I Will Never Forget – My September 11th Story

Many people throughout the world are remembering what happened 13 years ago today. It’s difficult not to. All of us can go back and recall where we were and what we were doing, many of us in vivid detail. Even if we weren’t directly involved or affected by the events that occurred, everyone has a story about September 11th. We all experienced it. We all felt it.

This is my story of September 11th, 2001.

My alarm goes off. I begrudgingly get out of bed and get ready for school. I’m a senior at ThunderRidge High School with nothing on my mind but homework, college applications, and homecoming a couple of weeks away. My freshman brother is already at school for weight training for football, so I don’t have to worry about herding him into the car. I heft my two-ton backpack onto my shoulders, shout a goodbye to my dad upstairs, and walk outside to my tin can of a car. It’s windy, but warm and clear, a normal day for this time of year in Colorado.

During the ten minute drive to school, I listen to my favorite morning radio program with Jamie White and Danny Bonaduce. As usual, they’re making wise cracks about meaningless topics, laughing uproariously, and keeping things light and fun for morning commuters. Chuckling at the comedic duo, I pull into the school parking lot. I go to yank the keys out of the ignition when Jamie suddenly interrupts Danny.

I pause and listen.

Jamie: Huh, I just got a weird report about a plane hitting a building in New York.

Danny: What? A plane?

Jamie: Uh, yeah [nervous laughter]. I don’t even know what this means. How’s that even possible? How does a plane hit a building? Those are sort of hard to miss, aren’t they?

Danny: [chuckling] Engine failure, I guess. Was it a small plane?

Jamie: The report doesn’t say, but I would assume so. Probably one of those farm planes [more nervous laughter].

Danny: You mean a crop duster?

Jamie: Yeah, one of those. This is dumb [a piece of paper ruffles as she yells at the producer, telling him this isn’t funny and that there has to be more interesting news out there].

I half smile/half frown, unsure what to make of the bizarre report. All I can visualize is a sputtering aircraft manned by an old drunk pilot that somehow nicked the side of an abandoned warehouse. That’s the only thing that makes sense to me.

I shake my head and glance through the front windshield. I see my mom of all people walking up the school’s grassy hill from the track where she’d been doing her morning walk. I completely forget about Jamie and Danny’s random news announcement and get out of the car.

I wave at her and then duck back into the car to pull out my backpack. The wind is blowing so hard, the door hits me in the side of the head. I swear, shove it open again, and pray to God nobody–including my mom–didn’t see the embarrassing incident.

My mom doesn’t mention it as she reaches me and does her mom thing (“Have a good day at school.”; “You’ll be home by 3:30, right?”; I’m subbing at the elementary school, so I won’t be home all day.”, etc., etc.). I impatiently nod and tell her I need to go or I’m going to be late. I don’t even think to mention Jamie and Danny’s report to her. I’m still too worried someone saw me get thwacked by the damn door.

We say goodbye, including an habitual, “Love ya”, and part ways.

First class: Astronomy. At my assigned table, I sit with my friend, Ashley, and two boys, Josh and Kenny. As always, we talk and joke around and don’t pay much attention to the lecture. Nobody mentions anything about a crop duster hitting a building in New York. I don’t even remember hearing about it myself. The dismissal bell rings. I leave class with Ashley.

We walk to the main hall to meet up with our other friend, Sarah, for P.E. She’s standing in her normal rendezvous spot, but she’s not smiling. She’s crying. I’m stunned. Sarah isn’t a crier. Ashley and I rush over to her, asking what’s wrong.

“Th–the Pentagon blew up,” she sputters. “A girl in my last class has a grandma who works there. She’s probably d–dead.” Ashley and I gape at her, too dumbfounded to say more than, “Oh my God.” Sarah then mentions something about the World Trade Center. I don’t know what that is, so I lamely pat her on the arm and tell her everything is going to be okay.

As we walk to the locker rooms, I look around and see other people whispering of gloom and doom. I don’t understand any of it, and honestly, I don’t believe any of it. It’s probably some stupid prank or vicious rumor–it often happens in a high school setting. Someone says something awful and it takes root and rapidly spreads through the hallways like a deadly disease.

