There are very few days from elementary school that I remember with such clarity. That day was different.
I still remember standing in a long, narrow hallway that ran along the side of the gym. My class had just finished with morning phys ed and the teacher had lined us up to head back to our normal classroom. It was hot in there, I remember that. Most were sweating and I could hear the heavy breaths of my classmates. I had this quick daydream about cold snowflakes falling from the ceiling. I could feel the relieving chill on my skin.
And then we marched out into the main hallway. The gym was right across from the open staircase, which was beside the main office, and as we headed up to our second-story room we watched a small group of teachers gather around a TV in the office. They had stunned, scared looks on their faces, and we just wondered what could possibly be wrong with them.
When we got back to our class, with all the kids whispering about the teachers downstairs, our own teacher briefly excused herself. Now the whispers were open conversations. “What was going on with those teachers?” we curiously asked one another. Then our teacher returned. She looked as disturbed as the others.
Our nation was under attack.
She tried to explain, as best a teacher could to a group of fifth graders without knowing the full picture herself, that there was a bombing in New York, that terrorists were attacking our country. We didn’t know about Pennsylvania yet. We didn’t know about the Pentagon. All we knew was that we were terrified. When the people in charge are concerned, it’s a natural feeling to reciprocate.
We were told we couldn’t go outside for recess, as a safety precaution. We couldn’t turn on the TV. We were told that some parents would be picking up their kids early.
My mom showed up at the regular time and took me straight home. She told me everything she knew, as delicately as she could, on the drive home. Just being in her car felt safe.
At home, my dad was sitting in the living room watching the news on TV. By that point, I knew about the planes. But the safety of being back with my mom began to shift back to concern when I saw my father. He was never home at 3:30 in the afternoon on a Tuesday.
I looked at the TV coverage. “Where are the Twin Towers?” I asked. “I thought the planes crashed into them.”
All I saw was smoke.
That was my experience from 629 miles away. What’s powerful is hearing a story from inside the devastation.
When I went to the University of Michigan for college, I met several friends who came from the New York area. For them, the attacks on September 11th were personal.
On last year’s anniversary, one of them shared the first-hand account from his father, Jon Forstot, who was in the second tower when it was struck. This was his description of watching the first plane approach:
At that moment I saw an American Airlines plane to the north heading south. I could see clearly that it was an American Airlines plane and that it was unusually low. My first reaction was annoyance, that the pilot was being obnoxious by flying so low and I muttered “Jesus”. It kept flying at this very low altitude and I believed it was a plane that was having trouble gaining altitude. I saw that it may not “clear” the World Trade Center as it approached — as it got closer I clearly saw the nose, the cockpit windows with the sun reflecting off them and as it drew close the underside of the plane. All I could say was “Holy shit, holy shit” and then just “shit”. I saw the plane from the underside as it disappeared into One World Trade Center.
You can read his full first-hand account here.
He survived. He was one of the lucky ones. But there were nearly 3,000 who weren’t so lucky.
Today isn’t about letting our differences divide us, or debating the wars that followed that day, or arguing about politics.
Today — and every day, for that matter — is about remembering the fallen, the innocent victims, the brave men and women who gave their lives trying to save others. Remember the courage, the resolve, the American pride that resonated throughout this land following the tragedy.
And may we never forget how blessed we are to live in this nation.