My 9/11 story
Tomorrow, everyone will be talking about 9/11. And that’s as it should be. September 11, 2001 changed the landscape of the United States forever. Thousands of people lost their lives in just a few hours time on American soil. Not since Pearl Harbor had that happened. And now, 15 years later, a younger generation is coming up that doesn’t remember the world before 9/11. I thought it was a good time to share.
The morning of September 11, 2001, I was pregnant with my second child and still working on settling into our new location. I was a military spouse, freshly moved to New Jersey. I had no friends in the region yet. No family there. And my husband was working all the time. We barely saw each other during the time that we lived in New Jersey. He was working at a highly classified location where a lot of hardcore specialized troop training was taking place. This was my first official move as a spouse (unless you consider me getting married and moving to where he was a relocation) and, bigger than that, my first move as a mother. I had a two year old daughter this time around. That shook things up considerably.
Something that I should probably briefly explain is the honeymoon stage of a military move. You see each time you relocate, there are weeks and often months of things you need to relearn. Getting your hair cut, going to a movie or getting a cup of coffee are all things that might have been easy before but were no longer possible. No ready babysitters. No friends to call. No family in the region. Plus you need to learn where everything is, how to get from point A to point B…it’s a big step. For the most part, because of hubby’s job, I did a lot of that on my own. I’m not tooting my horn at all. I don’t really think I did it well, but no one was maimed or permanently scarred, so I guess we did alright.
Anyway, on that morning, I had the television playing as white noise in the background while I fixed breakfast for my daughter. She was sitting in the high chair when I heard the gasps explode from the Good Morning America team. When I looked up, there was smoke pouring from a massive building in New York. I thought it must have been some sort of flight error. After all, not too long before this, John F. Kennedy Jr had been lost in a plane crash and the media had talked about how instruments were to blame. It wasn’t inconceivable to imagine that this was similar.
And then, while I was watching, the second plane hit.
That’s when doubts started to niggle in the back of my mind. This wasn’t a small commuter plane. Or a tourist helicopter. It was a passenger flight. With a lot of people. And it had flown directly into that building. Everyone saw it. New York City was less than an hour from our home. In a short 45 minute drive, we could be, quite literally, standing on Broadway. My husband was working and at this time, we didn’t have cell phones. He would not have been allowed to have them anyway. (Back to that specialized, classified job mentioned above.) I called his office, but got his voicemail. I left a message.
Then I went outside. I have no idea why, but I wanted to see if there was any indication of the big things happening in the world. Sirens maybe? Air Force on alert?? Nothing. The sky was a gorgeous blue. It was clear – no clouds. Just gorgeous bright blue. It was cool enough to be comfortable but warm enough to still wear shorts and t-shirts. There was a slight breeze. But I remember quite clearly that not only was there no traffic noise, but there was no insect buzzing. No birds singing. Nothing.
It seemed the world had stopped. That absolute silence on a military base was utterly and completely terrifying.
I went back inside and made another phone call to hubby. Voicemail again. I looked at my daughter in her high chair. Was I going to need to evacuate or go somewhere? Where would I go? Did we even have neighbors? What was I supposed to do? I was a military spouse and a mother. Shouldn’t I know something more about what’s supposed to happen when something like this goes down?
I heard a plane overhead and didn’t really think twice about it. From where we lived on base, we were pretty much right next to the flight line. Large transport planes went over our house constantly. But this one sounded different. I went out the door, stood on the porch, and watched the plane as it came closer and closer to my home.
That’s when I realized there was something different. It wasn’t right. The engine sound was different. It was too low. It was flying the wrong way. And it was a civilian passenger flight.
My skin crawled even as my mind screamed logical answers. Of course flights were being grounded. I lived on an Air Force base. They were bringing planes in anywhere they could. Later I would realize how implausible that concept was. Security wise, any plane that wasn’t military wouldn’t be allowed in military airspace. But at that moment, I was frantically grasping for anything that could explain what I was seeing. After watching two planes just cause death and chaos less than an hour away, I was outside, on my porch looking up at a plane that didn’t belong.
