This past week many people have been reflecting on where they were on 911. And also now after twenty years, many young people have no memory or understanding of that day. The words: Flight 11; Flight 93; Shanksville, Pennsylvania; Twin Towers; ”Let’s roll!,” have no connection for them. For me, those words still make my heart race and bring me back to that beautiful blue-sky morning – September 11, 2001. That year, I was a Learning Specialist at the Dalton School in New York City and living in Princeton, New Jersey. In that early morning, getting ready for work, I went to my car to discover a flat tire. I had to call my mechanic to get it repaired and left a message at school that I would be coming in late. Having that flat tire possibly saved my life.
I was an hour late on my journey northeast. If I had not been late, I would have been driving in lower Manhattan right when those planes hit the Twin Towers. Instead, as I drove on the Turnpike north, suddenly an electronic billboard flashed: “Plane hit Tower 1 – World Trade Center.” My husband and I looked at each other. Right away he said, “Terrorists.” He remembered the 1993 truck bombing. But I immediately thought of a small plane from nearby Teterboro Airport where I had grown up. We continued to travel north when another electronic billboard flashed: “2nd plane hits Tower 2.” We gasped. “Terrorists!” I said. “Turn around,” my husband shouted. Where do you immediately turn around on the New Jersey Turnpike? We kept moving north until we were parallel to the towers. We saw huge plumes of smoke billowing up over the New York City skyline. It was a surreal sight. I am a lifelong Jersey girl, and as a child and teenager that skyline was once so familiar and comforting to me. That city skyline signified possibility and creativity. That’s where Broadway beckons. That’s where museums filled with my favorites from Renoir, Van Gough, Matisse, and Degas stand. That’s where some of the best restaurants in the world serve up steaming plates of flavor and flair. As a teenager in the 1970s, I watched the towers slowly be constructed, rising like double steel monoliths at the southern end of Manhattan. My father was a public relations director for the Port Authority and worked on the Twin Towers project. He would tell us about the construction progress and describe how incredibly tall the towers were. The World Trade Center became quite literally part of my family.
Now pulled over on the side of Turnpike, we were watching it burn, and suddenly we saw the towers fall. In a moment, they were gone. I was thinking, “They just disappeared into smoke and dust!” My husband whispered, “All those people!” I had not thought of the people at that moment. Of course, all the people who were in the building or close by on the ground were dead. Of course, the people, the people, the people – 2,996 of them to be exact. Our country was under attack. Our national security was brought into question.
My husband and I finally turned around and headed south, silent and stunned. We called my in-laws in Washington, D.C. and told them that we were safe, and we made sure that they were safe since my mother-in-law worked near the Pentagon at the time. On the way home, we stopped and bought supplies: giant jugs of water, nonperishable food, and a first aid kit. We didn’t know if there would be more attacks. We went home to turn on the television and wait for answers.
In the following days and months, out of the rubble and heartache, our country came together. We rallied around our flag; we were proud Americans. Can you imagine – every citizen feeling pride in this country? Out of this horrible tragedy came unity.
I did not go to school for the next three days. When I returned to New York, it was forever changed. We witnessed great acts of heroism and kindness. People went out of their way to lend a hand. Almost every New Yorker knew someone who had died. My family’s parish priest, Father Mychal Judge, was the chaplain for the NYFD. He ran into the North Tower to rescue trapped peopled and never came out. His death was the first recorded death after the attack. Several of my students lost their fathers and many of friends lost coworkers. The grief was palpable on the streets of New York. As Americans, we were steadfast in our determination to always remember and never forget. Twenty years later, the world has changed, and I am not sure unity is in the forefront of our national imagination. I hope it is. I pray it is because I will always remember where I was on September 11, 2001 and what I witnessed.
Books for Kids About 911
- Eleven by Tom Rogers
- Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of John J. Harvey by Maira Kalman
- 14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy and Thomas Gonzalez
- He Said Yes: The Story of Father Mychal Judge by Kelly Ann Lynch
- Nine, Ten: A September 11th Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin
- Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes