I never saw it coming. You never do. You’re just rolling along one day, and boom! The next minute is tragedy. I remember that I was getting the kids ready for school that morning. We had already gotten breakfast, and everybody was dressed, and like moms and kids all over the world, we were watching cartoons until the kids had to leave for school. My husband called, and when he asked me if I was watching TV, I remember laughing at him and saying “Duh! Of course we’re watching TV. The world would stop revolving if we didn’t watch “Rocket Boy and Big Mike” every morning!” He told me to get the kids out of the room and turn on the news. That made me nervous, because he was not the type to chase the kids out of the room for anything. I shooed the kids out of the room and changed to the morning news and immediately saw why my husband had called. The World Trade Center tower 1 had been hit by a plane. I remembered seeing the news footage after the Empire State Building had been hit by a plane, but the damage was nothing like the gaping hole in the side of tower one. Of course, that was because the Empire State Building had been hit by a small, private plane. My husband and I talked for a minute, and we both wondered if this was a terrible accident or if it was a terrorist act. Of course, we were also concerned because it was a Boeing plane and if this was a terrorist act, there was risk that there would be further strikes against Boeing—which is where my husband works. We started talking about other Boeing sites, and if they had been evacuated or put on lockdown. We spent a few moments discussing what I should do if he was unable to leave because of a lockdown. It didn’t take long for the kids to come back to the TV, and it took quite a bit of fast talking to get them out of the room once they saw all that black smoke.
Finally, I got them out of the door and off to school, and I sat down to watch the news coverage. At that point, no one really knew what was happening. There was no word about the hijackings, there was no idea if this was deliberate (although they assumed it was), and they had no idea what was going to happen next. All that confusion reminded me of another day six years earlier when I had sat on the same couch, watching the same television, listening to the same confusion. I had watched the entire story of the Oklahoma City bombing unfold. My youngest daughter was barely 4 weeks old when the Oklahoma City bombing took place, and I remember that I spent the entire day on the couch, holding her, feeding her, too absorbed by the news to do anything else. I remember hoping that this would turn out to be a terrible, terrible accident, because the idea that we might be under attack was too horrible to really thing about.
I had been sitting there for a while, lost in my own thoughts, when the second plane hit. The shock of seeing it live made it almost unbelievable. I couldn’t understand what had happened. I couldn’t believe it was possible. I kept thinking “This can’t be real. It just cannot be real.” I truly wanted to reject reality, because once the second plane hit, there was no chance that the first plane had just been a horrible accident. It was obvious: we were under attack. I didn’t know whether to be mad or sick, and while I wanted to be mad because it felt a little safer, the truth was that I just felt sick and scared and uncertain of what to do. My husband was at work; my children were at school. I started chiding myself for letting my children leave for school, and I was tempted to go and get my children and bring them home, to not let them be away from me. I was afraid that something would happen and that I wouldn’t be able to get to them. I talked myself out of it, reasoned that all I would do was scare them witless, but I really wanted to go and get them.
Realizing that other mothers like myself might not know, I called a friend of mine and discovered that she hadn’t seen the news either. I spent a few minutes on the phone with her, sharing what I had seen already. Then I called two other moms on my street who also turned out to be unaware. Each time I was amazed to hear how happy they sounded when they first answered the phone, and how stunned and sickened they sounded once they saw the live pictures on TV. Usually I feel better when someone else feels the way I do about something; it feels validating. Sharing that sick, stunned feeling wasn’t nearly as nice. I finally called my mom, and we sat watching the TV, praying that the people inside the towers would be rescued. We prayed for a long time, praying for the dead and their families, and for the families waiting to receive their survivors; we prayed for the rescuers and the hospital workers, even for the media. We were pretty deep in prayer when my mother suddenly stopped speaking and she moaned. She had been praying with her eyes open, and she had seen the jumpers—the people who jumped from the towers rather than die in the heat and the flames. Neither one of us could pray another word. We just sat in horror and watched the people jump and die. I remember hoping that the words in Romans 8:26 were true.
“For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.”
We were still on the phone when the news came through that the Pentagon had been hit in Washington, DC. We finally hung up. There really wasn’t anything else to say.
