Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 Memories

Ten years ago on this day,*  I was sitting in my office at work in Concord, NH when my phone rang. It was my sister, who was working from home that day, and had the tv on for background. Background, until the news came on that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers. She called and told me about it, and I almost voiced the question in my mind--a small plane or an airliner. But that was too crazy an idea, and I didn't ask. We hung up, and I thought briefly about the tragedy, and got back to work.

Then Lynda called back, with the news about the second plane.

It was a beautiful, sunny, pleasantly warm September day, and we were at war. We just didn't know with who, yet.


My nephew had moved to Manhattan from Houston at the beginning of the summer, and it was hours before my older sister, his mother, was able to tell us she'd heard from him and he was safe. My boss's sister was supposed to be in one of the towers, and he was waiting to find out about her. Fortunately, it was a city election day, and she was late arriving. The husband of a college friend was taking their daughter to her first day of school at the private school in what became the Ground Zero zone, and he had to pick her up and run from the spreading smoke and debris cloud. They were struck by a few pieces of flying debris, but were, thankfully, not seriously hurt.

Two members of our office, an attorney and a secretary, were traveling separately in Europe. The attorney was in Russia and spoke both Russian and German, so he was temporarily stranded, but he knew what was going on. The secretary was on a tour in rural Italy, and didn't speak any language but English--and the B&B they were staying in didn't have CNN or BBC. She knew something bad had happened, but she had real difficulty getting details.

I thought about the number of people normally in the Twin Towers, who might have all died. It was around 50,000.

Then we heard about the other two planes--one crashed into the Pentagon, and one crashed into a blessedly empty field in Pennsylvania.

I listened to the silence--no planes in the sky.

That night, after watching CNN all evening, I listened to BBC Radio all night. The presenters and those they interviewed were figuring out, as I listened, how many people might be dead, were likely dead, that they had  non-trivial connections to.

Over the next few days, the eerie silence in the sky continued, and we learned, bit by bit, that the Towers had been comparatively lightly populated that morning, because of the city election, and that, despite the collapse of the towers, those who had not been on or above the floors actually struck mostly walked out. The exceptions, of course, were the police and firefighters and building employees who went in and kept heading up, when everyone else was headed down, to ensure that as many people as possible got out safely.

We learned that the plane that hit the Pentagon had hit the recently reinforced portion of it, and didn't do nearly as much damage as it would have, had it struck any other part of the building. We also learned that the plane in Pennsylvania crashed in an empty field rather than another important, high-population building because it was the last plane, and the passengers with cell phones had gotten the word from their family and friends that this was not a normal hijacking--that two of the hijacked planes had struck the Twin Towers in New York. They organized an uprising to take the plane back, and succeeded to the extent that they were able to force it to crash in place that was "useless" from the viewpoint of the hijackers.

The passengers on the plane that hit the Pentagon may also have found out what was happening and attempted an uprising, but too late. The first two planes, that hit the Towers, thought they were the victims of a "normal" hijacking, and followed what had been the standard advice for the past thirty years: Cooperating with the hijackers maximizes the chances of everyone surviving. No one will follow that advice again while 9/11 was a living memory.

We learned that the two planes that had hit the Twin Towers had originated in Boston. Many New Englanders, like many New Yorkers and many people in D.C. and northern Virginia, were no more than two degrees of separation from those who died on the hijacked planes.

We learned that the death toll was "only" 3,000, the worst attack on the American mainland in history.

When the planes started flying again, it was almost as eerie as when they had stopped.

I remember Senators and Congresspeople standing on the steps of the Capitol, singing "God Bless America." I remember the President going to a mosque, and doing and saying other things to remind us that it wasn't "Muslims" who attacked us, especially not American Muslims, but foreign terrorists.

I also remember, sadly, that same President telling millions of Americans who wanted to do something to help and support our country in the wake of this terrible attack, to "go shopping." The American Red Cross was much criticized for accepting more blood donations that it could either use or freeze, but it was the only avenue available open to Americans to do something that felt like a real contribution. Many people, including myself, became regular blood donors because of that experience.

America has been marked forever by this terrible event, and not all of the changes are good.  But on this day, we need to remember the dead, the innocent victims and the heroes, and their survivors.

*Edited to correct a ridiculous phrasing error which was caught by a friend.