Three thousand, nine hundred eighty-one days ago, on October 17, 2000, a small water craft slammed into the side of the USS Cole, killing seventeen American sailors and injuring thirty-nine. While Americans mourned the loss of their sailors, there’s no way we knew – there’s no way we could have known – that the attack on the Cole was an ominous harbinger of a far more deadly attack to come. Nearly eleven months later, on September 11, 2001, four airliners crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and a remote field in Shanksville, PA. Ten years later, as the country continues the long healing process, seems an appropriate time to reflect. I’m not really sure why I’m writing this: around this time last year I decided I’d try to write it, but I’m not sure anyone else but me will find it useful. Maybe it’ll offer closure. Or maybe it’s so I don’t forget.
Day of Infamy
I remember the first moment I knew something was wrong. Walking into Mr. Giannell’s second block Global Studies class, the TV was on and tuned to CNN – and on the screen was an image of the World Trade Center, both towers spewing smoke. Mr. Giannell wasn’t a particularly strict teacher; he wasn’t a particularly protective teacher, despite the fact that we were freshmen. So despite what we were seeing on TV, I appreciated that we had an easy worksheet to work on while the TV remained on.
When we walked into the classroom the second plane had just hit the South Tower, and CNN’s Aaron Brown was still sort of reeling and was visibly shaken from what he had witnessed, as a cacophony of reports came from everywhere: a car bomb at the State department, a fire in DC, the President’s reaction as he read to a second-grade class in Sarasota, Florida. Replays of the plane hitting the tower played nearly continuously, at first from the one angle directly perpendicular to the South Tower, and later from the more isometric angle where the South Tower was hidden from view and just the fireball was visible.
While we were still in second block, reports started to come in of an explosion at the Pentagon, and it was fairly quickly determined that it was a third plane, a third crash. The reporters started to learn and report that the the cause of the crashes were hijackings, something which I had heard about being an issue back in the 70s and 80s, but thankfully not as common in recent years. I wasn’t really old (fourteen) but I was old enough to understand that just for three airliners to crash in one day was not only tragic, but nearly unheard of. And indeed, minutes after the first reports of a fire at the Pentagon, the FAA shut down the entire U.S. airspace for the first time ever. Living only thirty miles from Cleveland, we were used to seeing planes fly overhead regularly, and I remember being jarred by this news, jarred by the fact that the situation was seemingly out of control.
And before we left second block to proceed to our third block class, what was described as a larger explosion occurred in the South Tower. As I watched it live, it was clear to me that the tower had collapsed, and soon CNN confirmed my suspicions. It seemed bizarre at the time that the entire skyline of New York, a city which I had never visited but had of course seen on TV and in movies, would be altered.
The bell rang and we left second block to head to third block, which, for me, was gym. Gym was pretty much normal, albeit with considerable tension as we wondered what was going on. I remember making awkward conversation with a girl I liked after class (I think I called the day’s events “pretty crazy”, to which the girl nodded uneasily, probably wondering “what is wrong with this guy?”), but my main focus was to get to a TV to see what was happening.
Fourth block was band, and as I arrived and asked for the news, my marching band squad leader, a senior, informed me that “both towers were down and a fourth plane crashed.” The TV was on in the band room and the scenes unfolding in New York looked straight out of a disaster movie: a tremendous dust cloud hung over the entire city, as people struggled to get off the island, most of them still with expressions of disbelief and horror. The Pentagon was spewing smoke as the fire raged. The fourth plane had gone down in Pennsylvania, in a remote field, and news anchors were already doubting that it hit its real target. The rest of the commercial airliners that were in the air were landing, or working on landing. It was reported that the White House, Capitol and other significant government buildings were evacuated, although it later turned out that some of the chain of command was below the White House in a secure bunker. The President was attempting to control the situation from aboard Air Force One.
After a tense lunch in fifth block, I got to sixth block, a computer class. We rarely did anything in that class anyway, and with all that was happening that day, we didn’t do anything except search for news on CNN.com and watch the news on the large screen projector. By this time, amateur videos had started to surface and were being aired. It seemed like there were countless angles and takes of the disaster, particularly the second plane, and the amateur videos made everything feel much more raw and scary. Looking back, I wonder how many more angles there would have been, how many videos there would have been, if the attacks had happened five or even seven years later, after the advent of Youtube and pocket-sized video cameras.
Although many school districts across the nation were dismissed early, we left school at our normal time and I headed home. I was surprised to find my mom there, whose boss had decided that no one was getting much work done anyway and had dismissed them early. We watched the news and discussed the day’s events until my sister and father got home. It didn’t matter what channel we turned to: every single one was broadcasting the same event.
For one reason or another I ended up watching the news by myself around dinnertime and I remember letting my imagination wander a bit. Reports of jubilation in Palestine and Pakistan, as well as Osama bin Laden’s responsibility had started to come in. As the anchors talked about bin Laden and his history, they showed video of terrorist training camps with its primitive structures and surroundings. Around that time, we were working on the second stage of a house addition, a front porch, and so, sitting in the living room, blue tarp was over the windows, blocking the view of the street and melding with images of the terrorist training camps in my mind. And so, even though it seems ridiculous now, I was convinced that Osama bin Laden would be walking down Green street at any moment with a detachment of troops carrying AK-47s. As I said, it seems ridiculous in retrospect, but at the time, with all the horror and confusion, this seemed like a plausible scenario to me.
President Bush spoke from the Oval Office that night (very bravely, I thought at the time, although I’m sure the Secret Service would have had none of it if there were a threat), telling Americans: “Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts.” He also promised “we will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them”, which would become the first part of the supposed Bush Doctrine.