I could see the colors. The airline name. I could count windows. I saw exit doors. My house was rattling so much that we had pictures come down off the walls. It was so low that a simple bump of the stick in the cockpit could have been the end of my whole housing area. At the time, I couldn’t imagine they would want to hurt me. Now I’m selfishly and guiltily thankful. I could clearly see details of the plane that shouldn’t be visible from the ground. That means they could clearly see the entire military population stretched out underneath them. I couldn’t conceive of the hate in that cockpit at that moment but now that I know, I’m so very thankful they didn’t decide to dive right there and take out ‘the enemy’ at its source.
In my memory, sometimes I see faces in the windows. That’s probably a trick of my imagination, but it still strikes me that it was possible. After all, if I could see the windows, is it really such a stretch to think I might have seen someone’s face peering down at me? Was I the last civilian outside the plane that someone saw that day? Pregnant me, shading my eyes, staring up at them? What terror were they experiencing at that point?
I watched the plane disappear over my house and went inside – through the house and out the other door to watch it go. It cut directly across the flight path and climbed a bit. No attempt to land or shift directions. Maybe they were circling back around? No. Later the puzzle piece would click for me that these were people with a purpose. At the time, all I could think of was how odd the whole thing was.
I remember pacing the house and the whole time, telling myself that it wasn’t as big as what I thought. Surely I was overreacting. I’d spent my life being told that I was overly dramatic. Of course my mind would play with this tragedy and make it bigger, right?
My daughter fussed in her high chair getting ready to start throwing her leftovers. That brought me out of the panic. I could handle that much. Cleaning her up. Wiping down the chair. Putting the dishes in the sink. It was when I came out of the kitchen a little while later with her balanced on my hip that I heard the next bulletin. A plane had just hit the Pentagon. It was on fire. In my mind, everything was burning. There was nowhere safe. New York and Washington D.C. had been attacked. It was Pearl Harbor all over – but here on the mainland. In the most populated areas of the country. New York less than an hour north of me. D.C. less than three hours south of me.
The panic began to claw at me. I was feeling closed in – it was all around me. There was no place I could run even if I needed to.
I tried to call my husband again. And still I got voicemail. I left another message. Much less composed. Not asking if he’d seen the news. This one wanted to know where he was. Was he okay? The questions were racing through my brain faster than I could process them. My husband still tells me that his memories of September 11th are inextricably wrapped around getting back to his office that night and listening to all my messages in one sitting. Starting with a simple “Hey, are you watching the news?” and each message building in intensity. The increasing panic. The fear. By the end, the absolute terror is all he can remember hearing in his voice. At the time, the questions had me by the throat and wouldn’t let go. Could he get called to go into NYC? We were less than an hour’s drive and he was active duty military. Could he be on his way? I might never know since I couldn’t hear from him. I’m sure notifying his pregnant wife was not on the mind of the USAF as the United States was being attacked.
I had no idea what I was supposed to do next. For some reason a shower came to mind. If I needed to evacuate, I was going to be clean while doing it. I took my daughter upstairs, turned on the television, settled her in a play yard, and took the fastest, but most thorough shower of my life.
And still, when I came out, another plane had gone down. This one brought me, very literally, to my knees. It had gone down in Pennsylvania.
Home. I grew up in Pennsylvania. It was in my blood. My DNA I knew that area like the back of my hand. My adopted brother, the man who had given me away at my wedding lived RIGHT THERE. I had received letters from him that were postmarked from right underneath that big red X on the map that was flashing on the screen.
As I was trying to wrap my brain around this news. an interview with Oliver North popped up on the screen. I sat on the edge of the bed, sick to my stomach, wondering what could possibly come next. That’s when North said something that, to this day, still turns my blood cold. He said that he felt the last plane that had gone down was probably headed for a different target. And then, on national television, he named the exact office where my husband worked.
The world was not only crumbling, it was on fire and exploding bigger and bigger around me. And it wasn’t stopping. It was getting worse as each hour crept by. I couldn’t even breathe between reports. It was all too much.
This was the end. And the beginning. That day had become everything.
My husband got home late that night and told me that he’d been ordered to be ready to deploy at any moment. He was always on readiness anyway, but it was always almost an afterthought – the bag, helmet and backpack stuffed in the back corner of the closet. It was always there but I’d never let myself focus on it or think about. Now, it wasn’t something that was possible to ignore. The image of that helmet and bag were burned on the back of my eyelids along with the scrolling news reports.
