9/11 at 15 Years


I don’t want to remember, but I can’t forget. Those arches and palisades that would be beautiful architectural pieces in a cathedral but are horrific in the rubble.

I didn’t want those images seared into my psyche forever, but there they are.

It has been 15 years, and there is certainly nothing to celebrate – except for the heroism that followed this horrific, inhuman attack on America.

Those two things, the most horrific scenes I have ever seen paired with the most incredible examples of humanity I have ever witnessed. I guess it takes a tragedy to make heroes – and this was a tragedy of immeasurable proportions, never experienced before, and thankfully, never again since.


Before I go any further, let me say that not only does my son work in the line of public safety, but so do many of my family members, friends and former clients.  Many went to New York to help in the following days and weeks.

As I listened to this horrible event unfold on the radio, driving to a public speaking event at the Michigan Municipal League Conference, I couldn’t help but think of the police officers, firefighters and EMTs that would be responding and by virtue of their chosen profession, would also be in harm’s way. I said a silent prayer for them. In the end, 343 firefighters, 71 law enforcement officers and 55 military personnel would perish in addition to almost 3000 innocent people on planes and in buildings struck by the terrorists. And that’s just the immediate count, not counting those who died later, and continue to die, as a result of those attacks.

As I listened, I had no idea, absolutely no idea, of the magnitude of the devastation that would follow. When the towers collapsed, I was physically ill, because I knew what that meant. I prayed everyone who would die, died quickly. What a terrible prayer to pray.

I stopped at a gas station to fill up, take a break and see if they had a television, because I wasn’t sure I believed what was on the radio, although the descriptions were incredibly graphic and I could tell that the reporters were in shock themselves.  I guess I didn’t want to believe it was true. The clerk at the gas station didn’t even notice me walk in, because she was absolutely glued to a small television.  I joined her and we stood, motionless, in stunned silence.  It was true, and was getting worse minute by minute.

When the first plane hit the World Trade Center, I assumed it was some small privately owned plane that made a grave error.

When the second plane hit, I knew it was something much worse. I called my husband immediately, who works in an industry very concerned with security, and he was already “in motion,” so to speak. He wanted me to turn around and come home. I kind of thought he was nuts, and I didn’t. Later, as all of the gas sold out of stations, I wasn’t sure I could get home.

I know this makes no sense, but I wanted to know where my family was. I wanted to gather them to me, regardless of their age. I wanted us to be together, because as the nightmarish proportions of that day unfolded, I think we all came to realize that we had no idea where the next shoe would drop, that there were many shoes, and we were suddenly all vulnerable and at some level of risk, as were our loved ones.

I called my elderly mother.  She was sobbing and wanted to know where I was.  I told her to pack a bag, take the cat and all the cat food she could buy, fill her car with gas and go to my brother’s who lived an hour distant.  I didn’t want her to be alone, no matter what happened.  I was 6 hours and 2 tanks of gas away and I wasn’t sure she could get to me, given that we didn’t really know what was happening.  She would be safe with my brother.

The traffic on the interstate was horrendous on my drive to the conference. In fact, it was dead stopped. Apparently people had been so dumbstruck by the news that they stopped paying attention to their driving and had a series of accidents. I could certainly understand that. I drove cross-country, taking the back roads in the beautiful sunshine.  It seemed so wrong for such a terrible day to be so beautiful.  In fact, it all seemed impossible and surreal.

I gave my presentation at the conference, which was normally packed, but on that day, was very sparsely attended. I could tell that no one’s mind was on what I was saying at all. My mind wasn’t on what I was saying either. Finally, we all went out to the lobby and watched CNN together. And we cried. We shook our heads in disbelief as we watched those images over and over again, waiting for the next piece of horrific news. We hugged. Men and women alike. It was the most somber group of people I have ever been with, all funerals included. Each person there served a municipality, and we all knew that anyone could be next. Who would be next? What did we need to do? What could we do?

Air traffic ground to a halt. Never in the history of aviation have such drastic measures been taken. Our skies were eerily silent and fighter jets replaced normal commercial air traffic, especially for those living near borders and “high value targets.”

Never has America been so unprepared for an attack, with no warning, on our own soil. In Michigan, bridges and tunnels were closed due to concern over safety and the fact that some of our bridges lead to other countries. Some bridges are just exceedingly long, and none were prepared for the possibility of terrorism.

