Note: Below are my memories from September 11. This post contains images of the attacks and quotes from survivors, which may be sensitive for some people. Sources are listed at the end of the post.
I was 12 years old on September 11, 2001. It was a day that changed the world for so many of us. Some memories are indelibly etched on my mind, while others are lost to the muddle of time. I do recall that it was a beautiful clear day, even in Kansas.
There has never been as brilliant of a blue sky as there was that day.Jeannine Ali (Morgan Stanley) South Tower, 45th floor
My twin brother (Nathan) and I were still young enough that teenage sleeping patterns hadn’t taken over yet, and we had a habit of getting up early and building with the LEGO sets in our room. My older sister (Elya) and us twins were still homeschooled at this point. As we had transitioned into middle school and high school, we began watching live and recorded classes via satellite for more advanced subjects. Elya’s classes started first, and she had already been preparing for class when she came running down to the bedroom. She was breathless and I could tell immediately that something was wrong. “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center!” she said.
At that point I didn’t even know what or where the WTC was, but Nathan and I followed her upstairs and we watched the news for the next few minutes until her first class started. I remember that the newscasters were talking about the collision, and wondering how a plane could have hit the tower on such a clear, blue, sunny day. I remember seeing the burning building on the screen and struggling to register what was happening. It seemed like a terrible and perplexing tragedy, but nothing more than that.
All of a sudden, I heard the loudest sound, “Bang,” I’ve ever heard. Hugely, immensely loud. Then all of a sudden I heard, “Boom boom boom boom boom boom.” Which I now think was the airplane tearing out the girders inside, followed by another “Boom!” Everything exploded in flames. The ladies’ room door actually burst out against its hinges, and out came a fireball–it singed the second wall. That’s how far out it came.Richard Eichen (consultant, Pass Consulting Group) North Tower, 90th floor
While growing up I had been fascinated with planes, but was also very afraid of plane crashes. I remember hearing about them on the news during the 90s and they sounded terrifying. I had only flown on a plane once, about 3-4 years earlier, and it was exciting and frightening at the same time. Despite the fact that this appeared to be another similar crash, it was a big mystery and my gut felt uneasy as I remembered my old fears.
I don’t remember what Nathan and I did during the 50-minute class, or even whether we had seen the second plane hit before the class began or after it was over. The footage was replayed so many times that day that it all blends together. I do know that that is when everything changed. It took a few moments for the realization to sink in, but at some point we all realized, “This was no accident.”
We saw it live. As it rounded the corner, there were people in the studio pointing to monitors. You could see it coming. You could hear gasps throughout the studio. Then it exploded into that building. There was silence. We all looked at one another.Jane Clayson (anchor, “The Early Show”) CBS
When the Pentagon was hit, that really affected me. I didn’t know what the World Trade Center was, but I was a huge military buff and knew all about the Pentagon. This also meant that the attacks were not isolated to one location. I began to feel that nowhere was “safe.”
On the news they started talking about how many unknowns there were. Likely there were other targets, including Washington D.C. Suddenly we realized that this was about destroying America’s icons, but it could have also been an attempt to destroy the government. It was too much to grasp. I remember at one point I wondered if they would hit the Washington Monument, then I had the sickening realization that there weren’t enough people there to make it a target.
It was a loud roar—the building literally shook—and there was a sucking sound, which I believe was the oxygen escaping as the jet fuel poured into the corridors right down the hall from us and ignited, taking all of the oxygen out of the air. Our ceiling caved in. The lights went out, but the phone was still working. I was on the phone with my wife. I was a little stunned, just for an initial second, and then I said, “Listen, we have been bombed. I have to go.”Lt. Col. Ted Anderson (Legislative liaison officer, U.S. Army) Pentagon
I honestly don’t remember much about the collapse of the World Trade Center. I remember my disbelief as they fell, and wondering how many people had just died. By that point the day begins to be clouded over in a fog of emotions.
I remember standing there with my neighbor John, saying, “Where the hell did that go? Where the hell did that go? Where did the building go? Where’d they go?”Monica O’Leary (Former employee, Cantor Fitzgerald) North Tower
I don’t remember much else specifically from the day, except the dread when they were talking about the military shooting down civilian airliners to prevent another attack, the anxiety of not knowing where the President was, and the exhausted, drained feeling (mixed with cold fury) I felt when we finally watched Bush’s address to the nation that evening. I remember the eerie feeling of watching one of the most infamous events in history unfold before me, and the bizarre thought that we were now a nation at war. I don’t even recall learning about the crash in Pennsylvania.
We would be ramming the aircraft. We didn’t have weapons on board to shoot the airplane down. Both Sass and I had 105 bullets, lead-nosed. As we were putting on our flight gear in the life support shop, Sass looked at me and said, “I’ll ram the cockpit.” I made the decision I would take the tail off the aircraft.Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney (F-16 piolot, D.C. Air National Guard)
I was aware of the idea of “terrorism.” I vaguely remember the Oklahoma City bombing, but at that time I was too young to understand it, and even then it was confined to one place and not a foreign threat. Like the Columbine shooting several years later, it was also in what I considered a “big city.” From a young age I loved reading encyclopedias and world yearbooks, so I was well aware of tragedy, death, and suffering. The Bosnian conflict, war in Africa, natural disasters: but somehow those were abstracted enough that they didn’t seriously threaten my sense of safety. September 11 changed all that.
