposite coasts of the country, as the leaders of our nation declared war on the people who had just created the biggest tragedy in my lifetime was a little disconcerting.
Okay…it was a lot disconcerting. I may have freaked out.
I insisted that I had to get on a plane right away. We weren’t scheduled to leave for several more days, but my mother’s heart couldn’t stand the thought of being separated from my kids a minute longer. Stories of families being separated during the World Wars flooded my mind and left me reeling. I had to get home to my babies.
I don’t remember exactly how we made it happen, but I know I was on a plane within 24 hours, headed home to ensure my children were safe.
A Sense of Gratitude
But I’ll always be grateful that I was there to witness the carnage left behind after the tragedy of 9/11. Not because it was something I wanted to see. But because it ingrained in my memory the horrific events of that period of time. I don’t think it’s possible to erase from my mind the scenes I witnessed. The piles of rubble. The smell of burning flesh. The broken windows and collapsed buildings. The ash forced into cracks and crevices a full mile from ground zero. And wall after wall of missing people posters.
And the way our country came together for a brief moment in time, political parties, race, gender, age, occupation–all forgotten.
If there’s one thing I hope I never forget, it’s that feeling of camaraderie. That feeling of being part of something bigger than myself. That feeling of watching an entire nation come together to unite for a cause.
I’m sure we’ll never know the full impact September 11, 2001 had on history. In my mind, it was the day innocence died and we were forced to grow up as a country. This year, as 9/11 approaches, I vow to remember. And with gratitude in my heart, I thank all those who acted as rescuers that day. Rescuers of individuals, as well as rescuers of our nation.
Last year (2018), my sister and her husband were able to visit the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York. The pictures stir up strong emotions and I can only imagine what it must be like to walk through that building. Here are a few pictures that they took.
Do you vow to remember?
For more of my personal story, read SEVERED: A Memoir of Hope and Healing.
It’s the story of how a tragic accident that severed my dominant hand changed me forever and brought purpose and peace into my life.