Terrorism. What a terrible word. A dark soulless word.

9/11 was the day that terrorism was introduced into our collective psyche in a way that no one alive on that day will ever, ever forget. Terrorism, unfortunately, at one level or another, has been a part of our lives ever since – not only in the US, but also in Europe and other parts of the world. It has spread like a deadly disease – the Zika virus of  radicals bent to destroy us.  They tried to break us, but they failed.

Terrorism also called us all to be patriots. And we answered in such numbers that there were no American flags to be purchased, anyplace.


It galvanized us in our resolve to be Americans, to be brave, and not to be held hostage by terrorists, terrorism or fear. Yes, we live our lives today, still in a heightened state of vigilance, but we do live our lives. They inflicted a grave injury, but they did not and have not won.

Thinking Further Back

As we approach this black anniversary, I realized that there are few things that have had the level of impact on my life, aside from personal anniversaries like births, marriages and deaths, that 9/11 has had.

Another event that probably falls into that same category was the assassination of President Kennedy. That was the day that Americans collectively lost their innocence and 9/11 was the day we became enmeshed in a war that won’t end in our lifetimes. We can’t even see the enemy. They don’t wear red coats anymore.

Vietnam, not a day, but an era, was also very defining for my generation.

On a more positive note, defining moments in my lifetime include the election of a black President and the nomination of a woman by a major party for President. It doesn’t matter whether you like these particular politicians or not – the very fact that our country and society has progressed to the point where people who couldn’t even vote 100 years ago now can and do lead our country is incredibly iconic and liberating. We have gone from “Hell no” to “maybe” to a token “yes” to “absolutely” within two or three generations – mostly within my generation. When I was a child, girls could only be secretaries, waitresses, teachers or nurses. My, how things have changed.

Being a genealogist, I think regularly about the lives of my ancestors, and the 52 Ancestors stories that I’ve been writing allow me, really, force me, to think about their lives individually. I ask myself what things in their lives would have been defining events that shaped their lives, meaning culturally or historically, as opposed to those personal milestones and dates that we typically associate with genealogy.

Some of those milestones stand out as not only life-changers for the ancestors in question, but events that precipitated changes that reverberated down through the generations and changed future lives too. The biggest difference is that that news was carried by Paul Revere on horseback, a town crier or a pony express rider, not by CNN, the internet, cell phones, texts, messages, Facebook and e-mails.

There was no immediate notification across the country, so the news was slower to spread, and reaction took much longer. There was no mass shock. But then the problem couldn’t spread itself by airplane either. Of course, the news might have been much less accurate by the time it reached the most distant cabins and was generally “old” by the time it arrived.

As I write my ancestors’ stories, I try to look for these types of events in their lifetimes. Several come to mind and I’m sure there are many more that could be added to this list:

  • The French and Indian War
  • The 30 Years War
  • The Inquisition
  • The London Fire of 1666
  • Indian Raids on Various Frontiers
  • The Acadian “Grand Derangement” or Removal
  • The Revolutionary War
  • The Civil War
  • The War of 1812
  • The Enslavement of Native People
  • The Genocide of Native People
  • The Trail of Tears
  • The Emancipation of Slaves
  • World War I
  • World War II
  • The Holocaust
  • The Atomic Bomb
  • Women’s Right to Vote
  • The Introduction of Antibiotics
  • The Introduction of Electricity, Telephones, Radio and Television

I asked my mother, before she died, which things had the most profound personal impact on her life and she said that wiring their house with electricity and World War 2.  Those answers didn’t surprise me, except that I hadn’t realized that at one time, she had lived in a home without electricity.  Mother’s fiancé died in WW2 and that clearly changed the entire path of her life.

I ask myself, how did these types of events affect the lives of my ancestors? Did they change their lives by virtue of direct involvement, like fighting in a war, or did they change their lives by virtue of a cultural change, like electricity in homes?

Did they too live in a time of terror?  Did tragedy make heroes of them?

Who were the heroes? Who sacrificed? Whose lives were changed and how? Who died for the cause?

I wonder if they, like us, 15 years later were still living in a “state of heightened vigilance.” I know those types of event changed many forever.

Never Forget

The experience of 9/11, for those even remotely involved will never be forgotten, and for many, especially in New York and for the families of the victims, it doesn’t even fade.

For those of us more remotely involved, being supportive from a distance in whatever capacity we could, those images remain and will remain forever seared into our psyche. Only death will remove them.