Maybe it’s because for the first time, I saw something that had really shaken my parents. Maybe it’s because teachers, youth leaders, and people I saw every day seemed to have shock permanently etched on their faces.. Maybe it’s because of the months of news coverage that showed footage of the attacks ad nauseum.
Maybe it’s because I was finally old enough to know real empathy. I remember that although I couldn’t really relate to working in an office somewhere, I could relate to feeling scared while flying. I could imagine what it might have been like to be on one of those flights… and I did.
Jeremy said there were three other guys as big as him, and they were going to jump on the hijacker with the bomb and try to take back the plane… He was joking, “I have my butter knife from breakfast.” Despite everything, he was able to be a little bit humorous. Then he said, “Okay, I’m going to put the phone down. I’ll be right back. I love you.”Lyzbeth Glick, wife of United Flight 93 passenger Jeremy Glick
More than anything, nothing ever seemed the same because our country really did change on that day. One of the distinct evils of terrorism is how it seeps into every person’s life, poisoning with fear, suspicion, and uncertainty. Our entire national conscience was overcome not only with a sense of loss for the horror that had been unleashed and the lives lost, but also with an impression of dreaded waiting. For weeks afterward there were rumors of a second wave of attacks, and we all waited for the other shoe to drop. Even now, 20 years later, we have never recovered the sense of safety we had before that terrible day. The outpouring of national solidarity and unity was beautiful, but could not fully heal the wounds, and unfortunately did not last long.
September 11 and its aftermath forced me to leave the safe world of childhood and enter the uncertain world of adulthood. I’m certain I am not alone in this: few events in our country’s history are even comparable. In the last century, only JFK’s assassination or Pearl Harbor could begin to come close. Perhaps only the Civil War would leave a greater impact in our history.
I knew I was delivering a message that no president would want to hear. I decided to put a pass on two facts and an editorial comment. I didn’t want to invite a conversation because the president was sitting in front of the classroom… I whispered in his ear, “A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.”Andy Card, White House Chief of Staff
If you remember where you were and what you were doing when you learned of the September 11 attacks, I encourage you to share in the comments below. How did it change you and your world? If you were too young to remember, or perhaps weren’t born yet, take the time to immerse yourself in the story. You will understand today’s world far better when you see it through the lens of 9/11 (especially with Afghanistan in the news again).
I also encourage you to honor the anniversary and memory. Whether it’s watching a documentary or recorded news broadcast, reading a book, visiting a memorial, or simply sharing your memories with someone else, make time to remember that day in history, as difficult as it is. We must not forget what happened and the heroes that lived and died: likely and unlikely, known and unknown.
One caveat: be mindful of your own thoughts and emotions; how sensitive you are. While remembrances are good, it may not be helpful to dwell on those events in a way that overwhelms or consumes you. I read a book called The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11, and while it was an excellent book, I was unprepared for how visceral and immersive it was. Several times I had to force myself to stop reading and step away for days. Don’t let the scars of the past engulf your today.
One final thought: consider how many experiences, thoughts, and emotions you live in one year. The details of a single year in a single life could fill volumes of books. 2,977 people were murdered on September 11, 2001. Their average age was 40 years old, which means that the combined total of their life experiences was approximately 119,080 years, all ended in one day. How many books could be filled with records of those years, and how can we even begin to understand such a loss?
THE HEROES, KNOWN AND UNKNOWN
SEPTEMBER 11, 2001
Header image (9/11 memorial)
World Trade Center Memorial by Denise Gould (DOD Photo 060911-F-9471G-006; public domain) https://www.flickr.com/photos/pingnews/272548043
Graff, Garrett M. The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of September 11, 2001 First Avid Reader Press hardcover edition., Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2019.
Quote 1: Jeannine Ali, p. 10
Quote 2: Richard Eichen, p. 35
Quote 3: Jane Clayson, p. 63
Quote 4: Lt. Col. Ted Anderson, p. 96
Quote 5: Monica O’Leary, p. 152
Quote 6: Lt. Heather Penney, p. 168
Quote 7: Lyzbeth Glick, p. 172
Quote 8: Andy Card, pp. 77-78
Image 1 (Twin towers)
Image 2 (North tower on fire)
Image 3 (South tower hit)
Image 4 (Pentagon fire)
Image 5 (South tower collapse)
Image 6 (Air Force over NYC)
Image 7 (Flight crew and passengers of United 93)
Image 8 (Card notifies President Bush)
Images 9-14 (First responders on 9/11)
I love how well you wrote this tribute, Michael. I, of course, remember the day quite well. Thank you for mixing your thoughts and feelings with the quotes and pictures. It is a powerful and personal account. One thing that I hadn’t thought about until reading your words is that every single day we encounter heroes and we don’t even realize it. Also, your mention of the average age of the victims and their combined life experiences is extremely powerful to me. I am reminded of the extreme value of every. single. human. being. You are blessed with an amazing ability to express yourself verbally. Thank you for using that gift in this blog.