When I typed the date – Sept. 11 – this morning, I was surprised by how it made me feel.
All these years later, almost two full decades after the worst terrorist attack on our nation in its history, this day still has the ability to generate powerful emotions, to bring us back to that fateful moment when the first plane hit the Twin Towers and life as we know it changed forever.
I remember very clearly where I was when I heard the news. I was living in Boston, working as a freelance journalist. I was conducting an interview with an historic preservationist about a semi-obscure project when all of a sudden he went quiet – as if struck dumb – right in the middle of a sentence.
What is it? I asked.
A plane just hit a building in New York City, he replied.
We sat for a moment in stunned silence. I’m going to hang up now, he said.
I never spoke to him again.
I snapped on CNN and watched in horror as smoke billowed out of a gaping hole in one of the two towers’ shiny windowed skin. Little did I know the worst was yet to come.
Immediately, I swung into a frenzy of phone calls, trying everyone I knew who might be even remotely connected to Lower Manhattan. I did not try to reach any of my former colleagues in the New York press corps. I had a feeling – even at this early moment when none of us could even imagine the scope of what was occurring – that they would be very busy for a long time.
I felt guilty that I was not there to help them, to cover this story as it unfolded, no matter how horrible it might be.
I couldn’t reach anyone. Many thousands of people were at that moment making calls, jamming up the cell lines and rendering it almost impossible to get through.
I did finally get my father on the phone – he was safely upstate. We spoke briefly. He was already convinced it was a terrorist attack. I asked if he thought this was the start of another World War. He didn’t know. I think we might have argued about foreign policy. (If you know me and/or my father, this probably comes as no surprise).
No one knew.
At some point, my boyfriend at the time – also a New Yorker – came home early from work, and we watched TV together. We then walked to a neighborhood bar. Even though it was still quite early in the afternoon, we needed a drink, and we needed community.
I remember it was eerily quiet in Boston, which is where one of the hijacked planes had originated, though, of course, we didn’t know that at the time. The air space had been shut down, and fighter jets were flying patrols overhead, zooming back and forth like oversized hornets.
We drank a few too many – Maker’s Mark and ginger ale was my poison of choice at the time – and we listened to the news on a small radio the bartender had turned up as far as it would go. The bar was full, but oddly quiet, as we all strained to hear the clearly agitated newscasters try to make sense of it all, attempting to remain calm while also expressing the gravity of the situation.
So much time has passed since then – 18 years. And yet, I can remember it all like it was yesterday. And I was one of the lucky ones. I didn’t lose anyone close to me that day. I did end up returning to New York to cover the aftermath of the attacks, which continue to resonate in so many ways even now.
This morning, I participated in a CrossFit workout specifically intended to memorialize 9/11. Myself and a partner walked two miles, trading a heavy weight back and forth – in our case, a 60-pound dumbbell. We carried the weight on our shoulders.
It wasn’t the hardest workout I have ever done, but it was hard enough. More importantly, it made me think.
As I walked, I thought of all the first responders, some of them who never made it out alive, clad in heavy turnout gear and rushing into the towers as people were scrambling to escape, hoping to help and never questioning what hell they might be getting into.
Years later, some of those same first responders are sick, suffering from respiratory illnesses, cancer and other ailments caused by breathing in all the toxic dust on the pile.
The effects of 9/11 are still being felt – will always be felt, I suspect. We owe it to the survivors, to the widows, to the children of the victims, to the first responders and the victims themselves, to never forget.
I know I haven’t.