The event that needs no context because it has been the biggest event of our century. The Pearl Harbor, if you will, for most of us. I do not know many alive, of age during that time, who do not remember.
School did not start until well after 9 AM. It was part of a program that staggered arrival and end times for the schools in our area. This meant that most days I got to sit on the couch with my mom and baby brother, after my sister had been taken to school, and watch tv. We watched the news, a studio set in New York City, on said couch together until my mom took my brother to change his diaper before she would take me to school. I remember the duo on television saying that today was a slow news day, if you didn’t count the moose that got into someone’s backyard; they were supposed to show the video footage and pictures later on. They never got around to that.
Conversation was interrupted to tell them, on live television, that a plane crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. This was well before the days of social media, so they sent a team out to the scene immediately and began working on getting footage set up. Certainly this was a classic case of a pilot that was either drunk or too tired and made a mistake. Certainly it was an accident. I remember yelling to my mom that this had happened and she carried my brother into the living room as they showed footage of the plane flying effortlessly into the side of the North tower. I remember her saying, “I don’t think that’s an accident. Those towers are big. I’ve been there. You don’t mistake them.”
I was thirteen years old. I believed it was an accident because I wanted it to be an accident. I lived on a narrow island off the coast of Florida near Cape Canaveral; it was peaceful and I could see the water every time I jumped on my trampoline in the afternoons. At 8:46 AM on that Tuesday morning, I still believed that everything was ok.
At 9:03 my mom’s worst fears were confirmed. The same TV station that we were watching had sent someone to the site. We watched on live television, with the rest of the world, the second plane hit the South tower. We sat there in silence for what felt like a long time, when really it was only seconds. My mom then ushered me out the front door, into the car, and took me to school. As soon as I got to first period, an announcement came over the loudspeaker that we were not to turn the televisions on, and we were instructed to go about the lesson and prepare for the day. I do not know of anyone who followed that plan. My eighth grade world geography class and I watched in horror as the towers fell to the ground. We were evacuated to the gym and we all sat there, rumors flying, as most of the teachers huddled in an office. We were not far from Kennedy Space Center; certainly they were coming there for the shuttles and rockets that my community was so proud of. Others were sure that Disney World would be hit; what a way to destroy the happiest place on earth. We fell into silence when one of the teachers, or maybe it was one of the students closest to the office door, began to sob loudly. We could see them in the office; some had tears dripping off the end of their noses, some looked angry, others looked lost. One of the coaches walked to the front of the gym’s bleachers and told us that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon and yet another had crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. We all wanted answers, but no one had any to give. The rest of the day at school was a blur.
When I got home, I watched the footage of the Pentagon smoking and the wreckage of the plane that had crashed in Pennsylvania. That evening, the five of us sat in the living room and watched footage of the day’s event. During the footage they played back, I kept hearing these loud noises and asked why they zooming in to show things in the windows of the buildings. Then I noticed that people were jumping out of the windows. Out of the quiet that had been our living room, my dad softly said, “that sound you hear is their bodies hitting the ground. They chose to jump instead of burn.” I do not think that my mom wanted him to share that news with me, but it seems so obvious now. The people behind the cameras were simply filming the buildings in flames; I do not think that they at first realized what was happening in the background. You could see paper, lots of paper, and whatever else small pieces flying from the gaping wound in the sides. Then I saw things too big to be simply paper. Their faces were obscured by the smoke and distance, but fourteen years later I see them in my sleep; their panic stricken faces as they chose to jump.
I watched the news every second that I was home the following days. I did not sleep. Every time I closed my eyes I had the same dream. The same dream I have sometimes still. Buildings on fire falling all around me as I run. Suddenly I fall down and as I hit the ground in my dream, I wake up, still in my bed. September 11th changed the very fabric of millions of lives.
In 2005, my senior year in high school, I had the privilege of traveling with some of my classmates to spend the week in Boston and New York City. We flew into Logan Airport in Boston, the same airport all of this started in four years previous. Eerie. We got to stand at the wreckage of the World Trade Center on our last day. We watched as a plane flew over us. Just a regular airplane on its way, where any other day none of us would have even bothered to look up. But we were standing on hallowed ground that day.
Fourteen years. Has it really been that long? Fourteen years. Only fourteen? Some days it feels like a lifetime ago because we were all different people back then. Other days it feels like it was only yesterday. That Tuesday morning is etched in the memories of so many, yet forgotten or ignored by many as well, though I am not sure how.
In today’s world, we live a life of fear. I certainly do. Most days I wake up and remind myself that I need to refuse to be afraid. I refuse to make my children afraid to live their lives. A healthy dose of fear is good, but to live a life full of fear is no life at all.
I am not here to argue beliefs, be it race, religion, or politics. I am merely here to say that events of fourteen years ago set off a chain reaction in my life. I had always spoken to God like he was a friend, but I had never cried out to him to save my soul. That fear, that anger, that passion that that day instilled in me began to drive me crazy. My thirteen year old brain could not process it; the logical and emotional sides of me were at war. I remember one night, when I should have been asleep for hours, thinking that I did not want to ever have to make a decision about dying like so many of those people had to do in a split second: would I burn or would I jump headfirst into the unknown. At thirteen, I had lived in many places, took in beautiful sites both man-made and natural, witnessed events that looking back should have scared me more than they did. I remember being on lock-down, hiding under my desk with the lights off, while a a school in a town not too far away made national news. At ten years old Columbine changed the way I would finish my educational career, though I certainly did not realize it at the time. All of these experiences, while slowing molding me, could not hold a candle to the events of 9/11. I would never be the same.
I chose to jump headfirst into the unknown. I chose to never forget. I choose now, today of all days, to refuse to be afraid. To refuse to live a life of fear.
I will always remember.
I will never forget.