We all grieve and mourn in our own way and time. This is the memorial quilt that I started but could never finish, because, well, I just couldn’t.


Perhaps it’s time to finish this now and title it, “They Didn’t Win.”  What do you think?

I wonder which images remained for our ancestors for the duration of their lives? How did they cope?  I wish they had told us, written something about their life and times.  While these memories remain vivid for us, anyone under the age of about 20 has no personal memory of this event.  If we don’t tell our stories, and record them for posterity, they will forever be lost.

Where were you on 9/11?  Which images remain for you?  What is your story?



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21 thoughts on “9/11 at 15 Years

  1. So well written, Roberta – you summed it up so well. I will always remember where I was that day. Here in Canada, having a difficult dental extraction and watching the horrific events on a TV screen mounted above the chair. No one could believe what had actually happened. As well I remember the assassination of JFK as a teenager in Australia, this is another event I will never forget.

  2. Are you sure? How many pages? I was at work, irate that there were people in the boardroom we had booked. It was the only TV in the building. I don’t remember what the meeting was all about, but I remember it was canceled. Many changes in plans. I was supposed to fly from Toronto to Ottawa later that day. Initially Canadian airspace was not closed. We became the haven. So I drove – nice nice sunny day here too. Soon I noticed the silence. We don’t notice the sound of the hundreds of aircraft that fly overhead – but the silence was noticeable.
    The next morning at breakfast in the hotel – people were all talking to each other. For those of you who travel regularly on business, you know that people on business do not talk to each other at breakfast in the hotel. They were Americans, our neighbors, stranded, not knowing how they would get home, or when. Ottawa to Texas is kind of far, plus the borders were also an issue.

    At the meeting, someone from out west had been in the air. Their plane was forced to land – the fastest descent he ever experienced. He then took a very long taxi ride from Sault-Ste-Marie.

    After? A new concern – security. No need for details, you all know.

    This summer I took a trip to the Maritimes – Acadian ancestral tour, retracing their steps.
    If we believe in epigenetics, does it explain some of my reactions in the face of events? I am a descendent of many deported people – those who survived – widows and widower who started again.

    Resilience and solidarity are the words that come to mind as what make people survive adversity. Our generation had not been tested yet. Now we have and I am happy to report that those qualities are well and alive.

  3. It was the first day of my long-awaited vacation, and I was getting ready for a road trip to see the Atlanta Braves play in Atlanta. My mother was across the street at church. At the time, she was the choir leader and was at the Church office helping to put together that Sunday’s program. I was watching the Today show, and they reported the first footage around 8:45, maybe a little later. I did not think it was a terrorist attack. I continued getting ready to leave for my trip. Then, when the second plane hit the Twin Towers, I knew it was not an accident, but in my naivety, I didn’t realize that the game in Atlanta, and in fact, every major event across the nation, would be cancelled. I still was readying the car for the trip. It hit me about 10:00 a.m. that morning, and I called my Mother. She and the Church secretary knew nothing about it. There was no tv or radio in the Church office, and she said, “well, call me back if something else happens.” Can you believe it? We had no idea… then, the Pentagon got hit, and I called her back and was screaming into the phone for her to come home immediately. She told me to calm down, that no one was going to attack our small town, and she stayed to finish the job she had to do at the Church. I am still incredulous that we thought things would continue as normal, even in our small town. Needless to say, everything was cancelled, and we stayed glued to the tv day and night for the first week. We literally camped out in the den in front of the tv and had it on all night and all day. We stockpiled water, batteries, got money out of the bank, filled the cars with gas… “just in case.” Where would we go? Toward family. The thought was the only thing that calmed me. If we could just get to my sister and my brother and be all together, everything would be okay.

  4. I’m a retired professional astronomer. On the morning of 9/11, a colleague of mine and I were wrapping up the last night of our run at the Palomar telescope, when his wife called and said that a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers. We tried for a long time to reach the CNN site online, but the servers must have been overloaded… we couldn’t get any more information. We assumed it was a small plane that had crashed into the tower because of pilot error. There was no other way to get news at the observatory; we had no television. So we went to sleep for a few hours, then got up and drove back to Pasadena. Dave was trying to sleep on the ride back so I didn’t turn on the radio. It was a beautiful day. We arrived at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, where we both worked, in the early afternoon. Imagine our shock when we arrived to a totally deserted campus. Dave called his wife, who also worked there. She told us that after the second plane had hit, everyone at the university and at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory had been told to go home, due to fears (unlikely but possible) that terrorism attacks might target these institutions, as they were the nerve centers for most American robotic space missions, including the Mars rovers. I drove Dave home and he invited me in to watch the television. I was almost frozen with horror, watching a replay of the towers falling, tears rolling down my cheeks. That day is definitely seared into my brain.