I fell asleep watching the news that night, wondering if school would be cancelled in the morning, and, more significantly, if anything would ever be the same again. Reporters were still on 24-hour news coverage (on all the networks) and rescue workers took advantage of the smoke beginning to lighten, if not clear, to start looking for people amongst the rubble at Ground Zero. I don’t remember any bad dreams that night, but I do remember not sleeping particularly well and constantly being awakened by the sound of the TV.
The days after September 11, 2001 were surreal. News was flowing in of the intelligence community’s efforts to track down the hijackers’ identities, and to my surprise, they were able to identify and name all nineteen hijackers fairly quickly. The disaster at the Pentagon, although tragic, didn’t appear as bad as initially feared. Indeed, the side of the Pentagon that was hit was rebuilt in just one year.
The news at the World Trade Center was different. While initial casualty estimates were as high as 50,000, and it appeared that these estimates were high, there were only a couple survivors found in the rubble on September 12… and that was it. No one else had made it. Stories of heroism by firefighters and first responders started to leak. These stories, combined with what I think was a determined resolve of the American people saying “we won’t let this beat us”, led to a period of three or four months of immense, swelling, moving patriotism in the U.S. On September 12, the local paper The News Herald printed a full-page American flag, suitable for display. I saw those flags in just about every window in town for at least the first month after September 11.
Flights resumed on September 14, and I’ll never forget seeing that first lone jet trail soaring over the crystal clear blue sky in Northeast Ohio that morning. I wondered about the people on the plane. I wondered if all of them had good intentions. I hoped they’d make it to their destination. And I wasn’t the only one: looking around, I saw many band members, practicing a memorial marching routine on the football field, looking up at the plane, probably having similar thoughts.
In our hometown, the main point of interest for the federal government was the Perry Nuclear Power Plant, which lies less than three miles from my parents’ house in Perry. Tours of the facility ended immediately, and security was noticeably beefed up with the presence of SWAT snipers on the roofs of the buildings.
I thought President Bush, who later admitted in his memoir that he felt thrust into the unwanted role of “War President”, did as good a job as he – or anyone – could, rising to the occasion of an unprecedented terrorist attack on American soil. He rallied the country, supported and encouraged the wave of patriotism, and carefully took his time before responding in Afghanistan. Despite the glaring oversights in the intelligence community that later surfaced, Bush knew not to point fingers right after the fact and did what he could, without complaint, given the information he had. I felt like he took the attacks personally, more personally than a lot of us, and he wasn’t afraid to show his emotion as one of the people. And although he did keep the country safe from attack for the last seven-and-a-half years of his term, perhaps his emotion clouded his judgement somewhat and he overreacted in some ways. 20/20 hindsight, I suppose.
Sports played a huge role in the immediate healing of the country. That Friday, September 15, the Kirtland Marching Band joined the Perry Marching Band in playing a moving rendition of “Amazing Grace” while unfolding a tremendous American flag in a joint half time show. We never got to practice the routine with both bands on the field; the fact that we managed to pull it off with no issues was a small, but not unnoticed miracle.
On the bigger stage, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” was replaced with “God Bless America” in the seventh inning stretch of Major League Baseball games, a tradition that has continued in New York and on Sundays in most other parks. Before Game 3 of the World Series, President Bush brazenly walked out onto the field at Yankee Stadium, mere miles from the still smoldering remains of Ground Zero, and threw a perfect strike to the delight of the roaring crowd. As Bush walked off the mound, the crowd burst out into chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” The video of the event still gives me chills:
I’ve been to each disaster site since then: the field in Shanksville, PA in 2004, Ground Zero in 2006 and 2008, and the Pentagon (from afar in 2009, up close during my recent trip to Washington). The field in Shanksville was the most moving to me because the memorial site was basically just a chain link fence, with notes, flowers and signs stuffed into the links from past visitors. The air there was reverent, reflective, silent. In New York, makeshift memorials at the PATH station, Trinity church, and the fence of the new WTC site gave the impression that New York hadn’t forgotten, but was moving on. And in Washington, family friends had to point out which side of the Pentagon had been hit – you can tell because it looks slightly newer – only that and the subtle but effective memorial indicate what happened ten years ago.
I was really proud of the way our country bounced back from the September 11th attacks. Not only did we embrace our patriotism and galvanize our resolve, for the most part we did it without discriminating against innocent Muslim Americans. At the time of the attacks there was worry that ignorant Americans would blame all Muslims for the attack, but apart from some isolated cases, this hasn’t been the case. The United States is a land of welcoming, and discriminating purely on skin color or religion wasn’t and shouldn’t be the legacy of the attacks.
And over the last ten years, I think we’ve mostly come all the way back – or at least, as far as we could. 2,977 people died as a result of the attacks. It’s true that those people are tragically gone forever, taken way too soon. Yes, we drastically changed our foreign policy and are now involved in wars in three countries, risking more Americans’ lives to protect and ensure freedom. Those two changes make the changes at airports and on airliners seem like minor annoyances. But on a daily basis, most of our lives are back to normal. And in ten more years, twenty years after the attacks, September 11th will be just another government holiday, like Pearl Harbor Day now: a modest memorial of a 21st century day of infamy.
I supplemented my recollections with these three Wikipedia articles, as well as this article about the USS Cole. Most of the articles were well-sourced from the 9/11 Commission Report and other published papers. If you see any inaccuracies that I don’t address, let me know.