Remembering September 11, 2001

It was a Tuesday, sunny and warm with clear, blue skies.  I was a junior in college, and my first class didn’t start until 11:10 so I’d decided to sleep in a little bit.

The phone rang at 10:00, waking me up out of a dead sleep.  It was my mother.

“Turn on the TV!  Two planes flew into the World Trade Center and there’s only one tower still standing!”

Still half-asleep, I couldn’t comprehend what she was telling me.  “What?” I mumbled.

“The Pentagon and the World Trade Center towers were hit by planes, and one just collapsed.”

I rolled out of bed, still not understanding what my mother was telling me.  Once I turned on the TV, saw what was plastered on every channel, everything clicked – and everything blanked out.  I’m not sure how much longer I was on the phone with her, just staring at the TV, at the North Tower still billowing smoke as the rubble and dust cloud of the South Tower hovered over lower Manhattan like the ash cloud from a volcano.  At some point, I think I said, “I still have to get ready for class.”

Even though I’d seen what was happening, my brain couldn’t take it in, couldn’t quite make sense of it.  It was completely surreal.  I got dressed and wandered down to the bathroom to get ready for class.  I think someone on my floor screamed – it was pretty close to the bathroom, so I think it was the girl from Brooklyn.  I hurried back to my room.

The North Tower had collapsed.  The scene on TV was chaos. It was like watching….  It was like something out of a disaster movie, except this was real.  It was happening to Manhattan, to our state, to our country.

Campus was eerily quiet as I walked to my first class.  No one was talking.  I entered my classroom and took my usual seat.  Everyone fidgeted, many people were visibly shaking.  My professor entered on time, but she had no books, no briefcase with her.  She stood at the front of the room for a minute, head down, then addressed us.

“I’m very sorry, everyone.  I can’t teach today.  If anyone wants to stay here and talk about what’s happened, you’re welcome to do so. Otherwise, please, go home, contact your families, pray, do whatever you need to do today.”

The classroom emptied slowly, silently.  Other classes were doing the same, and out on the quad it became obvious that no professors were holding class.  I wandered back to my dorm.  By this time, my roommate was back from her class, and we sat for a while on the floor watching the coverage of the attacks.  At some point, we decided to go get lunch, but it was a very subdued affair.  When we got back, one of our other friends joined us for a while to watch the news coverage, and afternoon classes were cancelled.  Local news broke in to report on local weather, and we learned that the 174th Fighter Wing out of Syracuse, my dad’s unit, had scrambled their fighters that morning.  Later I learned that the 174th’s F-16s were one of the first fighter units off the ground.  At some point my mother called again, and it dawned on me, “Don’t Mark and Paul work in New York?”  Both of my cousins made it out safely.

The rest of the afternoon was a blur.  I know we watched the coverage the entire day, except when we dragged ourselves back to the dining hall for dinner.  My campus had something like 20-25% of the student population from the NYC area, and 10% from Manhattan itself.  People were frantic, unable to contact their families, and more than one person planned on finding a way home that night.

The college held a candlelight vigil that evening.  It was probably the biggest gathering of students I’d ever seen.  Everyone was comforting each other, regardless of race or color, even people who didn’t know each other.  It was amazing.  It was heartbreaking.

Classes were cancelled the rest of the week, and I went home that weekend.  Life had to resume as normal, but we were all forever changed.  Our innocent belief in our safety, our invincibility, was shattered.  We entered two costly wars against terrorism – but how do you fight that?  Really, how can you?

People often cite the World Trade Center as an symbol of American ingenuity, of financial strength, of global power and position.  They were iconic.

But there’s a better symbol, one much older, that we should cling to now.

The Statue of Liberty.

For it is liberty, our love of freedom, and our willingness to protect it, that is the true measure of America’s ingenuity and strength.

We remember the tragedy, the fear that choked us that morning ten years ago.  But we remember the hope, too, and the way our nation came together, even for a brief time.  It’s that unity that we should call on and celebrate as Americans.