I was a junior in high school.
I was just arriving at school that morning 20 years ago when, at 7:49 AM, American Airlines Flight 11 departed Boston Logan International Airline.
At 8:15, United Airlines Flight 175 takes off from Boston, bound for Los Angeles. Of course, I didn’t know any of this at that time, nor would I have cared; I was on my own way to an art class.
Five minutes later, the bell would ring at our school as we took out supplies to get to work. Just then, at Washington Dulles International, American Airlines Flight 77 was just taking off.
While I was joking with friends at my table, the members of flight 11 heard from the intercom in their plane –at 8:27: "We have some planes. Just stay quiet and you will be okay." Once those words were said, the captain of Flight 175 United Airlines, who picked up the transmission from Flight 11, informed the Federal Aviation Administration.
At 8:46 flight 11 crashed into the North Tower between floors 93-99.
For me – I was still at the art table. I was still unaware.
At 8:52, a flight attendant onboard Flight 175 reports that their plane was hijacked.
At 9:03, flight 175 crashes into the south tower through floors 77-85.
Shortly after this, our teacher informed our class that America was under attack. She turned on the radio that was usually used for music and the class grew quiet. I remember the initial confusion. I remember the teacher – who was always so upbeat and excited – just sitting in her chair, on that morning, now 20 years ago, without words.
That radio would play a song and then there would be a report, “We’ll keep you posted as this story develops.”
I remember passing people in the hallways that morning and asking if they had heard the news. People were confused if they hadn’t and those who did weren’t really sure how to explain what was going on. Yet, throughout the school, news was spreading.
Even then, as my classmates and I struggled to understand what was happening, I remember thinking about those flying around the country that morning and the concern they must have felt. Pilots were making emergency landings at the closest airports, and then at 9:12, passengers onboard flight 77 were calling their loved ones to say goodbye as they learned that their plane had also been hijacked.
Now, as I reflect on that morning 20 years later, I still can’t imagine the realization that those passengers must have come to accept - or didn't have time to process - or tried coping with in a matter of minutes as the planes they were inside were now being used as missiles. I can't imagine looking around that plane at the faces of strangers each coming to term with their fate.
I have sometimes wondered what I would have done. It is easy to imagine that I would have tried to play the hero – or maybe I would have just held the hand of the person next to me.
Would I have started to cry? Would I have called my parents, my wife, and my children to hear their voices once more and to tell them I loved them and that they would be ok? Would I regret not taking more time out of my afternoon on September 10th to sit down and laugh during dinner? Would I have wished I went fishing instead of writing that email? Would I be mad anymore that I had been awoken at 2:00 in the morning because our little one woke up from a bad dream? At that moment, would I have prayed for just a little more time on Earth?
25 minutes later, at 9:37, flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.
Students at Horicon High School were moved to the library where a television on a cart had been set up. Students had arrived before me and were sitting on the floor. I stood near the back and watched.
We all watched – sometimes there was a quiet chatter among the students.
At 9:59, we saw the south tower collapse. I distinctly remember the chatter stopping. I recall an audible gasp from a teacher as it happened. Even for us - young men and women - it was clear that the world had suddenly changed.
News reporters hid in buildings from the debris and the dust. They would soon report that, at 9:58, another 9-1-1 call had been made from a passenger onboard flight 93 that their plane had also been hijacked.
At 10:03, flight 93 crashes into a field near Shanksville, PA. The passengers on board, more aware of the events transpiring around them, attempted to overthrow the hijackers. In the process, the plane descended quickly and couldn’t recover.
News coverage was chaotic and hectic. At 10:15, The Pentagon’s E Ring collapses.
In the library, the quiet chatter never came back. We just watched – all helpless and confused – unable to turn away.
From the north tower, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters – all trying to get out as quickly as they could. So many people were trapped. Some decided to jump from the tower rather than to wait for the inevitable. Others hung onto the windows crying out for help; for a moment - breathing fresh air, away from the smoke that engulfed the upper floors. Firefighters and first responders – knowing that their life was in grave danger would enter the building time and time again to try to save anyone they could.
There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
School didn’t release early – and we only stepped away from the television for a moment to get our lunch trays that were carried back into the library.
I remember the uncertainty that followed. I remember walking home from school that day and seeing the long line at the gas station that extended far down the street.
When I arrived home, my father was already there. He left work early – and he was sitting silently, stunned, watching the news.
That night, my three sisters and I and my parents – as a family – watched a reporter cry as she held up papers that were marked with ashes. She wept for the victims that didn’t know that September 11th, 2001 would be their last. My father cried too, from the couch in our living room. He didn't know that I saw.
All school activities were cancelled indefinitely. For the first time since I could remember, we were gathered together – grateful for having each other.
Even though I have tried, I can’t remember going to bed that night. I’m certain that it was shortly after the television had been turned off. By that point, there wasn’t much more to say. There wasn't anything more to think about.
In the weeks that would follow, America showed our pride. The man who became my brother-in-law would go on to fight in Afghanistan with a few of my friends who enrolled after the attack. Justin proposed to my sister just before deployment. I can also remember playing "America the Beautiful" with the high school band as our football team took the field for the first time a couple of weeks later. My Grandmother, who was born on September 11th, changed the date we would celebrate. I also remember - if even for a brief moment - that our country was together in a collective spirit to mourn and in an effort to rise again.
Students of today were not yet born when our world changed 20 years ago. We owe it to ourselves to remember the tragedy. We owe it to them to remember the unity.
Let us pray:
Dear Lord –
On the anniversary of September 11th, please help us to remember –
Help us to recall our commitments to make each day worth it.
To love… to care for each other… to not take a moment for granted.
Help us to inspire others to aspire for unity.
And help us not to forget.
For the victims of September 11th, may they rest with you.
May their families never forget their smiles and their voices.
May they find peace.
And may we all be united again in Heaven,