I have never before written down my experience of September 11, 2001. In a way, this felt very cathartic, and yet at the same time it broke my heart. Here it is:
What I remember most about that day was that it was one of the most beautiful days I had seen in a long time. The sky was so blue that it made everything else look sharper and more in focus. After a long, hazy summer, I remember being thrilled to be cooled off by the temperature and back to a schedule. I love schedules. I love having to be at a certain place at a certain time. I love homework and assignments. I love reading and writing and crossing things off my to-do list. Seven years later and I miss the innocence of that September morning more than anything else.
It was the first day of my final journalism course at Emerson. I greeted all of the friends and classmates that I hadn’t seen since last May. Being in such an intensive journalism program as Emerson offers, we typically stay with the same group of people for all four years. These were not just friends and classmates, these faces were family.
Amanda was the first person I approached on this cool, beautiful morning. And she started right in, as if we were already mid-conversation.
“We are definitely going to have a news quiz today and I think I heard something about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center,” she said, more nervous about not knowing the details and failing the quiz than about a plane crashing into a building. It wasn’t her fault, at this point we all thought it was probably a small, single engine plane being flown by a novice. We had no idea.
“Justin went to get the television set so we can catch up before Marsha gets here.” Amanda informed me. Marsha was our strictest and toughest teacher and yet we still referred to her only by her first name. That’s how we referred to all of our teachers, because we were more like co-workers than students. We were all buzzing about what facts we could share, what we had heard and how many details we could lay bare on the table and digest in time for the quiz.
At that moment, the television set appeared in the doorway, pushed steadily by Justin and Mike. We plugged it in and watched as smoke poured out of one of the towers, a steady black stream of smoke hovering over the World Trade Center like an ominous rain cloud. We were no longer worried about a pop quiz. We didn’t need to be tested on date and time and the people involved, there was no way any of this was being overlooked or forgotten. We knew, even at this early moment, that we would never forget our first day of journalism class. But we had no idea how indelible these images would become or to what extreme measures they would infiltrate our psyches.
Watching the second tower get hit was surreal. At first we thought it was a replaying of the first plane but then we realized that the first tower was already smoking as the second plane curved like a razor wrapping itself around the building and plunging deep into its hard, metal center.
It was at this moment that my teacher, a hard, strict, angry woman, let out a moan unlike anything I had ever heard. “My sister works in that building,” she whispered. And then I realized that the sound she had made was the sound of a heart breaking from fear. She rushed from the room to make what would turn out to be a futile phone call to her sister’s office. As she stepped from the room, the second tower collapsed and we all silently stared at each other hating the knowledge we had over our teacher. For the first time we knew something she didn’t and would have given anything not to have it.
We could hear her wails from down the hall as we sat in stunned silence. I pulled out my cell phone and tried calling home. I had five text messages from my sister, all with the same urgent and fearful phrase. COME HOME NOW. And more than anything, that is where I wanted to be.
As if a switch had been flicked, my classmates started rising to their feet and rushing to the door. My teacher had her beat up leather purse straps gathered in her shaking hands as she rushed down the stairs ahead of us. No one said goodbye. No one asked any questions. Everyone seemed to have their own destination in mind. My destination was the subway. I wanted to ride it straight out of the city and have someone save me from wherever I ended up. My cell phone wouldn’t work and the subways were evacuation terminals. Everywhere I looked people were trying to squeeze their bodies into small subway cars. The panic was starting to rise in my chest and settle around my heart. I could feel it constricting each heart beat and turning my once strong, indestructible organ into a fluttering butterfly. Swallowing became a deliberate action that required thought and preparation. What had happened to the world? How can destruction this brutal occur in the blink of an eye?
Many people talk about the connections and the closeness that they experienced with their neighbors and friends. For me, it felt more like a surreal connection. The shock was too overwhelming and too new to even begin to share these feelings with anyone. The repeated phrase, Oh My God, was one I heard pass between more than a few strangers’ lips. But a connection was not made. A common fear was recognized, but nothing more. I wanted to be with my family, watching the events unfold before me on a television screen miles from any danger. I didn’t know where the next attack would be, or if there would be another attack. No one knew. And I sought solace and comfort in the voices of the television anchors. That was where my connection was found. Because they were the ones who could give me answers, or at least try.
I ran from what I feared and sought solace in the educated and informed voices of strangers with familiar faces. And that is what I remember about September 11, 2001. It was a beautiful day, with clear blue skies and the promise of new beginnings. It was also the day my innocence was lost amidst the black smoke and rubble of a world torn apart.