Memories from 9/11

Posted: September 12, 2011 in Thoughts on the Day
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CORRECTION:  I originally had my times reversed in this post.  AZ time is BEHIND Eastern Standard Time….so I’ve changed the times in my recollection of that day to be accurate.

I did not lose anyone close to me but like the rest of the nation, I had definitely lost something.  I had lost that wonderful feeling of safety that thousands of miles of oceans had provided us since our founding.  Even with the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, we knew that technology didn’t exist that could make it across the water to damage us in any significant way.  And later, even with intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear payloads we were repeatedly reassured that the Russians would never launch because we would return in kind.  Sadly that ‘mutually assured destruction’ theory provided some kind of salve to American fears.

I was a teenager when Reagan was in office and remember the television movie called, “The Day After”.  It gave me nightmares, in fact.  I was astounded that no one else my age had seen it or if they had, had been affected by it.  How, I thought, could anyone fully acknowledge the destructive potential of our nuclear arsenals and believe that were actually made safer by them?  See, I knew something that most other 13 years old kids didn’t.  I knew that the world was full of angry, vengeful and crazy men that would happily take themselves out if they could kill some of us in the process too.  How I had come by this knowledge, this understanding about the deepest, darkest part of mankind, I will not go into here.  Suffice it to say I felt no comfort in our nuclear arsenal when thinking about mankind’s ability to destroy combined with the unknowable randomness of madmen.

So it was on September 11, 2001 that I understood as soon as I heard the news that it was a deliberate attack.   The first plane struck the North Tower at 8:46 am, which was 5:46 am my time.  I worked as a professor teaching computer programming for DeVry University and had a class at 8 am.  I was rushing to get ready because I needed to do some prep for the class beforehand and near the end of my shower the phone rang.  I don’t know why but I felt compelled to answer it.  It was my husband.  He was a special agent, working for a federal agency (no, not the FBI) in downtown Phoenix.  He called me from work and told me that a plane had struck the WTC and to turn on the news.  I turned on the TV to CNN (or CBS, I’m still not sure which channel it was) and saw footage of the first plane.  The announcer was very upset but trying to maintain control.   He was saying how they weren’t sure if it was an accident or on purpose while showing the first plane hit over and over again.  I remember standing there dripping on the carpet and yelling at the news anchor, “Of course, it was on purpose  you idiot!”

How could it have been anything but an intentional strike on such a beautiful, clear day.  The way the plane curved around and aimed so directly for the building, the body of the plane so well centered to strike at the heart of the tower.  My mind, so quick to suspect evil in the hearts of others, was for once correct.  This was confirmed when the second plane came into camera range and I saw it hit the second tower, live.  The announcer was even more upset and excited the second time.  Several announcers were brought onto the screen to handle the situation.  Some of them were losing control in tears and then regaining it, back and forth.  I didn’t want to be alone and I knew that some of my students would not have heard anything yet.  I needed to go to campus at least to cancel my lecture for the day.  I got there at 5 or 10 minutes before the 8 am class started. The majority of my students already knew and were talking about.  Not too many of them really understood what it meant I don’t think.  Most of them were very young, in their early 20’s maybe.  A couple of them were older, in their 30’s or 40’s, had been in the military or had someone they loved in the military.  They understood the reality of what was happening and I could see it in their eyes.  I cancelled class.

Most of us went to the cafeteria because it contained a TV lounge.  It was already full of students with some professors who were on campus like me.  Every seat was taken–standing room only.  No one was eating.   As the first tower, the South Tower, collapsed, a murmur of surprise and fear ran through the crowd.  I said out loud to know one in particular, “We might have just watched 25,000 people die.”  I thought that I might throw up and I must have looked pretty bad because a female student looked at me with concern on her face.  I registered all of this without really taking my eyes off the TV.  As new students arrived in the cafeteria, I looked around at their expressions.  Some were fearful but more were detached.  Confused and unable to process what was happening, they reacted in strange ways.  I saw someone make a joke and I suddenly needed to be alone.  I had no desire to watch them go from confusion to horrible realization and sadness.  I went home to watch the coverage by myself and wait for my husband to come home.