I sat there in silence on the couch, wondering what was going to happen next. Then the south tower collapsed. By this time I had been sitting there watching the events unfold for almost 90 minutes. At this point, the constant replays of the planes hitting the towers were making me numb. They added the footage of the south tower collapsing to the stack of repeating images, and I became even more numb. The newsmen started talking about protecting the president; that the vice-president had been taken to the secret bunker; that the president was in the air and wouldn’t be allowed to land until things were safe. I can’t tell just how much those phrases chilled me: the presidential bunker, the president being kept “safe” in the air. I remember being a young child afraid of nuclear war—that was the threat when I was a kid. The Cold War was going strong, and we feared that one day, Russia and the US would finally have it out in a huge nuclear battle. When we talked about it at school, many of the kids would ask what would happen to our government if there was nuclear war, and we were always told that the president would be protected from any harm. He would either be taken to a special bunker where the radiation couldn’t harm him, or he would be up in a plane in the air, and he would stay up in the air until they could find a safe place to land. Back then, that information was comforting, but on 9/11, hearing that the president was “in the air” and would remain “in the air” was terrifying. It was like all my childhood fears had come true. The terrible thing I had feared as a child had suddenly appeared and instead of nuclear war it turned out to be random attacks on US soil. I kept waiting for the Civil Defense siren to go off, or for the TV channels to start playing that awful alarm sound that used to be associated with Civil Defense warnings; now we use it for Amber Alerts. I was still sitting there wrapped up in my fear when the reports started to trickle in about a plane crashing in Pennsylvania. But there didn’t seem to be much information about the plane in Pennsylvania, and then the north tower collapsed, and all the focus came back to the World Trade Center. Then the images started to roll in from the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and I began to wonder where that last plane had been headed before it crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Anymore, I honestly don’t think I want to know.
It occurred to me that eventually my children would come back home from school, and I would have to somehow explain what had happened to them. They weren’t little kids anymore, and they had a right to know—to know something at least—maybe not the whole truth. I couldn’t imagine what I would say, and yet I couldn’t imagine letting them see the news coverage either. How do you explain terrorism to a child who still believes that the world is full of good people? How do you explain why someone kills thousands of people? How could I explain that they shouldn’t be afraid when I was so afraid? I had no idea.
After all the horrible images and the sickening news on 9/11, the news in the following days took on a different sound. It was subtle, and at first, I didn’t hear it. There were so many reports of death and destruction, and the images were as horrible as the images of the attacks themselves. There were reports of hundreds of firefighters and police officers that died in the towers; there was footage of the terrified, debris-coated people who flooded over the Manhattan bridge on foot trying to get away from the destruction; there were the first-hand accounts of those who had evacuated the World Trade Center, who had had to run from the collapsing buildings. That part was still horrible, but there was this other part, another sound in the news, and it sounded bittersweet and even hopeful. There was the thousands of people who lined up to give blood; cities all over the nation were getting record amounts of blood donations as people realized that this was one thing that they could do to help what we hoped would be the injured who were found alive in the rubble. The donations persisted even after we realized that no one else would be found alive in all the wreckage. There were so many accounts of firefighters and police officers that had continued climbing the stairs as others had evacuated, hoping to reach the people trapped by the impact of the planes. Their deaths only increased the sense of nobility and selflessness that it must have taken to run into that inferno even as others ran out. And the pictures from the capitol: George Bush, walking alone from Air Force One into the White House, fearless, only hours after the towers fell, walking without a security escort even as the nation feared more attacks. Seeing our Congress, gathered on the capitol steps, singing “God Bless America.” The inevitable country music song that popped up to remind us that we are free people who must fight to keep our freedom. The stories of assistance, and rescue, and bravery by common people who, despite their own desperation to escape the burning towers, stopped to assist another person, often saving their life. And finally, the story of a group of airline passengers who fought their hijackers to the death in order to prevent others from having to die with them. A few of their final known words became our war cry in Afghanistan: “Let’s roll!”
I realize that 9/11 is a national tragedy that will never totally be healed for those who lost their loved ones, but I also realize that 9/11 gave America a gift that the terrorists who attacked us did not anticipate. They had not imagined how this nation would pull together, how we would support and care for one another, how we would face this tragedy not only with courage, but with compassion and with an outstretched hand, reaching out to help our brothers and sisters in New York, in Washington, in Pennsylvania. They didn’t count on our suddenly realizing and honoring the heroes in our midst. And they didn’t count on our unfailing faith in God, either. As we remember the events of September 11, 2001, as we remember the many who were lost, let us also remember the essential goodness of the American people. Let us remember not only the death and destruction, but also the noblesse and self-sacrifice, not only the suffering, but also the healing. And most of all, let us remember that in all of it, God was with us then and is with us now, weeping, mourning, and remembering. Let us dedicate this day to their memory, and to the hope that we can create a better peace in our time, a peace that will be worthy of their memory and of their sacrifice.