Friday, September 09, 2011
This weekend marks the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and I thought it would be worthwhile to record some of my memories and thoughts of that wrenching day. This blog is for my children, and I believe its important that they hear firsthand accounts as often as possible, so as to never forget. And I don't want more time to pass before I start to forget as well.
B and I were living just outside of Washington, DC at the time, in the suburb of Alexandria, VA. I normally worked from home - telecommuted with my office that was in San Francisco - and B worked overnights and would sleep during the day. September 11th was a Tuesday, and the weekend before B and I had been in NYC to take in a Yankees game and see the sights. In fact, we even stopped on Liberty island to take pictures with the twin towers in the background. We made it a long weekend and just returned on that Monday back home. The morning of 9/11 was different than usual, as I was heading into DC to meet up with the CEO of my company (Jane) and go together to do a media training for Amnesty International. I got on the train early in the morning and was cut off from all news until I arrived into DC. As I walked into the hotel lobby I saw a bunch of guests crowded around the tv in the hotel bar. Jane hadn't come down yet to meet me, so I walked over to see what they all were watching. I thought it was way too early to be a sporting event, and I couldn't think of any big news events that were taking place that morning.
About that time Jane came downstairs to tell me that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. She seemed concerned that it could be terrorist related, and a bit distracted by it all. We went up to her room where the Today show was on and started to watch. Just a couple of seconds later we all saw the second plane hit the tower and suddenly we knew that this was no accident and something serious was happening. I don't know how much time passed - it wasn't long but news was coming at such a rapid fire rate it was hard to take it all in. President Bush made a statement confirming that it was indeed a terrorist attack and all of the news outlets were reporting that planes were being forced to land all over the country. They couldn't account for all the planes in the air - some weren't responding to the orders to come down immediately. No one knew how many hijackers there might be, or where they were headed. Somehow we figured out that two planes were still missing, and both were believed to be headed for DC. Jane's hotel was directly across the street from the capital building and we sat there as the news kept flooding in that planes were bound for the capital or the white house. Then we heard a huge blast and the news was reporting a bomb went off at the state center (just a short distance from where we were). Below us we could see all of DC fleeing on foot - they were evacuating all government offices but no one could drive. It was a mass exodus but we were stuck in the hotel not allowed to leave. We had intermittent cell reception but my dad was able to get through and confirm that I was ok and then B called and was insistent that he wanted to come in to the city and get me. This really upset me because they weren't allowing anyone in or out of DC by any mode of transportation and I was terrified that he would get lost from me and we'd never meet up. Once I started to get upset Jane started to lose it, so I quickly sucked it up. She was far away from her family in the Bay area with no idea of when or how she might make it back. We heard about the plane that hit the pentagon (I assume now it was the loud explosion we had heard earlier) and knew that one plane was still out there, headed for DC and most likely the capital building.
In writing this it seems there must have been a long time between all these events, but most of them were near simultaneous - bumping up against each other and shifting our focus from one devastating concern to the next. I don't remember how long we worried about plane #4, but we eventually learned it had gone down in a field in Pennsylvania. In subsequent weeks and years we would come to know a lot about what happened on that United flight #93, but at the time we just recognized that they didn't succeed in getting to DC. In reality there were many great men and women on that flight who made sure that no one else was hurt. I could pause here and marvel at technology and the speed at which information is passed. Granted, much of it was mistaken and fed upon itself in a frenzy of panic, but so much of it was accurate and helpful. If not for the benefit of cell phones and plane phones those people on flight 93 would have had no idea or opportunity to do anything extraordinary. I am grateful that they did. And I am grateful (as I am sure their families are) that they had the opportunity to say some goodbyes.
Much of the rest of the day is a blur to me - we sat transfixed in front of the television listening to report after report. At some point we saw both towers crumble to the ground - pretty much as terrifying as watching the planes fly into them. DC was a ghost town - if you've ever been to that part of the city you know how erie that experience would be. Much like any big city it bustles with activity, but DC has its own energy - its full of purpose and grand illusions and power. It never settles down, is never quiet. It was difficult to see it like that. The trains started running again in the afternoon, and I think I left to go home around 3. The metro didn't stop at the two pentagon stops, but you could see the devastation as we went by and the smoking, gaping hole it left. I remember weeks/months after 9/11 Charlie Sheen made some kind of comment that there never was a plane that hit the Pentagon - that it was all some crazy conspiracy. In later years he would undoubtedly prove his lunacy to the entire world but I pretty much lost any respect I might have had for him after that comment. I saw it with my own eyes, and there was no doubting it. If you've never been to DC you may not realize that a major highway cuts right next to the Pentagon. I thought a lot about those drivers on that highway who experienced the scream of jet engines just over their head and felt the blast and quake of the impact. I'm amazed there weren't more car accidents.
Like most everyone I knew, life seemed to stop for a while in the days after 9/11. Being in PR there wasn't much work to do - no one seemed to care about pitching stories that weren't related to 9/11. And I couldn't take myself away from the news. I don't remember doing a whole lot that week - just sitting in front of the TV transfixed by one gut wrenching story after another. I remember all of the people in downtown NYC looking for their loved ones, begging anyone to help them find them. And I remember the horrible horrible replay of the people who chose to jump out of the 100th story of a building rather than be consumed by the heat and smoke and flames. I remember the heartbreaking interviews with the CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald, who lost nearly all of his employees. He would have died too if not for his child starting kindergarten that day. In fact many people were late to work on 9/11 because it was the first day of kindergarten. I remember marveling at how the terrorists hadn't counted on kindergarten. I remember the bewilderment at how something like this could happen on American soil and why we ignored so many violent warnings in the past decade. I remember all of the heroic stories of first responders who gave so much to try and save as many as they could. I remember feeling united as a country, but united in our suffering and in our sorrow and in our shock. I remember B dragging me out of the house that Friday night because he said all that news watching wasn't good for me.
Now, 10 years later and with the benefit of hindsight, the best lesson I've learned is that the terrorists didn't win. Oh, they struck a mighty blow that scared and wounded us for a time. But what they really wanted to take away from us - where they really wanted to damage us - well they failed miserably. If they were hoping this act would send us terrified and running, they certainly were wrong about that. If they were hoping it would turn us against each other and against our leaders, they were wrong about that too. If they hoped it would crumble us to our knees and weaken the fibers of what we stood for and what we represented, well they were wrong about that too.
Our nation isn't perfect, and it certainly has struggled mightily in the decade that followed 9/11. But I don't fault the terrorists for that - some of that was our own hubris at work. What the terrorists did accomplish was to unify our sense of nationality and to remind us what this great nation stands for and how lucky we are to be a part of it. Most, if not all, of those directly responsible for 9/11 have been found and brought to justice - most of them are now dead.
In the 10 years since 9/11 B and I have gone on to have two beautiful children. We've bought a house, we've been educated, we've held jobs, we've traveled, we've bolstered our economy and we've continued to reach for the American dream. And the same can be said of most people we know. So no, the terrorists did not win then and they have not won since.
And so I will let my children know that THAT is the greatest lesson to be learned by 9/11, and the one we must never forget.