Where were you on 9/11?

Cover illustration of The New Yorker by Art Spiegelman, 9/24/11.

According to Pew research, 97% of all Americans remember exactly where they were on the morning of 9/11, ten years ago.

I know I do.

I was driving to work at SFGT Advertising in Philadelphia, listening to NPR and thinking what a glorious, perfect day it was. About five minutes to nine (yes, I was late) a woman interrupted the news and said, “A light plane has just collided with the World Trade Center.” I thought — “Jeez, what a schmuck! It’s perfectly clear, how could you possibly run into a building that size?” Then I parked my car and ran upstairs to work.

A cluster of people were in the conference room watching TV, and I wandered in to see what was going on. When I saw the huge, gaping hole in the upper floors of the North Tower I was horrified. And then I saw the second plane hit the South Tower and explode into flames. It wasn’t a light plane. And it wasn’t an accident. The scenario was so bizarre, you simply could not believe your eyes… and could not tear yourself away. I called my mother-in-law in Greenwich Village and she crisply informed me that she lived “nowhere near the World Trade Center, for heaven’s sake” — but my nephew was supposed to have started nursery school in the WTC basement that day, so she was worried about him. (His parents had decided to wait until the next day.)

We watched as the smoke got blacker and more horrible around the upper floors and then, unbelievably, the South Tower fell. It was like a roller coaster falling away underneath you; a visceral plunge. I remember the stunned shock from the news announcers. Nobody had expected that, not so quickly, not a complete collapse! It was there, and then it was gone.

The news kept getting bleaker and more surreal. Which planes were missing? Where were they coming from and going to? Was Washington hit, too? What had happened to the flight over Pennsylvania? As they began to announce the flight numbers of the planes that had hit the WTC, I just started sobbing — thinking about all the times I’d put my daughter on planes alone to go see her dad, and how awful that felt, then imagining somebody prying the stub out of their pocket to see if their kid was on one of those planes. Inconceivable.

I remember my friend Abby being so angry, so inconsolable, so proud that she found a flag she could fly out our brownstone office window. I remember driving home with the flawless blue sky now a mockery, and huddling on the sofa with my husband, watching the imagery over and over again. And picking up my daughter at 3 pm (or was it noon?) when they let the kids out, and told us that they hadn’t been told anything. Some children had parents that worked in New York, and nobody was sure if they were safe.

I still can’t stop crying when I see images from that day. I don’t want to look or remember, but I feel like I have to — out of respect for all those we lost, and all those who lost loved ones.

Where were you on 9/11? I know you remember.

19 thoughts on “Where were you on 9/11?

  1. Hi Betty,
    I’d decided not to write about 9/11 because every journalist you could think of and even those you’d never heard of were writing about it, but when you asked “Where were you that day?” I started thinking and remembering and realized I needed to write about it.

    Short answer: I was thousands of miles away in California, but like the rest of the world watching it all on TV… Long answer: at my blog.

    • I love that you wrote, Rosie … and even though I think it’s kind of narcissistic to make this awful tragedy about ME or where I was… I still think it’s a collective awful memory that can still bring us together and remind us of how on that day, we all did feel like communal citizens of this earth — and had a blinding flash of what is really important in life, when all else is said and done. Really liked your post, too!!!

  2. The Empire State Building had always been my favorite place in New York, so when the World Trade Center replaced it as the tallest in the city, I was pretty disappointed. But through dozens of visits and working for several freelance clients in both towers, I grew to love the place, its ridiculously out of proportion size, and the incredible views of the entire city from the Observation Deck. I was in Prince Edward Island that morning, doing some repairs on a house we were trying to sell. A neighbor came over to tell us what had happened, and then said that the towers had fallen. I was sure he was mistaken, but when he provided details, I felt my knees buckle — the “visceral plunge” you described so well. I still can’t watch the footage.

    What an amazing decision your nephew’s parents made that morning. I wonder how many times they’ve told that story.

    Thank you, Betty, for putting these words together. Eloquent, as always.

    • Dear BB — Well, coming from such an eloquent person I take that as the highest praise… but this 10th anniversary brought up such deep memories and turbulent, unresolved feelings, I had to write. It is remarkable that my brother-in-law Stevie and his wife had just randomly decided to put off the visit to the World Trade Center childcare facility until September 12 (and isn’t it chilling to think that people had their toddlers there??) –but sometimes that’s all we have to go on. Another friend of mine had a ticket on Flight 11 from Boston to LA to finish editing a commercial and decided the night before not to go because his wife was peeved that he was going out of town again. His best friend and producer was on that flight that was the first to crash into the Towers. He saved his ticket … it was so chilling to see. We are all lucky simply to be alive and it’s always good to remember that — Thanks for your comment, Charles!

  3. Very moving post, Betty. I’ve been wanting to write something all weekend, but just can’t seem to get the words to gel.