My P.E. class goes by tortuously slow. I know something is happening, but I don’t know what. People around me are talking more and more about bombs and attacks and terrorists. I cringe away from the word “terrorist”, unsure of its true meaning; the only time I’ve heard it used is in movies like Die Hard and Air Force One. My lack of knowledge is quickly becoming frustrating. I want to find a TV and see what the news has to say.

We’re dismissed early to change in the locker rooms. I rush inside, eager to get to my Home Room where I know I’ll finally get some info. As I change into my regular clothes, the girls around me get louder and louder, their high-pitched voices bouncing off the walls and echoing around the locker room. I know they’re scared and they’re hiding it by swearing, laughing, and being unbearably obnoxious, but I want to slap them and tell them to grow up.

Suddenly, the intercom system buzzes and our principal’s voice booms over the speakers. The girls get LOUDER. I hit my limit and scream at them to shut up, desperate to know what’s happening.

Mr. Lynch’s deep voice echoes around the vast room, making it difficult to understand him. I hear things like “possible terrorism” and “New York” and “no need to panic”. The girls start swearing and shouting again, and again, I tell them to shut up, but it’s pointless.

The announcement ends and the bell rings.

I practically sprint to my Home Room. I know my teacher, Mr. Johnson–history buff and current events guru–will be on top of things and will fill me in on everything I missed during Mr. Lynch’s announcement. I open the door and bolt inside. All the lights are off and the TV that’s usually used for movie days and boring documentaries is showing the news. Nobody’s talking. Everyone is riveted by what they’re seeing on screen.

I quietly take a seat in the front row and look up at the TV.

Smoke. Lots and lots of smoke. At first, I think it’s storm clouds it’s so thick and widespread. Then I see the crisp blue sky beyond it and understand it is, indeed, smoke. But from what?

As if to answer my unspoken question, the camera shifts to two tall buildings with fire billowing out of them and paper fluttering in the air. I lean forward, shocked and dismayed. And, more than anything, confused. What was I even seeing? I hear the anchorman refer to the burning buildings as the “World Trade Center” and I immediately feel stupid for never knowing the name of the iconic skyscrapers. My secret embarrassment is swiftly overtaken by horror as the news station cuts to video of a commercial jet flying into the building.

The class gasps.

I do too. I gape up at the screen, more puzzled and horrified than ever. And completely disbelieving. So disbelieving, in fact, that I think what I just witnessed was fake–a fancy computer mock up of what had happened to the buildings.

The dismissal bell rings. The class is reluctant to leave, including myself. At our teacher’s urging, we all slowly stand and head for the door. As I reach it, I hear Mr. Johnson say to a guy behind me, “From that footage, I’d definitely say the plane meant to hit the building. It wasn’t an accident.”

I stop and look at him incredulously. “You mean that footage was real?”

Mr. Johnson looks at me sadly and nods.

I leave the class feeling sick to my stomach. I still don’t get it. Nothing–nothing–like this has ever happened in the U.S. It can’t happen.

The rest of the day passes in a dazed blur. Despite finally seeing and hearing what was happening on the east coast, nobody really knows what’s happening. Some say it’s terrorism. Some say it’s an accident. Some say we should go to war. Some say we should stay out of it. Some say they know people in New York. Some say they know people on the east coast. Some say the buildings collapsed. Some say they didn’t. Some say another plane crashed in Pennsylvania. Some say DIA was shut down. Some say all airports have been shut down. Some say Colorado is a target because of Norad…

It’s a constant rumor mill all day, filled with fearful anxiety, hysterical tears, and nervous jokes that disguise people’s true terror. Personally, all I want to do is find my brother and cousin and go home. I don’t want to stay in the building another second. Although I know all of these events are happening over 2,000 miles away, I can’t help but imagine a plane swooping over our suburban high school and dropping a bomb on us. It’s rash, ridiculous, and unrealistic, but the fear is there. I often pull out my Nokia phone with its bright sunflower cover and stare at it. I want to call my mom or dad, but I know both are at work and won’t answer. (Back then, we didn’t rely on phones like we do nowadays. We didn’t even have text messaging).

