Without realizing the upcoming anniversary, I checked out from the library A Decade of Hope: Stories of Grief and Endurance from 9/11 Families and Friends by Dennis Smith. It’s a collection of stories told in survivors’ own words and voices, published on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
Everyone has a story of where they were that day.
I was at my parents’ house, getting ready to go into work. My cousin, Scotty, was there, working on my Ma’s computer. My Ma always has the news on in the morning. I remember coming down the stairs, hair wet from the shower, and seeing Scotty and Ma, rapt in front of the TV. The screen showed a building on fire.
“Whoa,” I said, “What happened?” I joined them, standing in the living room.
Ma or Scotty replied, “A plane crashed into the World Trade Center.”
“How did that happen?” I asked. My eyes on the black, heavy smoke pouring into the sky. “How does a plane not avoid hitting giant building like that?”
Meanwhile, newscasters were taking calls from witnesses and deliberating on what they at that point thought was an accident.
No one knew what was going on. As the newscasters gathered info and talked on the phone to witnesses, no one had any idea how truly bad it was. It’s almost as if we couldn’t grasp how bad it was.
As we stood there and watched the newscast of the North Tower billowing smoke, listening to witness reports, a second plane came into view. It flew into the South Tower with a massive explosion of jet fuel, a roiling cloud of flames blazing orange, yellow, and red.
We were stunned. Everyone was stunned.
After reading a few stories from A Decade of Hope… one story that stands out to me was that people working in the South Tower before it was struck were told to go back to their desks, everything was fine. However, one employee who was looking out his window at the gaping holes in the building next to him began to see people falling and jumping from the smoking North Tower. Everything was not fine. He decided on his own to get out of the building and said that the people falling and jumping from the North Tower saved his life, because his building was hit by the second plane minutes later, and he would have been sitting at his desk had he followed the directions of the announcements.
Slowly, talk of terrorism started peppering the news casts.
The towers appeared to be listing.
Inside the WTC, firefighters climb up endless flights of stairs in hot, heavy gear to fight the massive, intense fires, passing employees as they are going down the stairs, evacuating.
When Ma, Scotty, and I learned that the planes had been hijacked, I was like, so someone stole a couple of (empty) planes? No, they were hijacked. There were passengers on the planes. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t think I was able to believe this was intentional, an attack. I didn’t want to believe it.
Newscasters begin to relay reports of phone calls from employees and visitors who are trapped in the upper levels of the towers. The calls are disturbing. Many know they are going to die. Some have a chance to say goodbye to loved ones.
Soon, a plane would crash into the Pentagon, killing 125 in the building and everyone aboard the plane. Another plane would crash into a field in Pennsylvania, the terrorists’ attempt thwarted by passengers who figured out what was going on from cell phone calls, and put a stop to terrorist intentions. There would be no survivors in the PA plane crash, either, and we will never know how many lives those passengers saved by attacking the terrorists on their flight, which was purported to be headed to the White House or the Capitol Building.
Minutes after the Pentagon is hit, the South Tower collapses with thousands of people inside, crushing them to death as it sends a massive cloud of toxic debris and particles into the area, covering everything with thick dust and ash. Years later, when I am watching a remake of War of the Worlds, there is a scene where the aliens are zapping people into an ash that coats everything, and I am reminded of the footage of New Yorkers running from the South Tower’s collapse-induced cloud of dust and ash, covering survivors in choking, powdery death. The air turns a sick yellow color, a poisoned color.
I was fortunate not to lose anyone that day, but I still get choked up thinking of how many were lost, killed—murdered—and thinking of those who lost loved ones, family, friends. All the first responders, fire fighters, ems, law enforcement, how it changed our world and the lives of those directly impacted. I get choked up because many of us lost innocence that day and the days and months following. We have a pre 9/11 world and a post 9/11 world.
Years later, people are still affected. In addition to survivors who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, there are thousands of people who have developed Ground Zero related illnesses and diseases, cancer being one of them.
When I look back at my journal entry that day, it is more like a quick, three page notation of history; I didn’t write much about it. But I remember what the day was like—it was terrifying, the skies were empty of planes, it was too quiet. We were a nation holding our breath, waiting to see what atrocity would happen next, demanding our military forces to scramble to our aid and protection. My own PTSD was in high gear. I eventually went into work then we all were sent home soon after—we worked on a decommissioned military base and there were possible targets for terrorism too close to us. I was glued to tv and newscasts for days; I read newspapers and magazine reports obsessively. There were memorials and moments of silence held, flags were at half-mast.
I continue to observe a moment of silence each year on 9/11, as I assume most of the country does.
I still think about the people who fell or jumped from the towers to escape burning to death. I wonder what I would have done.
I think I would have jumped.