I've also recently been reading about memories and mistakes and how often the memories we defend most strongly are those that have drifted from actual events. Our brains fill in blanks, get the sequence of event wrong and are generally not that dependable. This is why even mere moments after a hit-and-run, the bystanders often cannot agree on the make and color of the car.
So it is likely that my memories are not completely accurate to actual events, and yet they feel very real and true to me. For this essay, I checked the timeline on the key elements of the day against an excellent BBC story: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-14681384. I invite my friends and colleagues to add color commentary to my version of these events.
For me, the events of that day began in my office near DC with call from my friend and co-worker Dawn, who was in Minneapolis on a client visit. She was getting dressed in her hotel and watching the morning shows. She called to say they had reported a plane had run into the World Trade Center.
I envisioned a small prop plane crumpling into the giant building, and asked how could the pilot have made that kind of error. It's not like you can't see the Twin Towers from miles away. She corrected my bad assumption and explained it was a big plane ...and the Tower was on fire.
I distinctly remember saying "I'm sure it will be OK; it's not like it's World War III." Dawn quietly replied, "I think maybe it is."
Hearing the fear in her normally confident and optimistic voice, I walked down to the hall to our CIO, explained what was going on, and asked if he could hook up the television. He did. And I think we were gathered in the conference room when the second plane hit. That is a portion of the memory I am not fully certain of. I have seen that image so many times in the last ten years, on video and in my mind, that I could have the timeline wrong.
I remember watching the fire billowing from the Towers and the group in our office wondering how the firemen could ever reach those high floors. We talked about fire fighting techniques for skyscrapers and whether helicopters could help. We wondered how many people were actually in the Towers and if they could get out. We tried to manage our fear and shock with academic discussions of rescues and evacuations.
Then the third plane hit the Pentagon. Our Northern Virginia office was about 10 miles from DC. We were not in any danger, but the mood changed. Suddenly our stance as compassionate, horrified witnesses was at risk of shifting into potential victims in this tragedy.
The TV news split the screen into two in order to show the events in both NYC and DC. In that moment I had an incredibly clear and terrifying vision of the screen split into three, then six, then nine, like the Brady Bunch, with burning buildings and collapsed bridges in cities across the country.
Then the South Tower collapsed. I remember someone saying, "Something is happening; the building is shaking." But it wasn't shaking, it was dropping... at heart stopping speed. The dust cloud went up and we realized how many lives had just been snuffed out. Like other observers, we marveled that individual sheets of paper survived, floating gently to the ground in the cloud of tons of pulverized concrete and metal and glass and bone.
Like a roller coaster that jerks you into the next turn before you have fully recovered from the last, that day just kept throwing one incomprehensible event after another. We didn't know where to look, how to feel, or where the next danger would come from.
Moments later Flight 93 crashed into the ground, and as horrible as that loss was it somehow strengthening to realize it meant someone had taken action against the tide of these events.
A short while later, the North Tower collapsed. Almost the polar opposite of the first collapse - where the South Tower collapse seemed impossible, the North Tower seemed inevitable.
In my memory the closing of US airspace happened right after Flight 93 crashed; however it actually happened a few hours later. Regardless, that act remains an incredible shining moment in a bleak, black day. I don't know if this was one person's decision or the act of a committee, but it was a powerful decision. When they announced all planes were grounded, I was certain the evil Brady Bunch grid was no longer a threat.
Our office closed around 1 or 2pm and let everyone go home. It took a while. It always took a while to drive home in North Virginia, and it was exacerbated that day. I vividly remember being aware of the lack of plane noises overhead as I got closer to home, which was about 5 miles from Dulles Airport. I sat at a light in Herndon, and a military jet flew overhead....I put my head out the window and stared up, as did many of my vehicular neighbors. I wondered how long it would be before planes could fly again. I wondered if we would stop using planes....would I someday explain what "flying" meant to youngsters who had never been allowed to do it?
Dawn couldn't fly home, so she rented a car and checked in every few hours over the next two days. Back at the office, we made a map of her journey and posted a little picture showing her current position on "DAWNTREK 2001."
It was a small relief of the pressure of that week to focus on getting her home safely, as well as the other office "road warriors" who made their way back in. We celebrated their return as proof that life continued, even in the face of monumental tragedy...something we would try to keep in mind during the anthrax scare and the sniper attacks.
Like Pearl Harbor, the horror 9/11 attack was magnified by the element of surprise. In a way, the fact that we, Americans, could be surprised is a kind of blessing: unlike so many around the world, we are not inured to bombs. We have the luxury of knowing "war" is something that happens far, far away. Usually.
I mourn for the loss of life on 9/11, and for the irreversible loss of our breezy confidence that we could remain unscathed by modern conflict. The conflict came to us, but I am grateful it was not World War III and pray it never will be.