The news footage from that day that will live in my memory until the day I die.  What struck me the most wasn’t the pictures although they were and still are compelling. What struck me the most was the sounds.  One thing in particular that they showed live that was not ever shown afterwards were the jumpers.  The North Tower stood for about 30 minutes after the South Tower had fallen and so many people couldn’t make it down to safety so they chose to jump.  I don ‘t actually remember the people falling so much as I recall a scene of some first responders near an escalator inside a structure beneath the towers (the shopping area perhaps).  You could hear the sounds of the bodies hitting the roof–a loud, periodic bam, bam, bam above the noise of the ceaseless wailing of alarms.  I remember the look on a firefighter’s face as he looked up at the ceiling.  He knew what the noise meant immediately.  It took me a moment to process and that’s when I broke down and cried for the first time.  To this day, I wonder if that firefighter made it out alive and I’m sure I will never know.

A few minutes later when the other Tower fell the billowing, white smoke that inexorably engulfed the area seemed ugly and menacing.  There was a peculiar wailing of alarms that started, dozens of them, that went on and on.  This is the second sound I will never forget.  It wasn’t the sound of car alarms, it was something different, something I had never heard before.  The announcers said the wailing was the sound of personal locator alarms that firefighters wear.  These alarms activate when a firefighter turns them on or if the person stops moving.  When I realized the hundreds of alarms I was hearing happened just after the collapse of the second tower, I knew that several hundred firefighters had just lost their lives along with anyone left in that second tower.  I began to weep again.

I stayed like this, spell bound, watching the tragedy unfold until my husband came home.  While I watched, I worried about what it would mean for the country.  I knew we’d be going to war, but I didn’t know where yet.  I worried for my students who would enlist in patriotic fervor only to die unsung far, far away.  I knew that things would never be the same for my country after this.

My husband came home early.  He was off duty for now but would soon be called back on duty and he remained on 24 hour call for days on end.  He, like all special agents, pursued 9/11 leads throughout the country.  Not many people know this but Arizona did have 9/11 connections to the terrorists.  The weather here is so fine that it is one of the premier places to learn to fly.  Flight schools abound in Arizona and one of the 9/11 terrorists did receive training here.  Remember too that any and all facilities related to the federal government and the national infrastructure went on high alert.  We have the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station southwest of the Phoenix area.   Before 9/11 it was ridiculously easy to get close to the facility, much less into it.  Now investigations into who visited it and why, plus new security details were amped up and put into place.  My husband became exhausted but he never complained.  He quietly went about his work trying to honor the memory of those who had died.

Another sound I will never forget was the silence. That day and for many days thereafter the sky above my central Phoenix home were quiet and empty.  We lived on a flight path into Sky Harbor Airport, jets routinely circled above our neighborhood waiting their turn to land.  I could not get over how quiet it was.  I would repeatedly get up from the TV, from desk, wherever I was, and walk out into the back yard and stand there listening.  I was straining to hear the planes, the normalcy that we all craved.   Sadly, once the sound did return, I was afraid of it.   To this day, I fear the sound of planes in close proximity to my building where I work.  In fact, planes fly right over central and downtown Phoenix where we have many tall buildings.  The sight of a plane descending to the airport just above those office buildings makes me flinch every time, even 10 years later.  I always wait until the plane is clear and then I say a blessing under my breath.  Superstitious bullshit, I know…but I can’t help myself.

That is my remembrance of 9/11 and its aftermath.   Please join me in solidarity for the love of our country on this one day, of all days, 9/11.  My thoughts and prayers go out to all those who lost their lives on that fateful day and their loved ones who linger in sorrow and after 10 years gone, perhaps, they live on in love and hope as well.  I pray that it is so.

Epilogue:  WARNING if you don’t want to think about politics in regards to 9/11 while remembering it, then don’t read the following.

I was not as politically active about the time that it happened as I would come to be later.  I had two political awakenings as an adult that have lead to my current activism.  The first was the impeachment of President Clinton and the second was the aftermath of 9/11.

In regards the impeachment….it shook me to the core that members of the government could so blithely attempt to take down our leader for the sake of political posturing.  I had, up to then, naively thought our government was better than all previous forms of government because of its stability, a stability I thought existed as a part of its structure so that it could and should be able to withstand the buffeting of political machinations.  My innocence was shattered in this regard when they were able to impeach Pres. Clinton over what I felt to be a small matter and derail the country from other issues that seemed to matter more (later we would realize that pursuing Osama Bin Laden should have been a priority but far too late).  I realized that the government was only as good as the men and women who were in it and that the “structure” that I had so enshrined in my mind was as vulnerable as any other.

With this new cynicism and in distaste for Republican supposed moral zealotry, I supported Gore in the subsequent election.  I was, at best, scornful of Pres. Bush and had no confidence in him as a leader.  Pres. Bush’s reaction, or lack of one, to the news of the 9/11 assaults did not surprise me.  It did surprise me afterward when so little was done by him and the VP in the immediate aftermath (or so it seemed to me from my limited knowledge–they weren’t exactly sitting around doing nothing after all).  In spite of my scorn for him, I was moved by Pres. Bush’s speech at Ground Zero on September 14 that rallied the nation and I felt as if we were incredibly united.  I remember thinking that maybe,  just maybe, we can take advantage of this unity to address our problems as a nation and correct whatever missteps had led us to this particular point in time.  For as much as I was angry at the terrorists and wanted revenge, I still wanted to make sure that we did the right thing–that we targeted the right people and that we did so with as little a loss in life of our own soldiers and foreign civilians as possible.  The fog of anger did not engulf rational thought.

Alas, as you well know that was not the case for many Americans.  Too many blindly followed the government’s plans to invade and then hold the land we took.  While I supported the strikes in Afghanistan, I never thought we would stay.  Afghanistan was a morass that even Alexander the Great nor the mighty Soviet Union could conquer.   In hindsight it was naivete on my part to think that we wouldn’t have stayed–when had an invading force simply gone in, destroyed a government and left?  None that I can recall.

What I never dreamed of, however, was that we would invade Iraq.  When President Bush began to push for such a thing, I was dumbstruck.  After I got over the initial shock, I was extremely worried.  I had a feeling that things weren’t right and we weren’t being told the entire truth.  I have written about this time period in other posts.

The misuse of patriotic feeling and unity from 9/11 by the Bush Administration in the lead up to the decision to go to war in Iraq was the final straw for me.  All of my suspicions were later confirmed when the 9-11 Commission released it official public report on July 22, 2004.  I devoured it and my fury at our nation’s betrayal turned into utter disgust for the Republican Party.  Suffice it to say, this was the second major political awakening for me.

So it was that 9/11 started a process of growth and change in my life, for better or for worse.  It changed me in fundamental ways.  I am more cynical but more knowledgeable.  I am more politically active but often feel that it may not matter.  Patriotism is no longer an esoteric concept but a very real motivation in my life.    If my political thoughts on this day anger you, forgive me.  I did, however, warn you.  Looking back after so many years, I cannot help but see it through this lens.  I certainly didn’t think about anything political on that beautiful and tragic day of 9/11 or for many months afterward.  Unfortunately my memories are now tainted by how it was then and is still often used in politics to rally people and take what little money they may yet have.  I feel that there is a special place in Hell, if one exists, for people like Sarah Palin, Glen Beck, etc who hold 9/11 rallies and accept “donations” on those days.  Shame on them and shame on those who would exploit it.  9/11 may have awakened me politically but I tell you true, I don’t seek to use it for political purposes.  I seek only to share my thoughts with you the reader on what happened and how it affected me over the last decade.

Slán agus beannacht leat

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