“Gabe! Gabe!” the agitated voices of my siblings blared as I groggily rubbed my eyes. “What?” I demanded, making thin effort to cover my disgust resulting from this early morning wake-up call on my morning off. I relished my “sleep in” Tuesdays and Thursdays. My intro math class wouldn’t start until noon. This had better be important! “A plane went into the World Trade Center!” Huh? In my mind’s eye, I pictured a small, turbo-prop type plane. Incredulous, I rolled over and said, “Okay.”
As I drifted back to sleep, I had visions of a small plane going into a skyscraper. In my drowsiness, I figured there would be a little hub-bub on the news, a few unfortunate people would die, and it would take the center spot on the evening news. Not enough to get me out of bed, though. Back to sleep.
Twenty minutes later, my siblings burst into my room again. “Another plane went into the other tower!” they gasped. Noting the shock of their report and – especially – its tone, I sprang from my bed to the television in the living room. They had been watching “Good Morning, America”, and Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer were recounting the abject horror of the previous minute:
“That looks like a good-sized plane came in and hit the World Trade Center from the other side … so, this is obviously … or would seem to be … and, again, I’m dealing in speculation … but it would seem like there is a concerted attack on one of the World Trade Centers underway.”
I watched in shock. There was no mistaking the truth of Gibson’s assertion: America was under attack. Strangely, at a time like that, there really are no words. You want to say something, but don’t know what to say. It’s weird: you can plainly see what is happening, but it is unfathomable. All you can think about is that many people had just died. And that thought gave way to the disgusting realization that many more were dying as a veritable hell raged beneath them. Few words were expressed between my brother, sister, and I.
My mom arrived a while later, and I don’t remember her reaction. We all just watched as long as we could. Not a while later, my brother left to go to school – followed shortly by my mother and sister. I was alone at home – just watching.
Unlike most major events that end quickly and give way to hours of meaningless pundit analysis, the events of 9/11 played out like a movie – a terrifying, all-too-real movie. First, it was the report that the Pentagon had been hit. Then came video of that building engulfed in smoke. What is going on? Who is doing this? Who is next? Many more reports – most of them false – poured in. Other planes had been hijacked. Chicago, Los Angeles – maybe even Houston — were next. It was the fog of war. There were even some reports that gunmen had entered the U.S. Capitol and had taken hostages. It was utter chaos.
It’s so hard to identify the worst part of that day, because there were so many. But, for me, it was when Tower 2 collapsed (the second building hit, the first to fall). By that time, Peter Jennings — the big dog at ABC at the time — had made his way into the anchor chair at ABC. While Jennings was talking with a pundit, Tower 2 collapsed.
“Let’s go to the Trade Tower again. Because we now have … what do we have? We don’t …”
This was followed by several seconds of silence, as it was apparent that even the unflappable Jennings had no idea what to make of what had just happened. To be honest, I think he knew — he just didn’t want to say. Hundreds – probably thousands – of people had just died as Tower 2 collapsed. One of the World Trade Center towers – an internationally recognized landmark – was no more. That building had been more than just a place of business. It had been one half of the central figure in many a New York postcard, the canonical “New York” background in so many movies, the mainstay and pride of the New York skyline, and – indeed — a manifestation of the American Dream itself. And, in less than 10 seconds, it was gone.
Not long after, a report came in about a downed plane in Pennsylvania. Then, in the final act, Tower 1 collapsed. The horror of the day had come to an end, but no one was quite sure it had. Long after we were safe, we were nervous about other attacks. Indeed, to this day, I can’t fly in an airplane without thinking about who might be a potential hijacker. I envision how I might fight would-be terrorists. I have had dreams about gunmen storming my city, about buildings falling on me.
September 11th is forever seared into our collective American conscious. Even without the legion reports from the media, or the politicization of the events by our leaders, I believe we couldn’t possibly forget. Of course, its impact is still felt. The election of Barack Obama may not have happened if George W. Bush hadn’t made a war on terror. Perhaps our current fiscal crisis would have been less severe if we had not been involved in international conflicts related to terror. Would this have curbed our national cynicism? It’s hard to say. After 9/11, we began to questions ourselves. We were the United Stated States of America, but we didn’t feel like it. We felt vulnerable … crippled … hurt.
To be sure, healing has begun. And I, for one, am thankful. The Freedom Tower in Manhattan is one of the clearest signs. It is, once again, reaching upwards – a picture of our collective vision. God-willing, we will get there again. But today, we remember the thousands who perished, and all whose lives were forever changed on that fateful day.