16 years ago today, our lives changed greatly. I remember the day well, and interestingly, part of what I remember was that it didn’t click right away for me what was going on.
It is, in some way, the day my innocence died.
In life, we have a lot of game-changing moments. While we don’t change instantly and drastically, we certainly do have events that change us dramatically, often by being the catalyst for a change that happens over a period of time. Sometimes, what happens is that all of a sudden, something just clicks.
So it goes with September 11, 2001 for me.
I was running a little late getting in to work and stuck in traffic on the lower deck of Interstate 93 – basically around Somerville before hitting Boston proper. All of a sudden, the radio broadcast on WBZ goes to a special report, and I’ll never forget the first words: “An airplane has flown into the World Trade Center.”
I was speechless. Little did I know that there was more to come.
Naturally, at first I thought this was just a horrible, horrible accident. I suspect many others did as well. I imagined what kind of damage there would be and that there would be many casualties. I wondered just how high up the plane went in, which would give some idea of the casualties. But about 15 minutes later, everything changed – though I didn’t realize it right away. During a live broadcast, I remember hearing a woman (not sure who it was – I don’t recall if it was CBS News or a WBZ sister station in New York) saying that the second tower had just been hit.
There were no words at that point.
I listened to the remainder of the broadcast en route to the office, more intently as time went on. It wasn’t until I got to the office that it started to dawn on me just what was happening: we were under attack. I learned a little later about the Pentagon being hit, and later still about the plane that went down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
By the time lunch rolled around, though, I started to understand – and then wondered if Boston was going to be hit next. I thought, Boston is home to big buildings and is a major city, too, and two of the hijacked planes left Logan Airport. Frankly, that work day is a blur for me; I give my manager a ton of credit for the way he focused all day, as he never talked about it and had his head down the entire time.
Later, when I got home, I watched a lot of the non-stop news coverage of the attacks and the aftermath. It was then that I really started to understand what was going on, that these were well-planned, that there were red flags that appeared to be ignored with the hijackers (including paying a hefty amount of cash – more than most would normally carry around – on the day of the flights), and that the terrorist group behind it was hardly new. This was all stuff I didn’t know much about at the time, but that changed quickly.
And if another event like this were to happen – I pray it never does – I know I’ll look at it very differently as it happens.
For probably the next 2-3 weeks, I was glued to a TV watching continuing coverage of the aftermath and rescue efforts, even at work. This was when web sites were just getting their live streaming together, but for what I watched at the time it worked well. The rescuers did heroic work and then some, many continuing to work without sleep for at least a couple of days, all keeping the perspective that they were alive and owed it to anyone who might still be alive.
It was America at its best. Indeed, when a crisis hits, like the hurricanes that recently made landfall here, the best of us often comes out.
A little after this, I started scouring the newsstands for what they did. I still have a collection of magazines from after the attacks, a reminder of how our world changed and also what rescuers did.
Flying is certainly different now than beforehand, although I don’t attribute that entirely to 9/11. The airlines have done plenty aside from security-related actions to make flying less enjoyable nowadays. At first, I thought I would never sleep on flights again after 9/11 in wanting to be more vigilant, but I still do, especially if it’s a long one and first thing in the morning, or a red-eye (I have only ever been on one of those flights).
None of us will forget that morning, including where we were as it all happened. Looking back on it is always instructive in some way, shape or form, because it is a defining moment in our history that we have lived through. (On that note, I can’t imagine there is a better place to go to learn about that morning than Ari Fleischer’s Twitter, as the former White House Press Secretary gives a wonderful insider account of that day every year.)
9/11 is a morning that I now look back on much more clear-eyed than I was at that time – and it changed me a great deal as well. In future years I will wonder how I will best explain it to my son, who at just under two years of age certainly will not understand any of it right now. That will be a taller order than merely understanding what really happened.