At 8:46 A.M. on September 11, 2001, a plane crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.
As TV news crews scrambled to cover what appeared to be a horrific accident, I was still asleep.
Seventeen minutes later, with TV news cameras trained on the towers, another plane slammed into the south tower.
As millions of viewers recoiled in shock, I was in the shower.
At 9:37 A.M., a third plane plowed into the Pentagon.
By then, I was getting ready for what seemed to be another ordinary day at the office. At that point, the big news story was that I had more work to do on a presentation for a client.
I did not hear about the worst terrorist attack ever carried out on American soil until I was driving to work, westbound on I-696. The DJ on the radio station I was listening to broke into the music to inform listeners about hijacked planes flying into the Pentagon and both towers of the World Trade Center, describing what had happened as "surreal," like it was in a movie, before switching to an ABC Radio news feed.
These thoughts flashed through my mind:
- I remembered hearing that the Columbine High School gunmen--Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold--kept a journal, and in that journal, they mentioned wanting to hijack a plane and crash it in New York City. (Harris and Klebold shot and killed 12 students and a teacher before taking their own lives on April 20, 1999.) Now this sick fantasy had been crystallized.
- Could other planes be in the air, on their way to more targets?
- Might the perpetrators might turn out to be extremely disgruntled Americans, not Middle Eastern terrorists? I recalled that on April 19, 1995, in Oklahoma City, people were quick to blame the latter until we met the enemy, and it was one of our own, Timothy McVeigh. I recalled that we were 10 months removed from the most controversial presidential election in U.S. history, in which George W. Bush beat out Al Gore by the narrowest of margins--did some extreme left-wing zealots come up with this evil plan to attack what they might imagine to be symbols of corporate greed (the WTC) and excessive military spending (the Pentagon)?
As I parked at the building where I worked at the time, I wondered, will things be any worse? I thought to myself, For all I know, the country could be under martial law when I get into the office.
When I walked into work, I headed straight for a spare office where we had a TV set up. Co-workers were already there, watching the twin towers burn like sick, grotesque parodies of cigarettes.
By that time, United Airlines Flight 93 nosedived into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the result of passengers fighting back to keep their hijackers from mounting another attack on the nation's capital.
Then, a new disaster reared its ugly head. While working on that presentation in my office, which was near that spare office with the TV in it, I overheard a report that one of the towers had just collapsed. "What?!" I exclaimed in shock. It seemed absolutely inconceivable--hearing about planes flying into skyscrapers is horrible enough. But then a tower collapses? I had never even conceived of a controlled demolition of a skyscraper, much less a progressive collapse of one. Skyscrapers, by their very nature, are not designed to be demolished. As we watched a replay of the collapse (a wide shot angle that appeared to be taken from a helicopter several miles away), it looked more like the tower had just turned to dust.
Information on the attacks trickled in very slowly, and what we information we did get was mixed in with a good deal of misinformation. Early on, United Airlines Flight 175--the plane that hit the south tower--was unaccounted for and was thought to be still in the air. At least one report indicated that American Airlines Flight 77 hit the south tower, but it was later discovered to be the plane that hit the Pentagon. I seem to remember hearing that morning that one plane had crashed in Cleveland and another was hijacked over Pittsburgh (when, in fact, United Airlines Flight 93 was hijacked over Cleveland and crashed outside of Pittsburgh). I hoped that wherever that crash was, that there would be survivors who could shed some light on what the hell was happening. Numerous sources reported an explosion at the Capitol building. The Howard Stern radio show (admittedly not a news source; I am adding this to further illustrate how much misinformation there was) reported that a third plane struck the south tower, and that was what caused it to collapse. I also recall that when I mentioned to one of my co-workers that it was a plane that crashed into the Pentagon, she said that she heard it was a helicopter (at which point I mentioned that I heard that pieces of the plane's tail were found in the wreckage). On top of all that, getting information on the web sites of the top cable news channels was not possible because they were getting tons of traffic, meaning that the page would download very slowly--if it did at all.
Even as the workday neared its end, I had so little information that I still refused to rule out the possibility of a domestic attack. Let me reiterate this: prior to 9/11, the two deadliest terrorist acts to take place on American soil (the Murrah Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City and the Columbine High School shootings) were carried out by Americans. The flights were domestic, the carriers were domestic. Only when I heard that two flight attendants on American Flight 11 had the presence of mind to relay the seat numbers of the hijackers, all of whom turned out to be Al-Qaeda operatives who had been living in the United States on student or tourist visas, did I rule out that possibility.
At home that night, I made a point of turning on CNN and recording as much as I could that night. (Documenting these events was important to me because, if I ever had children, I wanted to show them what happened.) I saw some more video of the attacks on the World Trade Center. One video in particular, shot from Battery Park, gave a better impression of the size of the second plane as it struck the south tower, and it looked as though it passed through the south wall like a ghost just before it exploded. Other shots showed office paper floating down like a horrible mockery of a ticker tape parade.
People were quick to compare it to Pearl Harbor (mainly because each attack was unexpected and forever changed the American sense of isolation and security). But this was much worse. In 1941, Pearl Harbor was a military outpost, and Hawaii was not yet a state at the time. This attack took place on the American mainland, and the weapons were not old Soviet guns or bombs, but America's own airlines (two United Airlines flights and two American Airlines flights were hijacked).
There was one more thing I remember about that day. I initially wanted to make a stop at the supermarket on the way back home, then thought I was too tired from the mental and emotional exhaustion of watching these events unfold. Then it dawned on me: If I don't make that stop at that supermarket, then the terrorists have interfered with my way of life and I will not allow that to happen. So, tired as I was, I still went to that supermarket after work.
I should be happy just to be alive every day from now on. It's hard to fathom boarding a plane one morning, whether it's to attend some business conference or see loved ones, and less than an hour afterwards, the plane is under the control of a few religious fanatics and it will soon slam into a building. It's hard to imagine being at work and seeing a plane hurtling towards your office at over 500 miles per hour (as Stanley Praimnath did that morning).
Our country has never been more violated, or looked more fallible, than it was that day. And the enemy is not another country, or communism, or some homespun militia group, or even drug lords; simply put, the enemy is terrorism.
I also find a few parallels between the World Trade Center collapse and the sinking of Titanic in 1912. Both were the first disasters of their respective centuries, and both concerned engineering achievements that met their demise due to unforeseen circumstances. Both were designed to survive certain disasters (Titanic could float after being struck broadside by another ship, the worst conceivable scenario at that time; the World Trade Center was designed to survive the hit of a Boeing 707, the largest commercial jet when it was designed in the 1960s, as well as withstand heavy winds). Designing a skyscraper to survive a 10,000-gallon Molotov cocktail was absurd. In Titanic's case, the thought of the ship grinding against an iceberg was just as unthinkable. Evacuations in both disasters were difficult (for Titanic, it was due to an insufficiency of lifeboats; in the World Trade Center, all but a few people above the explosions got out, because the plane crashes destroyed all of the elevator shafts, and only one stairwell in the South Tower was still usable for people above the impact zone in that tower).
In the meantime, I continue to collect documentaries and footage pertaining to these attacks. As with the Holocaust, we cannot let these events go gently into the past; we must show them to future generations. We must tell them about people who abused the freedom we gave them, what they destroyed, and the people whose lives they took.