Tuesday, September 11th was a beautiful day – sunny, warm – but not too warm – and cool – but not cool enough for a sweater or a jacket. It was a perfect day.
I was at work at the junior high. The new addition to our school building was still underway and the school office was not yet ready for us to occupy. The desks for the office personnel – the principal, the two assistant principals, the nurse, the assistant secretary and me – had been temporarily relocated and were haphazardly placed in the middle of the school library. We had only the bare essentials in the way of equipment – just enough for each of our phones and the two electric typewriters. We had no cable connection yet because all those cables were still to be rerouted – so no capacity to turn on a TV. I had a portable radio but the reception, that had never been very good in the first place, was even worse because we were no longer near any windows.
School starts at 7:55. The time between 7:35 and 8:15 is always really hectic and busy. There are teachers rushing around trying to make copies or gather materials for the kids in their first period classes – and kids rushing in and out with paperwork to turn in to the office or coming to school late because they overslept or missed the bus. Then, of course, there are always several parents rushing in at the last minute to bring items their kids had forgotten – like their homework or their lunch.
This was an especially busy morning, because I was alone in the office. The principal and one of the assistant principals were already out of the office for an early morning principals’ meeting. The other assistant principal was out of the office because she was taking over a class for a teacher. The assistant secretary was also at an early morning meeting that day leaving me as the only person to handle all the kids, parents and teachers with last minute issues before the bell was to ring, not to mention to answer all the phone calls that come in fast and furiously at the start of each day. My husband was home from work that day because he wasn’t well. At the height of activity and chaos in the office the phone rang for the umpteenth time and I answered while trying to write late passes for tardy students. It was Jim calling to tell me that a plane had crashed into one of the twin towers in New York. I briefly thought, “Wow, some pilot in a small plane somehow lost control and crashed into one of the buildings. What a shame. People probably died.” But, I really didn’t have time to think much more about this event because I was really busy with kids and parents and other phone calls. Not long after, I was still busy trying to manage all the calls and the early morning activity – and Jim called again. When I heard his voice again, I said, “Why are you calling me again, this is the worst time of the day – I’m really busy.” And he told me about this plane that crashed into one of the towers – and before he could finish I interrupted him and said, “You already called me about this. . . .” and he interrupted me and said, “No – you don’t get it – a SECOND plane has crashed into the OTHER tower!” And time stopped. And I stood there staring speechlessly into the phone and I KNEW – this was NO accident – it was not a small plane gone somehow astray. Some country had just declared war on the USA! Oh my God!
There were no functioning TV’s in the building that day, so I switched my radio to AM and strained to hear the news reports. Even though the reception was remarkably static-y and difficult to understand, it was clear that no one knew what was going on or what might be coming next. In a rising panic, I called our head custodian and told him something terrible was happening and I asked him to make sure every door in our building was securely shut and locked. I called our Administration Building and spoke with the Assistant Superintendent. I asked him if he knew what was going on and he told me that they themselves were just being made aware that something unspeakable was happening. He told me to make sure every door was shut and he told me to discreetly tell every teacher to remain in their classrooms with their students and that they were not to go outside for any reason. It was such a perfect day that it wouldn’t have been so unusual for teachers to take their classes outside to read or conduct a PE class. I ran from room to room asking teachers to please step into the hall with me for a minute so I could tell them what little I knew. By the time I reached the last of the 30 classrooms, the tragic reality of what I was telling each teacher was really hitting me. In the last classroom, a student teacher was conducting the class and the classroom teacher was observing. I pulled her into an empty classroom and breathlessly told her, “Oh my God, Nancy, I don’t know what’s happening, but planes have flown themselves into the twin towers in New York, the White House and Capitol buildings are being evacuated, the president is being taken to some unknown location and the Pentagon was on fire!” We both started crying.
I returned to the makeshift school office and the phone was really ringing off the hook now! Parents were calling to ask if they could come and pick up their kids. One dad called me from California, where he was attending a business meeting. He told me that two of his kids were in my building and he asked me if they were safe. Safe? In my mind, I was thinking, “What’s safe?” An hour ago, I knew what safe was, or at least I thought I knew what safe was – but now – I no longer knew what was safe or where ‘safe’ could be found. Instead of telling him what I was thinking, I assured him that his kids were safe; that all the doors were locked and that no one was leaving the building and NO ONE I didn’t know was getting in. Then the parents started knocking on the front door. They were all crying and all they wanted was their kids. They wanted their kids to be with them – at home – where it was safe.