After lots of tears and prayer, he went upstairs to pack. My worst nightmares were playing out in front of me. I’d never wanted to be a military spouse, but I’d wanted to marry HIM. Not the Air Force. But that couldn’t be separated from the man he was. So I had accepted it. And now we were at war. And I was pregnant. I was living every bad military movie I’d ever seen.
I didn’t sleep for days. I was terrified to close my eyes in case something else might happen. We left the televisions on both upstairs and downstairs 24/7, afraid that if we turned them off, we’d miss something massive. Not that there was a single thing we could do about it, but we didn’t want to be caught unawares. We were wide awake now.
The base we lived on became the staging point for all of the rescue efforts. We watched the people walk the bridges to get out of New York City and the following day, those same people in tattered business suits, covered in ashes, bleeding, broken, and stunned, weren’t on TV anymore. They were just outside our gates in our little town. It wasn’t a movie or TV show. I saw the bleeding, battered population in person every time I left my home. It was devastatingly real.
We had a friend who was at ground zero that night serving the firefighters as they struggled to find survivors. He said that one of the firefighters asked where he was from and when he said Jersey, the man dropped his plate and started to sob. My friend reached out to pull him close and the guy said, “I didn’t know anyone outside the city even knew what happened. I thought we were alone.” That thought, that story, has always horrified me. They all thought they were alone. They had no idea America was with them.
In the days after, I couldn’t leave the base because security was so tight that it would take hours to get back in the gates. It wasn’t worth it. We had everything we needed on base except for the church we had started attending. They called us to check on us, but there was little we could do. I didn’t want to leave base and get stuck outside. The civilians couldn’t come on base. So we just talked on the phone and prayed. A lot. When we finally got back to church weeks later, we found out several of our church family had perished in the Towers and subsequent rescue efforts. We gathered around those widows and mothers, huddled close in tears and prayer for years afterward.
It didn’t end for us on 9/11 though. A lot of people don’t even remember the anthrax poisoning, but we do. That mail came through our local post office. We had received mail on that same day that had been sorted with those poisonous letters. I was pregnant and terrified that we might have contracted something without even realizing it. We had never really liked the bills that came through, but now was a bill going to be the end of us? Or my unborn child? Could something as simple as an electric bill be the end of our little family? People were in comas from receiving letters that had been sorted with our mail. It wasn’t over the top to imagine. It was very stark reality.
Our post office closed down completely. We got no mail for months upon months. I believe it was almost a year before everything started moving again. I remember spending countless hours on the phone with creditors and even Netflix, trying to explain it. Email statements were not the normal practice then. They honestly could not conceive of a world where we couldn’t get mail. Many thought we were using excuses. Netflix threatened legal action if we didn’t return the movies we had out. We hadn’t gotten them. We couldn’t return them. We canceled our account and had to pay tons of penalties for stealing the movies. (Almost two full years later, as we were getting ready to leave New Jersey, we received a massive clear garbage bag stuffed full of all the mail that we hadn’t gotten. It had radiation symbols all over the outside and warned that all of the contents had been irradiated. We took pictures and sent them to Netflix. They issued us an apology and a credit. Told us we could keep the movies. They didn’t need them that badly after all.)
Years later, while filming a documentary series, I had the absolute honor of spending the day with both the NYPD and NYFD. I got to speak to men who were in the towers. Men who lost colleagues. Brothers. I met kids who had never met their fathers and wives who were beautiful young widows. It didn’t matter that a decade had passed. It was still reality and life. It hasn’t ever been forgotten by those who watched it unfold in real life before them. They live it and breathe it. Never forget. It’s more than a tagline or a hashtag. We hold on to this. That day is burned into our souls. We are changed. We can’t ever go back.
So I decided to share my story. It may change nothing. There are thousands of people with bigger stories. More horror. My friend who has pieces of the tower on his desk – saved from his own rescue efforts. Another friend who is still in counseling from things he experienced in the towers. I could tell you about the mother from my church who lost her son and carried his jacket everywhere with her for a year. The young man who signed up to fight because his brother was killed and then who, himself, was killed in Iraq. So many people with bigger and more life changing stories than mine. I have no right to own that day. But still, it was mine. And it’s yours. It belongs to all of us.