I really don’t feel qualified to talk about September 11, 2001.
I’m not a first responder, I’m not military, I didn’t have a family member or close friend who died or was physically harmed in the tragedy.
I don’t want to dissect the backgrounds: national, political or religious, of any of the perpetrators.
Yet I have my own story, just like everyone old enough to remember that day.
For over a year our local library had been closed for remodeling, and we had our calendar marked for the grand reopening: September 11, 2001.
At the time my children were 12, 10, 2 and 20 months. We were all eager to get back into our comfortable space with room to play and explore as well as read.
The library was set to open on a Tuesday. As a homeschool field trip we got up early and tried to be there when the doors opened at 9am.
We got there just a few minutes late.
Of course the kids were excited to see fresh toys. The older kids agreed to play with the toddlers in the children’s section while I took a quick walk around the library, scoping out the new arrangement.
Nobody looked concerned until I got to the new seating areas by a large flat-screen tv. They were broadcasting CNN.
Another homeschooling mom I knew happened to be sitting on a chair watching the unfolding horror. She immediately asked if I had heard the news.
No, what’s happening?
A second plane just hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City.
A second plane?
Her eyes were glued to the screen, and when she stopped talking her lips continued to move in silent prayer.
We both tried to make sense of what we saw happening over and over in front of our eyes.
The North Tower had been hit at 8:46:40, the plane staying intact, looking like a toy shoved through a lego building.
The second plane had just crashed into the South Tower at 9:03:00, about the time we were pulling in to the parking lot. It was like seeing it happen in real time, the camera feed being played over and over again.
The second plane broke apart, and I kept watching pieces falling away, landing blocks from the tower.
The visual I remember most from New York, after the unfathomable fact of seeing two planes hit the Twin Towers again and again, was the street shots. The living, mesomorphic, billows of cloudlike darkness composed of who knew what. Dust, ash, the air displaced by the towers when they each fell over the next two hours.
And people racing the solid wall of gray filling the streets between the buildings.
It was like a scene from a bad horror movie. Except the horror was real.
I couldn’t sit and stare numbly at the screen for much longer, though I needed time to process what my eyes were seeing.
I only knew I didn’t want my kids to see this happening.
Once that realization hit me, I made a bee-line for my children. I’m sure they could see the shock on my face, hear the gravity in my voice when I told them to stay on the children’s side of the library today, that we would look at the rest of it later.
While they played, I sat on the new window seat a little apart from them and tried to contact my husband by phone. We communicated the basics.
Did you hear?
Where are you now?
At the library.
And within minutes he was there.
We took turns watching the events unfolding.
We saw living nightmares, things we never want to see again. Things that had not happened on American soil in this magnitude in our lifetimes.
Confusing footage of a plane crashing into the Pentagon. What? Another plane? It was hard to keep straight which disaster site they were showing.
I was watching the live footage as the South Tower collapsed.
How does anyone get past the trauma? I know now, eighteen years later, I won’t ever forget the images. I’ve watched the movies and relived the experiences, the North Tower falling, the Pentagon on fire.
But my memories are nothing, worthless, compared to those of the people who survived. And though there have been remarkable, miraculous stories of rescues, I cannot imagine how hard it is to wake up every day knowing things, having memories, that are too hard to even speak of.
We didn’t know what, how, or how much to tell our kids. The little ones wouldn’t understand it, but the older ones needed to know.
This event would change the world they were growing up in more than any other single day in their short lives.
I don’t remember now if we told them in the library or while walking down the street to a local restaurant to grab some lunch. But we had to give them the facts, and we tried to shield them from the images, but they were everywhere over the coming weeks.
The details about Flight 93 crashing in Pennsylvania were murkier. In a rural area with no abundance of cameras around to record it’s end, the pieced-together stories of this flight came to light much later, and contained more human elements with phone calls recalled and recordings of some communications.
These were the stories we emphasised when talking to our kids, the courageous people who joined together to keep worse things from happening.
That day our lunch was eaten half-heartedly. Our life temporarily became one of hibernating at home.
The unheard-of step of shutting down US airspace happened at 9:45am and lasted until September 13. Government buildings, landmarks, and many other places closed their doors for a while.
No one knew what was going on or what to expect next.
I remember the oppressive uncertainty more than anything else. And the quiet.
We closed in around our little family. My husband only serviced emergency calls for a few days. We lived on food we had in the house, not wanting to even visit the grocery store. We made a dent in the dusty Y2K supplies.
But the eeriest thing was the silence.
We live in the flight pattern of our local airport in Northwest Ohio. The path that Flight 93 would have continued on if it hadn’t turned back toward Pennsylvania.
We didn’t learn until years later that it actually made it almost over us before it was forced to head back east and south.
And for the next couple days I couldn’t sleep because of the silence.
Except for the military jets from our local air force unit.
They made me feel at the same time in imminent danger, and reassuringly safe.
Each of my kids have their own memories. More the feel of things for the younger two, the images for the older ones.
My own memories from childhood held their share of tragedies: President Kennedy assassinated in Dallas, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders also gunned down. Individuals targeted.
But 9/11 was different. The target wasn’t specific people. It was our nation as a whole, hit at strategic points that affected every person living in the United States at the time, no matter how far away or how close to the actual events.
It is the kind of day I hope my now grown children will never have to live through and explain to their own children.
Because there really are no adequate words.