Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Tuesday, September 11, 2001

It was a crisp fall morning in Washington, D.C. I love those kind of refreshing days. One time a cousin of mine who grew up in Chicago told me she thought the perfect day starts around 70° and gets up to around 90°. Having grown up in Florida, I think the perfect day starts around 50° and gets up to around 70°. That Tuesday started like one of those days.

I was working three blocks north of the White House at the time. The first indication we got that something unusual was afoot was an office-wide email about 8:45 a.m. informing us a small plane had hit the World Trade Center. It sounded unusual, like an accident, but having had an incident there eight years before, it didn't seem like much more than something that would be an item on the evening news.

About 20 minutes later, another office-wide email went around saying another plane had hit the other tower. At that moment, I instantly knew we were no longer talking about an accident. Since one plane had already hit one tower, live cameras were trained on the scene and picked up the full scale of the second collision. It was clear these were not small planes, but full-size commercial jetliners.

Within an hour we heard there were more planes in the air aimed at more targets, and Washington, D.C., was likely next. This was confirmed when a plane hit the Pentagon. From the south end of our office on the 11th floor (near the peak of building height for Washington, D.C. at the time), there was a small balcony, and with my own eyes I could see smoke coming up from the Pentagon across the river. I snapped a photo with an early primitive digital camera my organization had purchased. (This was back when there was a delay from when one pushed the shutter button on a digital camera to when the picture actually took.)

By this time two things happened. (1) Fear of uncertainty about what would be hit next began to grip people. (2) Parents, especially mothers, became desperate to immediately reunite with their children in the middle of the day.

The company called a staff meeting and decided to let people go if they wanted to go. I had carpooled into work that day, as usual (because parking garage parking at ~$200/month was expensive). Most everyone in our group was up for going home by mid-morning. Even though it hadn't been my turn to drive that day, I was designated the driver of a coworker's car to get us out of the city. The woman who lived in and had grown up in Arlington was our navigator.

She was fearful of planes hitting more tall buildings in Rosslyn near our route home, so we navigated up to the Chain Bridge to cross the Potomac, and then weaved our way down through north Arlington. By the time we got back to Route 50, we could see it had been completely closed it off to any traffic heading into Washington, D.C.

Normally the commute from our meeting point on a more direct route to the office took 20 minutes max even during rush hour. Taking the northern bridge across and with the instant rush hour that formed everywhere in the Washington area that morning, it took us about three hours to get home. We had WTOP on the radio and heard all the news, rumors, and questions being discussed. For us, the falling of the towers was only something we heard about on the radio. By the time we got home, the networks and cable news had all already decided to stop replaying it in order to not glorify the terrorists mission. It was a long time before I ever saw a replay of either tower collapsing.

The first chapter of the 9/11 Commission Report is quite the page-turner when it comes to what was happening in official circles that morning.

About 850 miles away, my family knew they had a son and brother in Washington, D.C. It was my youngest brother's 16th birthday. Both my brothers were in school and the other one had to be excused because he was so worried about me. It was hard to get communication through because only cellphones had begun to take root, not texting, and certainly not mobile Internet or data.

At the time, the Internet had only really been a thing in the public eye for about 6 years. Yahoo! was the only Web site that had extended burst capacity to handle all the extra load from people worldwide trying to get news on what was happening. Videos were only something people shared via email because there was no YouTube yet.

Today, my brother turns 33. Most students today even in high school weren't born as of 9/11/2001, and the few that were have no first-hand memories of that day. Just as happened with Pearl Harbor, the event will shift from memories to the history books. Those of us who remember it well can help ensure the accuracy of that transition by recording what we remember. It has taken me 17 years and a writing commitment to realize I've never thoroughly recorded my story. Today I decided to change that.

What's your story? Have you put it down in writing or asked someone else to help you preserve your memory of 9/11?

A couple years ago I was talking with a teacher who has been in the profession since well before 9/11. She told me she's noticed a general difference in students from those born before 9/11, and those after 9/11. It's hard now two years on from that conversation to do her observation justice, but it seemed to her as if there was an elevated level of tension and anxiety among students, and this seems to be coupled with more openness and acceptance among students to meet certain emotional needs than was the case when I was going through school.

Even among those who do not remember 9/11, they may have been affected by it more than they realize. It would not surprise me if we find there's more to explore in the effects of 9/11 for generations to come.

Does that mean the terrorists won and inflicted permanent damage? That may depend on how we respond. I see this more as having opened many doors for Gospel-spreading opportunities of several types. If today's generation is more open to recognizing their needs, are we ready to bring them God's Word and fill that need with their true purpose, or will we let others step in and fill it with something other than the Truth?

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