Every century, there are a few events which have the power to freeze time for all those who live through them. Three very different such events of the twentieth century were Pearl Harbour, JFKs assassination, and the moon landing. If you were alive during any of these happenings, they are crystallized pristenely in your memory. You can visualize yourself hearing the news, study the expression on your face, channel the long-dead outpourings of grief, rage, and amazement.
I was not alive during 1941 or 1963 or 1969. I'd never experienced an event while it was burned into the national consciousness. On on a clear September morning in 2001, I did. While the rest of 2001 fades into obscure reaches of my mind, the memory of September 11 still looms sharp and jagged, and I don't know that it will ever recede.
Everybody who recalls the day seems to mention its brilliance and warmth; almost the entire country was blanketed by high pressure systems. The uniformly good weather added to the perception that the horror unfolding on our TV screens was somewhere very close. Most Americans didn't lose friends or family; for most it was at worst a long-ago aquaintence or a friend of a friend. The loss, though, was very personal.
Do you remember waking up on that morning? Picking out your clothes? Making yourself breakfast? I certainly don't, and I miss those memories terribly. They are the very last vestiges of the life before. For most of us, that morning begins at the moment we heard, the moment that bridges the eternal chasm of before and after.
I'm a half-hour early for Aviation Law class at the brick and glass Odegard Hall on the UND campus; I need to work on a project for another class. As I walk into the research center, several students are gathered around the librarian. She has the radio on low and everyone is listening intently to it. It strikes me as vaguely strange, but I don't stop. As I pull my laptop computer from my backpack, several snippets of conversation reach me. I gather they're talking about a plane crash. My first webpage is Yahoo News.
The AP dispatch is only two paragraphs long and is accompanied by a single photo. There is little information other than that an airplane, possibly a USAirways B-737, crashed into the World Trade Center and an evacuation is underway. The photo shows smoke pouring out of a gash in one of towers.
What was your first thought when you heard? The first thing flashing through my mind was: this has happened before! In 1945, a B-25 bomber crashed into the Empire State Building after becoming disoriented in low clouds. I quickly realized, however, that there was no easy way for this to happen under modern radar control in the New York area. Besides, it appeared to be clear weather with unlimited visibility. Could this be intentional? I reloaded the webpage. "SECOND AIRPLANE HITS WORLD TRADE CENTER." Oh my god. The bastards finished what they started in 93.
In shock, I kept updating the AP story, then searched for additional news on the CNN and Fox News websites. They all had scant information, some of which turned out to be wrong. It became quickly clear that this wasn't limited to the World Trade Center; the US was under full-scale attack. Several false reports of car bombings in Washington DC went out before somebody realized another airplane had hit the Pentagon. It was almost time for class; I kept my laptop on as I walked down the hall to the classroom.
When I entered, everybody was talking in hushed tones. "The towers are both down...the second one just collapsed..." I whirled around to catch what my classmate was saying. "They've both collapsed?" I inquired skeptically. Buildings didn't just collapse in the USA, not with thousands of people still inside. My mind flashed back to the previous spring: I was in the jumpseat of a TWA 767 rolling down runway 31L at JFK, the twin towers dominating the skyline beyond the end of the runway. I struggled to reconcile the image with how the scene must look now.
Class began but nobody could concentrate. Everyone who had a laptop with had it turned on, and the others clustered around them, hoping to glean new tidbits of information. The AP was reporting 10 aircraft missing and presumed hijacked. The Sears and Library towers in Chicago and LA were being hurriedly evacuated. I slipped out of the classroom and across the hall to a public telephone, where I dialed my parents' cell phone. They were camping in Hawaii, and due to fly back that day. I left a message: "Mom and Dad...Sam here...I know it's early there but something important is happening...America is under attack...hijacked airplanes have been flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon...the trade center has collapsed...possibly over 10,000 dead. They think there might be more planes hijacked. I'll call you later. I love you."
I called my younger siblings at home to make sure they were okay, then rejoined the class. The professor had stopped even trying to teach, and turned on his own laptop. Then we followed the search for United 93, culminating with the news it had crashed in a Pennsylvania field. The military shot it down. They had to. My god, the airline industry is toast. There goes my career. The thought seemed piddling while other hijacked aircraft were still thought to be aloft. Later the world would learn about the passengers on UAL93 and their final charge down the aisle of the doomed 757, how they stormed the flight deck even as Ziad Jarrah rolled the airplane over and screamed Allahu Ackbar through their final plunge.
Those passengers couldn't save their own lives, but they may have spared Washington DC from further terror and loss of life. The military might have intercepted the airplane before it reached its target, but we'll never know. One thing became apparent from the crash of flight 93: Never again will terrorists be able to hijack an airplane and use it for destruction. The passengers would tear them into pieces long before they reached their target.
As everyone filed out of the classroom, a television at the end of the hallway caught my eye. Until now, the events of the morning had played out on my computer screen and in my mind's eye. Now, as I slowly approached, the television replayed the impact of the airplanes and the collapse of the towers in slow motion. The scene was even more hellish than I'd imagined. I stood transfixed by the specter of panicked survivors fleeing the roiling wall of dust and smoke as it tore through the canyons of New York. It was a clear blue day on the prairies of the upper midwest, but my heart was in the ever-blackening chaos of the streets of lower Manhattan that morning.
I don't remember much else that day. Like everyone else, I watched slow-mo replays of each airplane piercing the gleaming towers, disappear slowly into the structure foot by foot, knowing the exact moment at which each occupant of that 767 was perishing. First class, now row 23, now the aft galley. Then the airplane no longer existed, and for a frame or two the scene looked almost peaceful before aluminum, glass, steel, concrete, jet engines, human bodies, and burning fuel exploded out the far side of the building and heralded the arrival of a new day.
Every American identified with some portion of the tragedy that played out that morning. The aviation aspect hit home for me. I'd flown in the flight decks of 757's and 767's, and I knew pilots for American and United Airlines. I could see them preflighting the airplane, pushing back from the gate, rotating for liftoff, easing their seats back on climbout to settle in for a long westbound flight. I saw myself in the right seat as the cockpit door burst open and a young man with a knife lunged at me. Surprised, I tried turning myself around to defend myself but the seatbelt restrained me. I groped behind me for the crash axe, but too late - I feel the knife slice deep into my neck, and I slump helplessly as the life flows out of me.
I talked to a friend and fellow pilot that night, and she exactly voiced my other nagging thought: I feel dirty and used. My whole life had been a love affair with flight. The beauty and joy of flight had continually amazed me, and now it was utterly perverted. You can actually watch the very transformation: Admire the beauty and symmetry of the big Boeing 767, feel its power and grace as it arcs cleanly into the side of the North Tower. Then witness the transformation of this beautiful wonder of technology as it plows through the structure and explodes out the other side. Watching it, I almost felt ashamed to be a pilot.
That night, the nation felt its shock crystallize into a deep rage. At the time it seemed like a fundamental shift in American culture had taken place. Of course, the rage seems almost foreign now; national attention has long since turned away from the events of that morning. You can take that as a condemnation of American values if you wish, evidence of a nation with the attention span of a three-year old. My positive side prefers to see it as a national optimism that can't bear to dwell on painful memories for too long. Collectively, we had to move on.
Personally, though, the memories are still very clear and sharp; I doubt they will fade with time. Truthfully, I don't want them to. I want to cling to every scrap of the day. I want to stand and fight in that 767 cockpit. I want to choke on the dust as I run for my life through the streets of New York. I want to stand paralyzed in front of a TV screen on a small campus in North Dakota and watch slow motion replays under a clear blue sky.
Where were you? Everyone has their own 9/11 story.