Where were you on the day of 9/11?
Where were you on the momentous occasion, and did you witness the sensational scenes? Live or recorded? Our lives are measured both by the watershed moments that affect everyone and come to inhabit our collective consciousness, and the personal milestones (birthdays, first days at school, anniversaries, marriages) that impact our lives patently and that we individually re-imagine.
Many of us remember Princess Diana’s death, the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion, the Second Gulf war, the Boxing Day Tsunami, Kurt Cobain’s suicide, and, of course, Michael Jackson’s death. Almost all of us can add 9/11 to this catelogue. If nothing else, they make good conversation starters -- where were you when Lady Di died? How did you find out about the Twin Towers?
For each of these iconic events, we can offer our friends and family -- anybody who'll listen, really-- a clear account of where we were when we saw, heard, or experienced the news.
With September 11, I vividly recall details of the immediate aftermath. Wanting to compare notes with others from around the world, I asked for their stories to share them with you, our readers. It is interesting to draw together a motley cross-section of experiences to see how our various mundane daily routines were rudely invaded by this spectacularly tragic drama. Our personal experiences weaved together forge our histories. Here, a sample quilt patch from 2011.
30 year-old Helen, then 21
"I had just begun studying journalism at the University of Southern Denmark and was in a meeting with my study group, when my mum called to tell me a plane had flown into World Trade Center. I was surprised, of course, but went back to focusing on the meeting and next week's assignments. Like so many others, who had still not seen the pictures, I thought it was a horrible accident, but an accident none the less. A few minutes later she called again. "Another plane just flew into the towers. Find a TV. This is something big," she said. My group and I immediately gathered our things and went to a computer room with several screens. Everyone in the room had their eyes glued to the screen, trying to take in what was actually happening. I remember how quiet everyone was. No one seemed to be able to fathom what was actually going on.
I stayed for a couple of hours and then decided that if I was ever going to make it home I would have to leave then. Otherwise I would have ended up staying all night at the university just staring at the screen. It wasn't really until the bike ride home that I began understanding just how big it was. I needed to shop for dinner, but stopping in front of the supermarket all I could think was that food was no longer important: at least not for the moment. Instead, I rushed home and switched on my TV.
Later that evening I spoke to my mother again. Both of us were still in shock. At the time, it was hard to imagine anyone being able to even get the idea of using planes as moving bombs, much less being able to actually carry it out. I remember thinking of my dead father. He was a journalist and had worked in Lebanon during the civil war. I remember wondering what his reaction to all this would have been. Would he have been able to guess who stood behind such a terrible act? Since, I have spoken with my mother about this and about how even though I in certain ways am happy that he never got to witness such cruelty, I wish he had been alive to use his wisdom and knowledge to help prevent the big divides that 9/11 seems to have [created] between Arabs and the West."
Professor Hayder Radha from Michigan
"Before 9am on September 11, 2001, I was watching the morning news as I always did on any other Tuesday morning before starting my normal routine in academia. I always remember that it was Tuesday since I did not teach on Tuesdays during that semester (Fall 2001); and I used to prepare my lecture notes for the remainder of the week on that day. I started watching the news after the first airplane crashed into the World Trade Center's North Tower but before the second plane crashed into the South Tower. During that short time (between the two crashes, which lasted for about 15 minutes), I remember very well that the news anchors on TV were speculating that this was probably just a tragic airline accident, and it seemed that no one thought this was a terrorist attack. Then, I watched the second plane crashing into the South Tower live on television; and at that moment everyone, including myself, knew (a) this was an act of terrorism; and (b) our lives would never be the same from that moment onward. The rest is history that continues to haunt us and impact the way we live, travel, work, and even, for some people, the way they worship."
32 year-old Dana, then 22
Was at work in the financial district of London- The Square Mile- neighboring the iconic Insurance market Lloyds of London.
"I was sat down, tap-tapping away on my keyboard. One avid internet surfer in the office (this was still 2001: people still "surfed", not passively, "browsed") had his screen open on the image of the Twin Towers and an airplane crashing into the first tower being replayed. It was just before 2pm, with many of my colleagues out on their lunch breaks, but the office was still full enough to absorb the early shock waves en masse at this point…
We all initially abandoned our desks to see the replay as he hailed us over: this was the world trade center – somewhere I had climbed on my first trip to America! Many others had known people who worked in the buildings, brought together by the fraternity of trans-Atlantic high finance and insurance. What an awful accident for a plane to veer off track, flying low. Or so we first thought. Like the Lockerbie incident, this would kill the passengers and crew on board as well as inflict carnage on the people below (in this case, towering high, as it were).
Back at our office, desks and PCs were all empty except the workspace of the consummate workaholic who carried on deliberately, stoically, but as it turned out later when events unfolded, foolishly, working.
Then, just as we were about to lose our faith in airport control towers once and for all, the second tower was struck, and all at once, we all knew it for what it was- a terrorist attack. And the world was full of calculating master-minds capable of pulling off such a stupendous operation. The famous Lloyd’s of London bell was rung, and I, a junior memeber of the team, had the significance of this toll explained to me. (Ordinarily rung for maritime disaster, it was nowadays used on occasion for ceremony and nothing else, but exceptional occasion, as one such as this, that would result in a disaster of weighty porportion for the international insurance-reinsurance community.)
By the time it was 2:30 or 3pm all had fled the office for the nearest pub since purportedly we felt at risk being in the financial counterpart area to the site of the ill-fated suicide plane, but also because we all needed to just relate to the experience emotionally over beer and comrades (live , not burning or plunging- to- death). We later learnt that the City- London's financial district- had been officially evacuated. Some colleagues spoke of people they knew who worked there, in Merryll Lynch, in one of the towers, or nearby. Others were on the phone asking after loved ones.
Let it be a home-grown affair, I silently voiced my thoughts heaven-ward (or skyward where the destruction had earlier occurred.) An Arab Muslim living in the West, I already had a sufficient complex about he world’s distaste for terrorism and association with the Palestine cause since ’89- -a legacy we'd rather shake off. Before I could carry on invisibly thinking, my colleague, a Manchester lad newly married to a Jewess with Israeli relations, broke into obscenities and frustrated statments to the tune of: 'f*** the Arabs and f---ing Palestinians. This was them! who else?" he asserted brazenly. Premature forecasts were no good to anyone, and weren't helping team spirit."
The way it changed our lives is clearer for some people than it is for others. Some chose a life of study of Islam or the Middle East, in their desire to investigate some of the grievances cited by the AQ perpetrators. Some lost loved ones; others had near-escapes: from a lower floor, or were late for work, or fortuitously absent. Some departed from a life of blissful pluralsim to a life of jingoistic sentiment embittered by the perception of the ‘enemy’ and the ‘other’ that was threatening their right to security.
As one fellow’s Facebook wall proclaims today: “So it's 9/11 2011. I was in NYC when the towers fell 10 years ago! It is the event that most influenced my wish to live in the Arab World. So I'm living in Jordan now. I've had the chance to travel the contested lands of the West Bank...”
The details may vary, but many of us have similar stories of how our lives were changed forever--for better, or for worse--because of a single event a decade ago.