#NeverForget My 9/11 Story

A version of this was originally written on 9/11/03 on my personal blog. It has been edited and revised for this posting.
I have reposted some version of the original post every year since 2003. This year the anniversary is especially poignant for me.  I asked my new freshman about 9/11 on Friday and I realized quickly that they were all born after the events of that day.  Some of them knew very little about the tragedy.  For the first time, I don’t have any students in my class who lost a parent in the attacks. When I shared the first few pages of Gae Polisner’s The Memory of Things their reactions were so different from mine.  For example, reading aloud the first few pages when the main character sees the fighter jets overhead immediately brought me back to my dorm on September 11th, 2001.  Fighter jets screamed overhead all morning and some of my floor mates sought  safety in the basement. The panic and tension were more than palpable; they were living and breathing entities that day.  I had a visceral reaction to that part of th story but my students just reacted with curiosity.  That blew my mind.

It still seems like just yesterday.

I had moved into my dorm at Douglass College (Rutgers) just days earlier. As I sat in the dining hall on that beautiful morning with my best friend Erin chatting about our schedules, I remember hearing the morning radio show talking about the Twin Towers. I also remember Erin and I wondering aloud why the talk radio station was being broadcast in the dining hall and why were the hosts talking about something that had happened in 1993? We tuned out the radio and it became nothing more than white noise in the background. We were college students and it didn’t seem important. Quickly, we finished breakfast and headed off to class.

I went to my Women and Public Policy class; it was a class of about 50-60 students and I think I was the only freshman. As my classmates settled into seats in the small lecture hall, our professor, Jen, apologized as she placed her cell phone on the podium. She explained that she had to keep it turned on because she a had flight out of Newark later that day and she needed to keep up on any delays due to the incident in the city.

That was the first that I heard about a plane crash.

This was college in 2001.  I had a TV in my room but it wasn’t hooked up yet. We had the internet but it was hardwired and most of my time was spent on AIM, not looking at news sites. I had a cell phone but it definitely wasn’t smart.  In class I had a notebook and pen so there was no way to seek out more information than what the instructor shared with us. I hadn’t heard about a plane crash but everyone in class seemed fairly calm. We talked about what had happened for a few minutes, but most of us assumed it was just an errant pilot; a tragedy, but nothing too life-changing for the majority of us. There were no details available.  We didn’t have smartphones or wi-fi available.  All of our news came from television or our wired internet access and neither were available in the lecture hall. So from 9:50-10:30am we continued on with our normal class schedule, discussing women in the current political system. I packed up my bag at the end of class and followed a group of students out of the building. I remember walking back to the dorm, over the Hickman Bridge, listening to people around me say classes were cancelled for the rest of the day. It seemed strange but I figured I would get details when I made it back to my room.

I walked back to my dorm on the other side of campus planning to turn on the news while I got organized for the rest of the day. Then I remembered that I didn’t even have a tv (stupid no cable in the dorms). But I quickly realized it did not matter.

As I walked into the building, you could sense the panic. The stress and tension in the air hit me like a slap in the face. Girls were walking around crying.  A group was huddled around the one television in the back lounge.   I walked up the three flights of stairs to my room and immediately saw that my answering machine was blinking wildly. Each message was from my mother, trying to get in touch with me. I grabbed my cell phone, which had been turned off in class, but the call would not go through.  “All circuits are busy” was the only response I got when I dialed.  Cell phone lines were jammed.

As I kept hitting the redial button I watched my floor mates pace up and down the hall. One of the girls walked past my door no less than twenty times in 2 minutes. She was trying to get a hold of her father, who worked in the Twin Towers. Others were just trying to find their parents even if they didn’t work in the city. We all just needed the reassurance of talking to family.

Unable to get through to anyone on the phone, I took my cell phone and walked back downstairs to the lounge and sat on the couch with my dormmates, staring at the images that were being flashed on every station on our common room TV. No one spoke.

After a few minutes I couldn’t watch the news anymore. I headed back upstairs to my computer, sure that I would be able to find more information on the internet. The news anchors were so unsure and so frightened; they kept showing the same clips over and over and they didn’t have any answers.  I knew I could find out more on the internet.

At 11:00am I finally got through to my mother (while reloading news sites over and over) and she was relieved to hear from me. She told me you could see flames from the beach by our house and that there was a huge cloud of smoke and a smell enveloping Middletown. She asked if I wanted to come home, and while I considered it,  I chose to stay.  I wanted to be with my friends, and I admit that the idea of driving home was frightening.  None of us knew what was happening or what would happen in the next few hours.  It felt safer for us all to stay in one place.

It wasn’t easy, though. The panic in my dorm just increased all afternoon. My friends and I sat in stunned silence watching the television coverage and reading each other updates from the internet. At one point, military planes flew over campus, and people ran for the basement. No one knew what would happen next. Were we at war? That sense of terror was something unimaginable only hours before.

We watched the news for hours on end. I IMed and received IMs from friends who were at school in the city, in DC, and across the country. People I hadn’t talked to in months came to mind. I went to a tiny high school, 60 students in a graduating class, and our network of students was reaching out to one another. We just needed to know that everyone was all right. I remember the anxiety we all felt while we checked on all “our” Maryland people, friends who went to school near the Pentagon and Washington, DC. Eighteen years old and we were frantically searching for people just to make sure they were still there. Messages popped up on my screen continuously because the internet was the only way to get in touch with anyone.  Phone lines were still down and we were being told not to use them in case emergency responders needed to get through.

AOL Instant Messenger was our lifeline. Away messages served as lifelines and life affirmers.  Emails were sent back and forth.  And I will never forget signing on to our high school email network and reading the the public announcements, a forum usually reserved for messages about upcoming school dances and PTA fundraisers.  The tragedy began to hit home as some of my peers posted messages asking for the readers to look for names on lists- parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins. As each new manifest was posted by the media it became more and more apparent that some of those who were missing would not be coming home that night.

This wasn’t supposed to happen to people you knew…

Only a few minutes later my mother got through to me again, telling me that my brother’s best friend’s dad was missing. That’s when I made a decision. I went home.

And I stayed home. School was cancelled for days. We weren’t sure when classes would start again.  Most of my floormates went home, too.  We didn’t know if we were at war, if terrorists would strike somewhere else in the coming days, if we were safe.  Suddenly college didn’t seem that important.

At home, my mother told me how on the morning of September 11th, ferries came from the city to our harbor. Ferries that were based all over NY just packed with passengers from NYC. People who just had to get somewhere besides Manhattan. Ferries would load up and sail to any dock available outside of Manhattan.  Passengers stumbled off the boats- people covered in ash, people in shock. They were hosed down immediately by men and women in hazmat suits, for fear that they were carrying biological agents.

Over the next few days the newspapers talked about how my town, Middletown,  was the town in NJ hit the hardest by the tragedy. We lost so many. So many people from my church, people I knew from middle school and high school. Parents, siblings, friends, colleagues all of them. We were a commuter town and every family was touched in some way.

We all grew up that day and our lives changed forever. Safety and security became the most important social and political issues.  9/11 effects us to this day; we take out shoes off at the airport, we arrive 3 hours early, and we still get a little too nervous when flying. But this isn’t new for my students. For them, it’s just the way it’s always been. September 11th is history to them, something they read about each year. For my entire teacher career I’ve had to be careful of what I’ve said on 9/11 because there was always a student in the room whose life was touched by the tragedy.  But this year?  My students  were not born when the tragedy struck.  If their family lost a loved one my student most likely never met them.

That’s hard for me to comprehend because 9/11 is such a huge part of my life.  But for my students it’s something their parents and other adults talk about.  The visual of a plane hitting the towers live on television isn’t part of their life; that’s something I can’t imagine.  But for my students today is September 11th “capital letter because it’s a month” not September 11th “a day that changed our lives forever so it has forever been ingrained in our minds”.

For me, it is hard to fathom not being able to articulate exactly where I was that day, that hour, that minute.  While I am glad they have no memory of the terror our nation, especially the tri-state area, experienced that day, it still leaves me stunned.  It’s such an integral part of my life that I can’t imagine it not being a cornerstone in others’ lives.  Yet I am grateful for that blessing, too.  September 11th will always be a day that stops me in my tracks but I am glad that it’s history for my students.   hope they never experience anything like we all did on that day. But I also hope that they never forget.

We will never forget.
God Bless all those lost on 9-11-01……

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