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.
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?