“Where were you on 9/11?”
That’s a question that doesn’t get asked as much anymore, twelve years after the event. When I am asked, almost no one is prepared for my answer. I was in the air.
In September, 2001, I was working in Washington, D.C., for a small publisher of legal books. I had recently graduated college and this was my first “real” job.
On that fateful morning, I was to embark on my very first business trip. I met a coworker at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport where we boarded our flight to Tampa, Florida. We departed at 8:20 am, five minutes after the first plane had been hijacked, though we didn’t know that at the time. We flew south, directly over the Pentagon.
It was a beautiful, clear day and we remained blissfully unaware of the events unfolding in New York. Our flight crew gave no indication of trouble and cheerfully served the free morning meal (remember those days?). Having taken many flights before, I found it odd that our plane never ascended above the clouds. I said as much to my colleague, but didn’t think much of it.
About halfway through the flight, our pilot announced over the intercom that we were being forced to land in Columbia, South Carolina, due to a national emergency. He was calm and said he would share more information once we were on the ground. Our cabin was abuzz with speculation. I naively wondered if they were clearing the skies for Air Force One.
We descended at a shockingly rapid rate. The lady across the aisle grabbed my hand and started to pray. I had not been afraid until that moment when it became clear something was really not right. We landed so hard I thought we were going to crash, bouncing and jerking from side to side. It was absolutely terrifying. As we taxied to the gate at this small rural airport, we watched as plane after plane put down behind us – United, Continental, FedEx, private planes and major airliners alike. What on earth could be happening?
We listened in disbelief as the pilot broke the horrifying news. I remember tears streaming down my face as I collected my bags and stumbled off the plane. All the passengers huddled around the TV in the terminal, desperate for details. Mobile phone service was down so we queued at the pay phones to let our families know we were okay.
My coworker and I rented a car and headed to a nearby hotel for lack of other options. Later that day, we decided just to make the 10-hour drive back to D.C. The hotel clerk had given us a map of South Carolina and wished us luck. Somewhere around the border of North Carolina and Virginia I got pulled over for speeding and the officer issued me a ticket. The absurdity almost made me laugh! How could going a few miles over the limit matter on a day like this?
We were welcomed back to the office with champagne and chocolate shortly thereafter as tanks and armed security forces took up positions in the streets outside. Our beautiful, peaceful city felt like a war zone. Daily fire drills had us running downstairs and constantly on edge.
One month later, I moved to New York City and stayed five incredible years. I love that city more than any other place on earth and will always consider it “home,” even though I haven’t lived there for years now.
Why am I sharing this story? Because I recently visited for the first time the NYC 9/11 Memorial. It was an emotional visit but one that I needed to make.
When I moved to New York twelve years ago, the World Trade Center was smoldering rubble. Today the 16-acre site is a lovely park filled with trees and tourists. Waterfalls pour into the footprints of the twin towers, where reflecting pools are meant to wash away the horrors of death and destruction.
The names of the 2,983 individuals who perished in the 2001 and 1993 terrorist attacks are etched into bronze walls surrounding the reflecting pools. Flowers and other mementos adorn the walls and remind one that the site is a graveyard as well as a national monument. 9/11 was the worst terrorist attack to happen on U.S. soil and we must not forget it. By visiting the site, we honor the victims and the brave rescue personnel who gave their lives to save others.
New construction surrounds what was once Ground Zero, with the Freedom Tower its most notable structure. Officially known as One World Trade Center, the 104-story building is the tallest in America and the fourth tallest in the world. Seven glittering new towers will eventually form the new World Trade Center complex.
A museum commemorating the lives of the victims and providing details of the attacks is slated to open in 2014. Currently, artwork made from pieces of the destroyed towers is displayed inside the gift shop, where a moving documentary about victims’ families and survivors can also be viewed.
I was dismayed to find some tourists, perhaps forgetting where they were, laughing and posing for photos as they might at an ordinary tourist attraction. As you are visiting the site, I would suggest being respectful of the lives that were lost.
Where were YOU on 9/11?