Tragedy has a way of unifying or dividing. Twenty years ago, it unified.
Most Americans 30 and older can tell you exactly what they were doing two decades ago on Sept. 11. Even though most of us in the Midwest were either still in bed or just getting ready for work, all of us remember the instant we learned that an American Airlines plane was deliberately crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
I was busy with early pagination of The Waconia Patriot, the newspaper where I served as editor at the time of the now-infamous 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Even though the internet was widely available in 2001, most people still got breaking news from radio and TV reports. That was when I first learned of the plane crash, but I assumed it was a single-engine craft that had lost its way or strong winds inadvertently forced it into one of the buildings. Nowhere in my brain was there space that could comprehend a deliberate act of terrorism that would end the lives of every individual on board that airplane. It wasn’t until the second plane was crashed into the South Tower 17 minutes later, just after 8 a.m. our time, that I stopped typing and realized this was not an accident. This was a terrorist act.
In that disorienting moment, confusion was replaced with fear. Both my daughters were now at school and other reports were filtering through news outlets about a third plane crashing into the heavily fortified Pentagon, just 51 minutes after the first airliner had crashed into the North Tower.
Finally, a fourth plane had been crashed into the countryside in rural Pennsylvania, thanks largely to a group of passengers who surmised what was going on. They stormed the cockpit, forcing terrorists to divert from whatever their intended target may have been.
By 9 a.m. our time, the South Tower collapsed. Just 29 minutes later, the North Tower experienced the same fate.
A total of 2,996 people were killed in the 9/11 attacks.
My wife asked if we should get our kids from school. Naturally, everyone was in “protect mode,” wanting to pull loved ones close. Nobody knew what was going to happen next because it was all unraveling so quickly. If something worse was about to happen, perhaps here in the Midwest, we wanted to make sure our kids were near us. It was raw fear.
We resisted that urge, as most did, and decided it would be better if they stayed in school, trying to maintain as much normalcy as possible. We also didn’t want to be part of any panic had droves of parents started showing up at schools demanding kids be released. It was not easy being apart. There was, however, a sense of unification in the single act of not allowing terrorists to alter this part of our lives, even in this small measure of leaving kids in school. It was like a silent way to fight back – some control in the day’s chaos.
Still, on that fateful day, the innocence of a nation was forever interrupted. Never before had we felt so exposed to acts of violence in the very place where we previously felt so safe.
A week later I interviewed a former Waconia area resident who worked as a temporary employee on the 89th floor of the South Tower. By strange fate, she normally would have already been at her work desk when the first plane crashed into the North Tower, but because a friend had been staying with her, and taken an extremely long shower, she was running late. As she stood at the base of the buildings, still 15 minutes before she was supposed to be on her floor for work, she decided she had time to run into a café to grab a sandwich. The shower and decision to grab that sandwich may have saved her life. Just seconds before she would have jumped on an elevator to get to the 89th floor, the North Tower was hit by the first plane.
The second plane hit her building just minutes later. Her only recollection at that time was running away from the buildings as panic ensued. She ended up three miles away at Union Square. Many of the people she worked with at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods perished that day.
There have been many lessons learned since the attacks of Sept. 11. Certain individual freedoms were forfeited in the name of safety. Vulnerabilities of key infrastructure became shockingly obvious. The idea that the U.S. was an island immune from terrorism was forever shattered. Enhanced safety protocols at airports and the creation of a new federal agency, Homeland Security, were both born as a result of the attacks. And for a few brief weeks, many people adjusted priorities as we all painfully recognized the precious nature of life.
To a person, we vowed we would never forget. We would not forget those who died. And we would seek justice in their memory.
Today, 20 years later, it’s hard to know for sure what we truly remember and what has been forgotten. There have been so many national tragedies since then, a ledger is needed just to keep track.
But 9/11, like the attack on Pearl Harbor or the assassination of JFK, became a tragic stopping point in the young history of our nation. It has helped define who we are, what we consider to be truly important, and how goodness prevails when we are united.
Do we remember? Do we truly still feel that pain from 20 years ago?
For the sake of those who perished and the nation that has been forever changed, it is a shared pain we must remember.