This is my 2009 9/11 column. Sadly, nothing much had changed since then.
SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARKI have this recurring nightmare. I wake up one September morning, look around the neighborhood and check the news, then realize I’m the only person who remembers what happened on September 11, 2001.
Maybe it’s not such a terribly unrealistic thing to worry about.
Where were you on that morning? I headed home from work with no particular plan other than getting some sleep, and turned on the TV for background noise while I got ready for bed.
A shell shocked newscaster was reporting that an airplane had just hit one of the
World Trade Center towers, and that the other was on fire.
“Wow,” I thought, “what a horrible coincidence.”
Then I realized it couldn’t be a coincidence. The only logical answer was that an airborne news crew had been dispatched to cover the fire, and accidentally flew into one tower while filming the other one.
It didn’t take long to realize something even more horrible was going on.
Where were you that moment? The moment the world changed forever? Do you remember?
My then-girlfriend was a 911 call taker for the New York City Fire Department. Having a similar job myself, I knew she was having a really, really bad shift. Still, although I couldn’t remember which part of the city her dispatch center was in, at least whatever was happening seemed to be limited to the Towers.
Then a newsman at the Pentagon in Washington reported hearing the building shudder, as if something huge had hit it.
The United States was at war, as surely as the moment bombs started falling on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. As I shoved a videotape into the VCR and pushed “record”, I remember thinking that September 11, 2001 would be one of those dates remembered forever, just like Pearl Harbor Day.
Will it be, though? Forever is a long time – how many school kids today can tell you the date of the Pearl Harbor attack, or the date when Kennedy was shot? Who remembers the date the Confederacy bombed Fort Sumter?
I had my scanner on, but there was an odd silence at first. Everyone was glued to the TV, if they weren’t actually on TV. I watched a reporter, standing in a Manhattan building with the burning Towers behind him, as he repeated what we knew, and what we didn’t. Suddenly, just behind him, one side of a Tower seemed to slide away. A wall is collapsing, I thought. A lot of people just died.
It wasn’t just a wall.
High rise buildings have burned before. The Empire State Building was also hit by an airplane, and survived – but it wasn’t made with truss construction. Other burning high rises didn’t suffer the immediate destruction of their fire protection systems, the explosive heat of a jet fuel fire, and an impact that blasted off critical insulation material, all at once.
Engineers and firefighters alike later realized the collapse was inevitable. Trusses are only as strong as their weakest member, and without any form of protection they fail early when attacked by extreme heat. There was never a chance to save those buildings.
I stood – apparently I’d never sat down to begin with – frozen in place as I realize what happened. A lot more people just died than I’d thought. A lot more.
Which Borough was my girlfriend’s dispatch center in?
By now the scanner was becoming active again, as word went out across the country. In an extraordinary first, every emergency service was being placed on standby. The military was mobilizing; every single airplane in the sky was being grounded. No one knew what was going to be hit next, or how many of the enemy were out there.
I hurried to the firehouse, picturing what would happen if someone flew a plane into downtown Fort Wayne, or rammed a gasoline tanker into a building, or detonated an ammonium nitrate bomb. At the very least we’d be moved up for standby; we might even end up on the scene. Rumors whirled, but one thing we did know was that anyone who could organize four hijackings could coordinate a dozen attacks, or three dozen, or a hundred. We’d been caught flat footed, and the possibilities were endless.
I wonder if anyone remembers the fear of that day, the stress of not knowing who had attacked, or what could come next. I wonder if anyone even remembers that, while we’ve killed or captured many of these extremists since, the remnants of their organization, and others, are still out there. Planning.
My department didn’t get called out that day. Like everyone, the Albion volunteers who could get away from work stayed near a TV. After awhile the repetition became too much and many of them wandered to other parts of the station, or just stood by the doors, looking outside at a brilliantly sunny world that was no longer so bright.
I made increasingly desperate attempts to reach my girlfriend. Surely, even in this, she’d get a break sooner or later? I didn’t realize how much critical communications equipment that had once stood at the top of a Trade Center Tower.
The dispatch center, it turns out, was across the river. She spent the morning talking on the phone to people who were about to die.
Oh, but that was a long time ago.
The economy has taken everyone’s attention away from the events of eight long years ago. (Fifteen, now.) Generally, Americans are homebodies: They concern themselves first with their economy, health care, taxes. That’s why, despite years of extremist attacks and killing of Americans and American allies, it wasn’t until 9/11 that we really had it knocked into us that we were at war with another ideology. Once things settled down and the economy soured, our thoughts went elsewhere again.
But that doesn’t change a thing. Thousands of people are still dead. 343 firefighters were still murdered trying to save others. We could pull every soldier out of every country in the world and bring them home right now, and we’d still be the Great Satan that those crazed terrorists have dedicated themselves to bringing down.
For the sake of all those who died, and all those who may die in the future, please: Remember.