    That Tuesday morning, I was in my hotel room in the Garden District in New Orleans. I had been there since Sunday morning. I was in town to photograph my lawyer association client’s annual conference, beginning with Sunday night. Tuesday would be the last full day of workshops and events and the conference was to close with the changing of the gavel early Wednesday morning; then I would fly home. I was ironing my shirt and getting ready in a leisurely fashion. My friend Cammie called me (I didn’t have a cell phone, I don’t think, so I must have told her what hotel I was staying in). She said frantically, “turn on your tv!” When I did, the first plane had already hit, but the second had not. We stayed on the phone together, watching, not saying a word. I remember watching the second plane hit…then hearing about the Pentagon. I think I was like most people—utterly frightened. When would it stop? Would it stop? One plane after another after another.

    I got dressed and caught the trolley to the conference hotel. No one was smiling or talking on the trolley. My thoughts were, “do they know? Did they get dressed, get on the trolley, and not know yet?” When I arrived at the hotel, there were big screen tvs rolled out on each floor of the hotel and dozens of conference attendees were gathered around to watch the horror continue to unfold. I’m not even sure if any attendees were even in the workshops, which had already begun. We all stood there, not speaking. When the first tower fell, there was a collective gasp. All those people, the ones who had initially survived, gone. How many? Why? I was appalled, sad, and very angry…but most of all, utterly helpless.

    It was chaos to get out of New Orleans, which was to be expected. The executive director of the association found the LAST rental van in the city and piled six employees, me, and his wife into it and off we went. It was late in the afternoon, so an overnight stay was required, but we made it home last Wednesday night.

    In early 2002, my friend Sue had heard about a woman who had died in her office at the Pentagon when the plane hit. Her name was Shelley A. Marshall. She worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency in the Pentagon. Her husband, Donn, established a memorial foundation in her honor—Shelley A. Marshall Foundation—to give back to their hometowns through community service (Morgantown, W.VA and Vienna, VA). His wife loved to write, read and she loved taking tea, so activities and projects revolved around those interests, with a focus on children’s story hours, creative writing contests, and donations to public libraries and schools. More than 70 tea parties have taken place in the Foundations “Tea Across America” program, uniting seniors and high school students throughout Virginia, Maryland and in Morgantown, West Virginia. He donated Shelley’s retirement savings to the Foundation. Sue and I attended the first fundraiser, held at a plantation in Leesburg, VA. Shelley and Donn were married at the plantation in 1994. I met their two children, son Drake (3 at time) and daughter Chandler, just 1 year old). There was a silent auction and while I was reading the auction card for a weekend stay somewhere, a woman approached and mentioned that Shelly loved that particular place. It was Shelley’s mother, Nancy Farr. All I could say was “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

    Another neighbor and friend, who is a Marine, was working in the Pentagon at the time. He and other colleagues were supposed to be in a meeting room at the time the plane hit (in the same location!), but since it was such a beautiful day, his boss postponed the meeting so he could get out for some exercise (as I remember it). My neighbor was sitting in his office when the plane hit. The plane stopped short of the “ring” his office was in. Since he has been around war-time operations and heard bombs, he immediately thought it was a bomb. He and other colleagues ran to see if they could help or save anyone. They couldn’t.

    I didn’t know anyone personally who perished that day, nor any of their family members, but the loss was still so great to me (just as it was to all Americans). The world will never be the same and it’s sad to have to say this, but we cannot have blind trust anymore. We have to vigilant and never forget. We are a forever changed country.

    • Cindy — Thank you for sharing your story. I think we are, most of us, sharing a collective post traumatic stress disorder around 9/11… and as painful as it is to look back, it does help to share our stories and to realize that when it comes to that day, it was truly an attack on all of us — and we all lost something so huge. Maybe it was our innocence, and our sense of being safe in our world. Your story of the “Tea Across America” service projects in honor of Shelley Marshall was so moving — the generosity of her husband to use her retirement funds to do something for others, when he clearly could have just kept them for himself, shows a level of loving intention and grace that really repudiates the violence and horror of that day.

  4. Hi Betty! Yes, I remember that day. We were living in the Bay Area at the time and I was working as a volunteer Information Officer at the Alameda County Superior Courthouse. I remember the Sheriff’s Deputies telling me to help clear the courthouse and didn’t know why until after everyone was out and it was unbelievable! Thank you so much for sharing!

    • Lisa — I often think about the people in Utah and California, and how removed they must have felt from the immediacy of New York, and yet how connected as Americans. Thanks so much for sharing your story as I imagine anybody in government offices must have felt particularly at risk. Take care! B

  5. It was 2 hours earlier here in Utah. Luckily, I had a conference that day or I would have already been at school. I heard my then, 16 year old son say, “Oh no!”, or something like that, in a voice I did not recognize as Daniel’s. We sat and watched together in horror. I thank God that I was there with him that day and we were together.