  5. Roberta, thank you for sharing your views on this, and also said above by Jillian.
    A moving Blog, we where there with you, – accounting for family, collecting family -where were they and best safe place to be; and my military husband was stuck – could not enter the military base he was to visit that morning (CA time) or a flight home…We prepared, collected, gathered what as needed to depart and where to go or meet…should this go any worse.
    Jillian, my parents remember the 2nd Kennedy Assassination, and when was told by another, thought this was a joke to start ….they also Australia…Did you hear about the Kennedy..
    Roberta, it was a difficult time for all of us in North America; and thank you again with the blog, describing, what we all went though – and how this is also true of our ancestors lives – of uncertain – Wars, Military and lack of communications…

  6. I remember being on a morning IT status call with our service desk and regional representatives when the service desk said “Do you guys have a TV? CNN is showing something strange happening in New York. It looks like a plane crashed into a building.” We turned on our TV in time to see the second plane crash. Everyone was shocked and at first could not grasp what had happened. Because of the scale on TV it looked like the planes were very small. My first thought was to call my wife, and talk to her. She reminded me that her parents were flying out of NYC for a UK vacation that morning. It took us several hours to verify their plane was not one of the one hijacked. When her parents called they said that as they exited the plane in London everyone was telling them how sorry they were and they had no idea what had happened while they were in the air. It was also very strange in the weeks to come to not hear any aircraft in the air. Living in a large municipality with multiple commercial airports, there are always planes or helicopters in the air. The quiet was unnerving.

    I also lived in Dallas at the time of the JFK assassination. I was in the third grade. All of the classes were brought to the auditorium and we watched and pretended to understand what was being shown on the one small black and white TV that our elementary school had. I remember one of the little girls in my class crying and I asked the teacher why she was crying. Our teacher told us that there had been a report of a police officer being shot and her daddy was a policeman.

    I also remember lining up at the local elementary school with my family for everyone to get their Polio vaccines. They handed us those little paper cups with the vaccine in a sugar cube. I probably remember this one more from having known people who suffered from Polio and seeing the debilitating effects of it on both the person with the disease and the people who had to care for that person.

    All of these events have changed how we all react to different circumstances. After living through many hurricanes, I always check my flashlights every six months, keep the autos at least half-full of gas, and make sure that we have several weeks of canned goods and toilet paper on hand. Every one of those is thought of because of some shortage or event that happened to either me or my family.

    We all are a product of our life experiences.

  7. While everyone was in shock for that tragic event, I was in shock from the fact that my dog who Was my companion and for whom I was responsible to protect, had just been run over and killed by a neighbor at 7:30 that morning. …….very confusing day…

  8. Roberta, I have not seen the picture at the beginning of the article. My husband and I had just landed in England and upon arrival at the hotel, they informed us. Many of the churches and other places we visited had candles, memorials and guest books; and many English people shared their condolences and concern.

    Later,we met a couple at the hotel who said they were in the air flying back to the US, and the plane had to turn around mid-air and go back to England because, of course, they could not land in the US.

    What a horrible event!

  9. And the Kennedy tragedy, I was in the kitchen making jam cakes for Thanksgiving – and I was 9 months along. Later when they said the funeral would be televised on Monday, I make a mental note to watch the funeral. But, alas, at 11:05 a.m., I was too busy……giving birth to my daughter.

  10. I was in downtown Washington D.C., across the river from the Pentagon — at work. Our security officer interrupted a meeting I was in to let us know there had been an incident. I’ll never forget as we watched the news as it unfolded, gathered together in one of the conference rooms — reacting in horror as the Twin Towers were taken out by the first and then later the second of two planes and then we received news that another plane had crashed into the Pentagon. The phone rang in one of the cubicles near where I was standing and I was asked to answer it. On the other end of the line was my concerned husband who had been trying to locate me after he heard the news. He told me to “Get out of Dodge.” I left the building immediately after hanging up, and walked to the nearest Metro Station. There was black smoke in the sky and the sound of sirens filled the air. Terrified, I stepped onto what would be the last Metro out of town that day — as there were several terror-related incidents that forced the closure of the system soon after I had made it on board the train I took out of the city.