Then I heard some scratchy news report that the possibility existed that there were other planes in the air – commercial passenger planes – that might be manned by terrorists – and that an order had been given to shoot those planes out of the sky – American citizens and all. News was so sketchy and often not even accurate. Panic was everywhere! The school phone rang once again and it was the daughter of one of our teachers. She worked in the Sears Tower. She wanted me to get a message to her mother that the Sears Tower was also being evacuated and that she was going to try to make her way home. She just wanted her mother to have the peace of mind in knowing that her daughter was not in a building that stretched far enough into the sky to be hit by a plane.
About 15 minutes later, this girl called back. She was on a bus trying to get out of the city. She was audibly shaken, and she told me, “Oh, my God, you won’t believe what I am witnessing. Our bus pulled up to a stop light and there was a cab parked at the light next to us. The cab driver looked, “Arab – or something,” and “people on the street pulled him out of his cab and they’re beating the hell out of him!” The horror wasn’t confined to New York.
The school day couldn’t end soon enough. I just wanted to be in my own house, surrounded by my own family. And I wanted to watch TV to see what had happened and what was unfolding. I was sad and scared and angry. I watched in perfect horror as the footage of the planes plowing into the towers was replayed over and over. I watched people fall or jump out of windows to their certain death. I watched the people of New York, ash covered and crying and running for their lives. I watched two incredibly enormous buildings – that had seemed so solidly constructed – melt like a house of cards, into a plume of devouring smoke.
The days that followed reminded me so much of the days that surrounded the Kennedy assassination. I was about 11 then but I remember that time seemed to stop. We lived in front of the television for days – like we would again as we watched the horror in New York unfold on live television – and was replayed – over and over and over. It was like we were compelled to keep watching what we had already seen – just to make sure that the unbelievable was actually real.
My heart broke for every person that lost someone – for all the parents, wives, husbands, children, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, coworkers, friends and neighbors that lost someone they cared very much about. None of them knew that the last time they saw one of the victims of this atrocity – that it would be the last time they would ever see them again. These grief-stricken people wouldn’t even have the closure a wake or a funeral is meant to provide – because there was nothing identifiable left to bury. And I was angry – very, very angry.
The next day I still had to go to work. I felt numb and unsure of what the future might hold. Yesterday had started out to be a perfect day – but look how it ended. On the expressway, there were just as many cars, all travelling to their individual destinations – like always. Only today – an extraordinary number of those cars were flying flags. The American Flag was sticking out of car windows and was attached to antennas and was mounted on the flat beds of trucks and there were all waving wildly – but proudly – in the rush of wind each car stirred up. When I got to the intersection of Meacham and Higgins – an intersection where all the cars that are being driven by people hell bent to get through the light – briefly meet, barely stop and race ahead – I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There was a man, standing in the middle of this intersection. Standing there – right in the middle of the intersection – with no apparent concern for his own safety – and he was waving an ENORMOUS American flag! And every car – that yesterday would have been aiming for him – honked their horns – not in anger – but in kinship. Drivers were waving at him and giving him the thumbs up and there were people shouting out of their car windows as they passed him – USA! USA! USA!
September 11, 2011
Ten years have passed. Ten years? Is that possible? On September 11, 2011 it’s not only important to remember the events of that terrible day and to think of the people that died but it is also important to remember the heroes that were born that day. Ordinary people – that rushed into those buildings, at great personal risk, to save people they didn’t know. It’s important to remember the people that lost loved ones and friends but somehow have managed to plod through their lives each day since, bearing the burden of grief, but courageously moving on nonetheless – to raise children, care for other family members and friends, go to work, pay taxes and contribute what they can for the betterment of this society. And it’s important to recognize that true heroes aren’t heroic because they can act or sing or dance or throw a ball or swim faster than anyone else. True heroes go about their lives rather quietly, without much fanfare. They are the people that when confronted with danger or adversity, consciously choose to place themselves in harm’s way – for the greater good – and ask for nothing in return.
That’s what makes America great.
USA! USA! USA!