    It was a long day. We have many students whose parents fly for Delta. At the time we didn’t know what airlines were involved. The school spent the rest of the day trying to track down all of the Delta employees. There was such a sense of community.

    We were all doing such different things, but we were all brought together in some way.

    • Gail, I’m so happy that you were able to be with your son through all the horror .. being with our loved ones was what we all wanted on that long day. I can only imagine what those long hours before we knew anything (the airlines involved, the flight crews and passengers that were lost) — and because kids in Lulu’s school had parents working in New York, there was the same holding-of-breath until we learned everyone was safe. Thanks for sharing your touching story, Gail!

  6. I was approaching the Pentagon when the plane went in there. I hadn’t seen the news before I left the house, on my way to Martha’s Vineyard, so I knew nothing about what had happened in NYC. I was listening to a book on tape, ot listening to the radio, so I was surprised when the traffic slowed and then stopped as other apparently were watching the sky and seeing the plane approach the Pentagon, then hit. The percussion from the explosion was like nothing I had ever experienced on a highway, and at first I thought there had been an horrific accident with a fuel truck. Then the man in the car next to me told me about the plane and what had happened in NYC. The smoke was horrible and no one really knew quite what to do next. I pulled off to the shoulder with two other cars and we got out to see what we should do. No one’s phones worked. I wanted to run down to help, but knew that I would probably just be in the way of the professionals. But you felt so helpless just standing there watching the smoke. Then there were two more explosions – maybe cars in the parking lot that were ignited? – so the other women and myself decided we had better get farther from the scene. Suffice to say I didn’t get very far. I spent the rest of the day in gridlock in Crystal City as they closed DCA, the Pentagon and federal offices. It is still so real to me I am shaking as I type this. I have heard some people say we are playing too many rememberances of that day on TV, but I agree with you that it is more than about the horror. It is also about the many heroic efforts of first responders, survivors, and the better nature of people that I celebrate.

  7. Yes, Betty, for our generation nothing except JFK’s assassination had given us that kind of recall. We will always remember where we were on 9/11 and sadly so will our children. Thank you for telling your story and sharing your emotions.

    • You are absolutely right, Debby … and much as I didn’t want to remember or go back to that awful day, I am hoping for some sense of collective closure — and for a way to honor those we lost and can never forget. Peace.

  8. I was at work in Savannah. My call center group answered calls from Medicare Beneficiaries. About 8:55 a.m. one of my reps said that one of her callers had just told her that a woman said she just saw that a plane had just flowed into the World Trade Center and the news was saying it might be a terrorist attack. I had a small tv in my office and I pulled it out, put it in the center of the call center and turned it on so all my people could listen to what was going on. As the events progressed the calls STOPPED because our callers were all glued to the TV just like we were in disbelief. I had one of my people tell me today that she still remembers how much she appreciated that I let them have a TV so they could hear what was happening on that historic day. I am glad on that day, I threw “rules” out the window and did what I thought was right. Yes, I remember all the details of that day.

  9. I had the same exact morning, only I was with my LevLane family in our conference room, transfixed and paralyzed until the GSB building decided to close for the day and we got in our cars and just drove home. I clearly remember wanting to hug Teddy tight when he got off the school bus, but he was not freaked out (like me) and I decided not to infuse him with my (very rational) fear that his young life would be changed forever. Unlike me, my child would grow up in a world where international terrorism could strike swiftly and devastatingly, so close to home. On a more beautiful note, I am blown away by the memorial at Ground Zero, and look forward to seeing it in person!

    • Lori, Thanks for sharing your story — and yes, that hard reality that our children will have this as part of their growing-up memories. I remember watching the TV that night until suddenly, I realized the kids were watching too — and I didn’t want them to have those images burned in their memories. I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know September 10 — but you are right, that memorial is really beautiful and meaningful. I love that the guy whose idea it was had previously only been working on firemen’s stations. How fitting…

  10. I was at my home in Bhopal, India. It was 8:30 in the morning and my neighbor told me about it… a few hours after it took place. Most of us didn’t know about it as it was night time in India.
    Watching twin towers collapse was a horrific site for me. I was a great admirer of those towers and wanted to be at their top someday.
    To tell you the truth, some of us here in India were convinced that the worst was yet to come. Thankfully, the US didn’t suffer much after 9/11, at least, not on the home ground but countries like India are still facing terrorism, and feel themselves way too feeble. The terrorists strike at will and our efforts are limited to pushing some white papers on this or that incident.

  11. Also at work, trying to fathom the whys and wherefores — totally shocked and disbelieving. Since then, we’ve tried to be more accepting and trusting of others because it would be easier to not be so.

    • Such a good point, Meredith! It made me know that we had to work to understand the causes behind such mindless hatred and violence … and I hope avoid these tragedies from happening again. Thanks for writing!

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