At lunch, an announcement is made that we’re in lockdown the rest of the day and all after-school activities have been cancelled. The administrators tell us to go straight home after school and stay home. No questions asked. I’m on board with that. I find my brother during lunch, as well as my cousin, and tell them where to meet me after school so I can drive us home.

Finally, the end of the day comes and I’m relieved to flee the school. I sprint into my house and turn on the TV. My brother and cousin are less interested and go play N64 instead. I berate them as I throw a tape into the VCR and press record–I know this day will go down as one of the most significant days in our nation’s history and I want to remember it. Then I get my phone and call my mom. To my surprise, she answers.

“Are you home?” she demands.

“Yeah, so are Max and Will. We’re all here.”

“Good, just stay there. I’ll get home as soon as I can.”

“Okay, I love you.” I say the words with much more feeling than I did that morning.

After I hang up, I feel safer and more grounded. I grab a handful of goldfish crackers and a Hi-C juice box and focus on the news. It’s the first time all day I’m able to sit and listen without interruption–no shouting, no bells ringing, no muffled announcements. As I listen to the horrors of the day, I suddenly remember the radio show I’d heard that morning.

Jamie: Huh, I just got a weird report about a plane hitting a building in New York?

Danny: What? A plane?

Jamie: Uh, yeah [nervous laughter]. I don’t even know what this means. How’s that even possible? How does a plane hit a building? Those are sort of hard to miss, aren’t they?

Danny: [chuckling] Engine failure, I guess. Was it a small plane?

Jamie: The report doesn’t say, but I would assume so. Probably one of those farm planes [more nervous laughter].

Danny: You mean a crop duster?

Jamie: Yeah, one of those. This is dumb [a piece of paper ruffles as she yells at the producer, telling him this isn’t funny and that there has to be more interesting news out there].

I cringe and know that I’ll never be able to listen to that radio show again.

*

What’s your story? Share it and never forget.

God bless America and all those who lost their lives 13 years ago today.

Never-forget

5 thoughts on “I Will Never Forget – My September 11th Story

  1. You tell your memory much better than I can even remember..I do remember being in the locker room when the announcement was made very the intercom.

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  2. Thank you for sharing, Jen.

    I was on a business trip in San Francisco that day. When I went to the hotel lobby to get breakfast that morning, the news was showing the same footage you watched of the first tower on fire. All of the people in the lobby were staring at the TV, barely eating. We were all dumbfounded to say the least. Then the second tower was hit. We stood in silence as the towers fell one after the other. I visited that building years before and was amazed by its enormity. The planes barely took up half of the width of the buildings, and yet, they had the power to destroy.

    It felt wrong to go visit my client that morning after what I just saw. Those buildings housed thousands of people who were already at work. I couldn’t conceive that any work I would do that day would make any difference in the world. When I met my client at San Francisco State University, he said that they were closing the campus due to credible threats in the city. I felt lost and confused and didn’t know that in a few hours, my flight back to Phoenix would be canceled along with every other flight in the country. Thankfully, my brother lived outside the city and I wound up staying with his family for a week until I was able to rent a car to drive home.

    A couple of years later, I was in NY for a conference and saw those holes. Those giant holes where the buildings stood for decades. As surreal as that was, that night in the hotel I watched a rerun of Friends. The city skyline popped up between scenes and those towers stood tall. To this day, it’s inconceivable that this actually happened. But I know that this is our new normal. My step-kids were born after that, so they only know the annoyances of airport security and the fight against terrorism. I can only hope that’s all they ever need to know.

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    1. Thank you so much for sharing that. It’s amazing how we can remember the events AND specific emotions of that day–like not feeling right about working. I remember not being able to watch normal TV for months afterwards. I couldn’t conceive watching such frivolous entertainment when the world had fallen apart.

      I travelled to NYC about five years after 9-11. I had a hard time not crying while standing at Ground Zero. What struck me more than the sheer size of the gap between the buildings was the silence. The city was so loud, but Ground Zero was quiet. Nobody talked or honked or anything…It was eerie. And very telling. There was still so much sorrow.

      Thank you again for sharing. I hope others share too. It’s important we remember that day.

      Like

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