Day Nineteen: My 9/11 Story

Age: Day 4,559 of my life [12 Years Old]
Date: 11 September 2001
Location: My house, Greeley, Colorado
Category: Intense, confused
People Involved: My family

Everyone old enough to remember has a story of 9/11.  I wasn’t even a teenager when everything happened.  In the years since, I realize this makes me part of the youngest group that will remember.  People even five years younger than me don’t truly understand the events of that day.  Now that I teach, it’s strange to see that every grade level is filled with people who don’t remember or understand what happened that day.

With the events of Libya this past September 11th, I feel like this is the right time to recall the events of that day.  This is the most vivid memory I have from my pre-teen years.  I was in seventh grade when it happened.  I went to Heath Middle School.  I had a routine every morning.  I would get up around six and bring my blanket into the living room.  I would turn on WB News in the morning and lay on the couch.  I would rest, watch the news, and eat breakfast.  This usually meant I was up before my parents.

My father got up a little bit later that day.  He was in the room when WB got back from their commercial break and showed a live video of a gaping hole in the World Trade Center.  When the coverage first started, they were being told that it was a twin engine plane that hit the building.  The general thought process was that it may have been foggy or cloudy and a small plane had lost its way.  As the coverage carried on, we started to realize this wasn’t the case.

My mother joined us at this point.  We were glued to the coverage because we had been in New York City only two months prior.  The newscasters were coming to the same conclusions we were.  First, there was no way in Hell that that was a twin engine plane.  The hole was just too big.  No one wanted to say it though.  I don’t blame the newscasters.  Who wants to be the first person to suggest that a commercial plane carrying hundreds of people just crashed into a building?

The other realization  cropped up when weathermen across the country pointed out that the weather in New York City was sunny.  Not a cloud in the sky.  This was more difficult to wrap my head around.  If there was no fog…what happened?  My mind didn’t instantly jump to the idea that it was intentional.  I was 12.  I didn’t even understand the idea that someone would intentionally target Americans.  I thought it was a pilot who lost control of his plane and didn’t have the ability to land away from the city.  Unconscious?  Heart Attack?  But isn’t there a co-pilot?

Those were the questions going through my mind when the world changed.  I was on the chair in the living room.  My father was standing up, also watching.  My mother was in the bathroom, getting ready to leave for work.  We had changed the channel to CNN by this time.  Live, we saw the explosion.  We instantly called for my mom to come join us.

For the next fifteen minutes, they showed the coverage again and again.   It was on tape.  The plane going straight, turns, and perfectly hits the building.  Every reporter instantly changed their demeanor.  The story went from being a news story to a serious problem.  The reporters on top of building in New York honestly looked scared.  The words “intentional,” “terrorist,” and “death toll” started being used by everybody.

I didn’t want to leave.  My mom insisted that I go to school.  We didn’t listen to the news as she drove me.  When we were outside my school, my mother said the words that made me realize how serious this was: “If they hit anything else, I’ll come pick you up.”  She was afraid.  I guess I couldn’t have understood at that age.

You have to understand my mother to understand this part.  When I was an infant, my sister was hanging out with a neighborhood friend when George H.W. Bush announced the Gulf War.  My mom immediately went over and picked up her daughter.  Although war rarely finds us on American soil, the idea of war was enough to make my mom think that she needed to hold her children closer.

When I left the car that day, that’s what I saw in her eyes.  It was fear.  She knew we were at war.  And for the first in her life, the causalities were happening on American soil.  The moment was frightening.  I walked out of the car and straight into my homeroom.  The TV was on.  It was showing smoke pouring out of a building.  But something was different.  On the bottom of the video was grass.  I knew New York.  I knew the Twin Towers.  There wasn’t a good deal of grass anywhere nearby.

Then they zoomed out.  It was the Pentagon—engulfed in flames.  For the first time that day, I was scared.  I guess I took that cue from my mother.  The news changed drastically in those hours.  They didn’t hold back.  This wasn’t something that had happened.  This was happening.  The big question was: When will the attacks stop?  False reports of explosions were coming in left and right.  At one point, there was talk of six or seven hijacked planes.

The strange “show of heroism” that comes with the passengers of United 93 overpowering the terrorists was a story that came later.  When the story came through that there was an explosion at a random place in rural Pennsylvania, it wasn’t a story of triumph.  It was utterly frightening.  If there were explosions in rural areas, how big would this “wave of attacks” be?  Were we safe in a middle-sized town in Colorado?  When the attacks were just in NYC and DC, it felt so far away.  When it hit a place I’d never heard of, I couldn’t help myself.  I kept closing my eyes and imagining a plane hitting my middle school.

Before I left for my next class, I wrote the date in my notebook.  That’s when I realized the date: 911.  It was an emergency.  Was it a coincidence?  Afterwards, I went to French class.  There was something strange written on the whiteboard.  It had four options: 1. Do nothing.  2.  Wait to see who did it.  3.  Go to war.  4.  Nuke them.  Almost all the tallies were next to “Go to War” and “Nuke Them.”  The teacher erased the tallies as the class filed in.  I hated the idea that so many would vote for “Nuke Them.”  In that moment, I thought it was because I hated the idea of nukes.  As time has passed, I realized the real problem was the use of the word “They.”

She kept the TV on behind her as she tried to teach class.  After 15 minutes or so, she abandoned that idea.  When the first building came crumbling down, we watched in awe.  It only took a few minutes to get video of thousands of people running down the streets of New York—away from the smoke that they would never outpace.  She unmuted the TV and the rhetoric of the anchors had changed again.  Manhattan was suddenly being referred to as “a warzone.”

It took almost 20 minutes for the smoke to clear.  At first, most news outlets were reporting that the building only partially collapsed.  When the smoke cleared, the reality of the situation became clear.  The main story was suddenly switched to the evacuation of the other Twin Tower.  It felt like it would only be a matter of time before it fell.   Before the end of class, it did.

The school was ordered to turn off the TVs for the rest of the day.  I wasn’t updated on what was happening for the rest of the day.  I wanted my mother to make good on her promise to take me out of school.  She had her own classroom to worry about.  As the hours passed, it became clear that the worst was over.  When I made it home, I turned on the TV and just watched.  This would be the day that fell in love with understanding how the world worked.

My parents made it home an hour later.  I think they were afraid of having my sister and I watch the TV all evening.  We went to McDonald’s to get some dinner.  I remember waiting at the drive-in.  My father put on the radio because President George W. Bush was going to address the nation.  We sat in silence as we listened to his words.  It was weird.  He was in a secret location when he gave that address.  By the end of his speech, only one thing was clear.  We were at war.

I was 12 when that happened.  I am now 23.  We are still fighting that same war—against Afghanistan, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda.  I have grown up without a memory of a time in which we were not at war.  This has forever influence my outlook on the world and the way the United States operates and is viewed in the world.  All because of one day.

Day Eighteen: Batting Practice
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One thought on “Day Nineteen: My 9/11 Story

  1. Pingback: My 9/11 Story | Richard Thomas Reilly

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