Every generation has them. One event that strikes at the heart of the entire country, a moment that determines who the real heroes are, from which point things will never be as they were. Moments that define a new normal for the entire country.
For my grandparents’ generation, it was Pearl Harbor.
For my parents’ generation, it was the assassination of President Kennedy.
For my generation, it was, of course, 9/11.
These are moments that everyone can say, for the rest of their lives, where they were when they heard the news.
I was living in Maryland at the time, in Montgomery County, about 21 miles from the Washington Monument and 22 miles from the Pentagon. This particular September morning was beautiful – the air was so clear it sparkled; it was warm but not humid; the sky was incredibly blue and there was not a cloud in the sky. I remember distinctly walking out of my apartment and looking up at the sky, taking a deep breath and saying to myself “What a gorgeous morning!”
I was supposed to be at work at 8:30 but I was always late. This morning was no different than any other in that regard. And for some unknown reason, during that drive to work I was listening to Howard Stern’s radio show for the first time in my entire life. In 2001 Stern was nationally-syndicated but his broadcast originated from WXRK in NYC. Stern’s studio had a view of the World Trade Center towers, and at 8:46, as I was pulling into the parking lot of my office, Stern suddenly stopped what he was saying and gasped. Then, a very confused Stern tried to report that it looked like a plane had just hit the north tower. But of course, there was no way this would be possible, he must have been seeing things. Right? Once he was sure that the plane did indeed hit the tower, he tried to decide whether it was a jet or a commuter plane. In my mind, I was thinking a jet would have knocked the building over instantly so it must have been a smaller puddle-jumper. Certainly if he looked down, he’d see the crumpled plane in a fiery ball on the ground. Right? And I remember saying, out loud, that if this was one of his jokes or stunts it was VERY un-funny.
At that point, Stern cut his feed over to CBS Radio and began broadcasting news reports live from “Ground Zero” to all of his subscribing stations. So while I was sitting in my car in MD, and was unable to see the tower and its huge gaping hole, I was hearing it broadcast from New Yorkers who were, while trying to maintain their professionalism, clearly shaken, confused, and trying to figure out exactly what was going on.
I ran into my office, where everyone else was working diligently, and told them about the crash. Someone found a TV in some hidden corner of the building and set it up in an outer office that would be most likely to receive a broadcast signal. There it was. I could finally see what I had been listening to, and I stunned into speechlessness.
To be honest, at this point, I don’t remember much about my morning. I don’t remember if I was still in the car at 9:03 or if I had gone inside already. I don’t know if I saw the second plane hit the tower as it happened or if I’ve only seen it replayed a million times since then. I do remember that the brother of one of my coworkers was working at the World Trade Center, so she immediately left and went home.
I do remember that I was at work watching TV when the reports of the third plane striking the Pentagon hit the airwaves and I remember that was the moment that scared the shit out of me. Suddenly this wasn’t only happening on TV a few hours north of me, this was happening 20 miles away. At this point, we were instructed to go home yet no one could move. I was still there, transfixed, at 9:59 when the south tower collapsed. That’s when I started to cry.
That’s also when I left, driving 5 minutes back to my apartment where I immediately turned the TV on and grabbed my cat, Willoughby, clinging to him as I cried harder. And that’s when the second tower fell.
The images of September 11, 2001 are burned into my brain. Sometimes it is hard to know whether I saw the images the first time they aired or the millions of times they were repeated. Now, 10 years later, the effect is the same – one massive collage of heart-rending proportion, of a beautiful day that became a national catastrophe. A day that 2,977 people died. A day that changed everyone who remained.