#NeverForget My 9/11 Story

It still seems like just yesterday.

I had moved into my dorm at Douglass College 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 talk radio was being broadcast in the dining hall and why were the hosts talking about something that had happened in 1993? We tuned it out; it became nothing more than white noise in the background. We were college students and it didn’t seem important. 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 any 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 and 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.  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 they heard that 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.

As I walked into my building, I 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 floormates 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 in touch with 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 where I 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. We’d only met a few days earlier and suddenly the scariest event of our lives was occurring in the city we thought of as our own.  The city.

After a few minutes, I couldn’t watch the news anymore. 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 hoped 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) who 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, alternating between watching the television coverage and reading each other updates from the internet. At one point, fighter jets 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 sent IMs 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, only about 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.

AOL Instant Messenger was our lifeline. Away messages served as  life affirmers.  Emails were sent back and forth.

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 classmates 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…

Later that day, 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.

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. Today, Middletown is known as the place that lost the most residents on 9/11 after NYC.  There are memorials all over town.  There are scholarships and 5K races each year in memory of those who were lost.  It’s a constant part of so many lives.

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 our 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 teaching 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 now?  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. I  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……

 

This post was originally written on my personal blog in 2003.  It has been revised and reposted each year since then.  

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