It’s been fifteen years since the tragedies of September 11th; that’s hard to believe…
On this day, fifteen years ago, 2,996 people lost their lives in The City of New York, The United States Pentagon, and a field in rural Pennsylvania in a series of tragic events that left more than 6,000 others injured. Each year, the world turns their attention to the United States in memoriam of that fateful day; recalling the lives lost, the devastation felt, and the recovery still ongoing. I wonder though, amidst all the “where we were” talk and since somewhat-settled jitters over terrorism, whether or not those around us see the bigger picture:
A world left a little more aware and a county left more vigilant about the topics and realities surrounding terrorism. It could happen to anyone.
Here’s what I remember: It was just a normal Tuesday for me in Northeast Philadelphia, I was eleven years old. I woke up the way I always did, making my way to the 6:45am bus, settling into the private school studies, and whispering with friends. It was then, just about an hour into our first class, that the classroom door flew open with Sister Barbara (the Principal) rushing past Sister Kathleen (my teacher) to turn on the television hanging in the corner. “A plane hit one of the World Trade Towers,” she said, “Wait til you see!”
Impromptu visits like this were not uncommon as Sister Barbara and Sister Kathleen were the only two nuns in the entire school. Still, the energy shifted and Religion class took a backseat as the crowd of thirty-some kids and two teachers tried to make sense of the story unfolding. Minutes later, a second plane was seen swooping in to strike the other tower during a live broadcast. Immediately I turned my attention to those around me. Blank stares from the naive remained fixated at the glowing screen as both nuns froze, gawking with fear; I knew immediately this was no accident.
In the minutes that followed more and more coverage came in from around the area telling the story of the attack on The Pentagon and the crashed attach in western Pennsylvania, a location that put everything into perspective. I remember analyzing the expression on the face of the television reporters during the coverage and but even more so as the cameras went back to studio anchors. “I’ve got to go,” Sister Barbara said turning off the television, “I’ve got to get back to my desk. Parents will be calling.”
Normalcy resumed as the television was turned off; there was no talk of “terror” or “attacks” or any mention of compromise to public safety by anyone at the school. At 11am, the phone rang for me to pack up and head to the office. My mother was there to take me home.
Once home I became even more fearful than I was before. My mother lived just blocks away from the Northeast Airport in Philadelphia and although the planes were private/non-commercial jets the sound of the roaring engines of the incoming grounded flights sent chills over me. At one point, my step-dad took my little brother and I into the back yard to watch them as they came in lower-and-lower – one after the other. Overhead a handful more circled the neighborhood awaiting clearance to land.
How I handled it: No one ever spoke to me about the events or the repercussions it had; even on the day, very little information was passed on. I was well aware of the general facts though: That thousands of people had died, thousands more were injured, hundreds of days and unimaginable resources would be needed before any of the disaster areas would be recovered, and that the country was immediately thrust into war. Neither one of my parents ever spoke about the events or effects of that day, on me or anyone else. I had a birds-eye-view on the topic and direction of The War, but like many Americans I don’t think I had a clear understanding of the magnitude of its length and global impact. And, who would at eleven or twelve years old?
In truth, the most jarring moment for me was in late July of 2004 when a neighbor and long time family friend was killed during Operation Iraqi Freedom. I’ll never forget the moment my mom and I had arrived home from running errands to a military vehicle parked down the street; in it were two service men waiting for Nick’s family to return. We thought it was Nick himself, returning home.
It felt like an instant that everyone learned the news that the young soldier (21) had been lost when an improvised explosive device had detonated near is convoy in Tikrit, Iraq. Nick’s family lived two doors down from mine and was very close to my cousins, making him almost a member of the family. Camera crews rolled in to cover the story live, telling the tale of a young man who was loved by everyone and would remembered forever as being a hero. He really was one of those people whose presence would be greatly missed; we all knew that. He had such a fun-loving and outgoing personality with a presence that lit up a room every time he entered.
Seeing Nick’s family grieve his loss — and watching mine show their respects — really put “the magnitude” of everything into perspective. It was no longer about the lives of strangers; the stories that were being played out on TV were about all those close to me; every soldier’s name was Nick to me, every grieving mother was his mother, every widowed wife was his wife, and every neighborhood impacted was our neighborhood – impacted.
What I’ve learned from it all: It’s easy to summarize with the generalization that all life is precious and our time together is limited. But, that’s something I’ve carried in mind since long before that fateful day. Surely events like 9/11 thrust that thought back into my mind, but for me, the lesson learned here is that life and time both go on and it’s up to those that remain to make sure the future is a positive and bright one for the sake of those we’ve lost. I read an article in the New York Times today that says it all the best in a concluding suggestion of how to experience the new 9/11 Memorial, “Take several turns, pondering, as a pilgrim might do, the enormity of the loss, the passage of years. And what we, the living, can do to build a better world, worthy of their sacrifice.”
God Bless America.