    No one spoke during that quiet and somber commute from Washington D.C. into the Maryland suburbs. We were too frightened to speak. I arrived home and received word from my son’s school that parents had been asked to pick up their children as soon as possible. I left my home and found my son among the students gathered in the main office where the school principal was serving cookies to anxious parents and students. After my son and I returned home, we turned on the news, staring in disbelief as the images of the horrific take down of the Twin Towers and the crash into the Pentagon repeated over and again — an endless cycle of smoke, fire, twisted metal, ashes, and human death that I will never forget. My mother was alive back then; she called me on the phone and told me that we were at war and this would be a day that none would ever forget. She was right. I wore a little silver locket that I had engraved with the words, “In God we Trust” in the shape of a cross for several years after 911 in honor of those who died on that day. I forever mourn their loss. I learned later that a family friend had been the pilot whose life was lost in Pentagon crash and we’d not see him again. I saw his sister many times on television petitioning for the 911 memorial that today stands in the place of the gaping hole that was left in the wake of the 911 tragedy in New York.

    Today, I wear a little American flag pin reminding myself and anyone who sees it that we are a Nation united and that we stand behind our flag and honor those whose lives were lost that day and the first responders who risked their lives to save others. We cannot and will not forget 911.

  11. Roberta, you didn’t specifically mention the attack on the Pentagon on 9/11, but of course that part of the day’s tragedy was encompassed in the feeling of your post. It is sometimes overlooked in 9/11 coverage. Last week PBS had a show on it, which was very informative. It was a horrifically scary day, with much heroism and unfortunately confusion. You can view it online at http://www.weta.org/tv/program/911-inside-pentagon

  12. I remember that day with a “this can’t be happening” feeling but it was. When so many planes were diverted to my home province of Newfoundland – Gander and surrounding areas specifically I was so proud of my fellow Newfoundlanders for being there for those passengers who were stranded not knowing what they were going to do. They were welcomed and helped in anyway possible in a warm and friendly way – helping a stressed and anxious people feel less stressed.

  13. Wonderful, heartfelt commentary that we can all relate to. That time is seared into all our minds, and even as time passes, the feelings and images of that terrible day come flooding back.

    I would finish the quilt and name it “Resurrection”. A new country and ways of living arose in the ashes. We will never be the same as we were before.

  14. Roberta, I appreciate what you have written.

    My husband had turned on the TV that morning, watching the stock report from the floor of the NYSE. The normally cool and collected news woman started to lose her cool when the first tower was hit and she could feel the vibrations from the crash. We watched the horror unfold on TV from the beginning. I almost didn’t send my young children to school that day, it felt so close and personal.

    I was a Cub Scout leader for a group of nine boys in the 2nd grade. I will always remember our meeting that week, sitting in a circle on the front lawn at my house, listening to them talk about it. Ironically, the theme of the month was “Heroes”. At the next meeting, we made our own badges, out of ribbon and other craft materials. The boys were given an assignment to award two hero badges. They were asked to take their time, and give it a lot of thought. We asked them not to give them to their parents because we didn’t want them to take the easy way out. They were amazing. They came back with stories about who they gave the badges to, and why: teachers, the post man, grandparents, Veterans . . . . One boy waited until Thanksgiving so he could give one to the pilot of the plane he took to his grandparents’ home. He was thrilled when the pilot came and talked to him and gave him his own pilot wings.

    It was such a terrible tragedy, yet, an opportunity to learn and to come together.

    Please, finish your quilt!

  15. I worked as an RN at a nursing home. The TV was on near where the residents were eating breakfast. I remember seeing the second building hit and then the crash of the first followed by the second. It was hard but residents needed their meds and their treatments. it consumed a lot of our day but we had to continue working.

    For me personally what really hits home is the discovery of antibiotics. I had pneumonia in the 1950’s as did my younger brother. Our Uncle Coyet who was my mothers brother died of pneumonia in 1923. In 1928 Alexander Fleming identified pneicillin. Too late for my Uncle but in time for my brother and I. Now I am wondering if Alexander Fleming is a distant relative since I have some Fleming ancestors.

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