First penned in 2017, update slightly 2020.
I was 34 years old, with three kids, ages 7, 9, 11. We lived in the NYC metro area, in Southwest Connecticut, with many neighbors who took the train into the city every day. We had recently repatriated to the U.S. from a temporary Canadian assignment.
My office was in Stamford. I arrived early to hit the gym on our campus, as was my custom. It was a beautiful, sunny, slightly crisp Tuesday morning. I was at my desk when the first plane hit the North Tower, and word went through my building like wildfire. At least half of my coworkers had a spouse or relative who worked in Manhattan.
In the next 17 minutes, there was a lot of confusion about what had happened. Many of the reports were saying a small plane had strayed into the tower. Information was hard to come by, with streaming video on the internet being not exactly high quality in 2001 (the functional internet being barely five years old). As more people got online, the bandwidth became even more choked, which slowed things to a frozen buffering mess. We turned to the radio as a back up.
In the 18th minute, the second plane hit the South Tower, and the mood changed dramatically. Everyone in that instant knew we were under attack. We didn’t know who it was, but we knew it wasn’t an accident. It was shocking.
All communications went down in the next two or three minutes. Neither cell phones nor landlines were working, and people were panicked. Our VP of Human Resources hurried to hook up the only television we had, in the cafeteria. At 9:59 a.m., the room filled with screams and profanity as the South Tower collapsed. This was a bigger shock than when the second plane hit. Even as we stood there watching the terrible fires, it had never entered our minds that the buildings could collapse. That VP turned to me, with her jaw dropped and face ashen, unable to speak. I said to her, “We need to close the office, now.”
My wife and I were planning to meet for Mass at St. John’s (if you’re ever in the area, plan to visit – it’s now a minor basilica). Again, all communications were down. By the time she got to my office, I was already gone, headed to our kids’ school. When I got there, they had pulled all the kids into the gym to wait for parents to arrive. They had managed to get a phone call through to my wife, so she was on the way too. The sisters decided it would be best to not tell the kids what was going on, not wanting a panic on their hands depending on the whereabouts of the parents. I explained it to them in the car on the way home.
We spent the afternoon at home in front of the TV, like everyone else. The speculation began as to who did this and what could we do about it? No one had ever heard of al-Qaeda until about six months earlier, when the USS Cole investigation began to bring to light the organized network of terrorists lead by bin Laden. Were there more attacks planned? I remember telling my kids that things weren’t going to be the same for awhile, not even sure how long it would be until school reopened.
We got that answer from President Bush in his speech from the Oval Office that evening. America was going to be open the next morning. The government would be open, businesses would be open, schools would be open, etc. Anything less would be a sign of victory for the terrorists.
Three days later, Bush made the famous bullhorn speech at Ground Zero, which was a powerful moment. While he would go on to make a lot of mistakes, the initial response and the war against the taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan was just. The Iraq War was not only a mistake, it was morally wrong from the beginning. But this day he showed leadership, and we needed it.
President Bush: “I want you all to know that America today is on bended knee, in prayer for the people whose lives were lost here, for the workers who work here, for the families who mourn. The nation stands with the good people of New York City and New Jersey and Connecticut as we mourn the loss of thousands of our citizens.”
Rescue Worker: “I can’t hear you!”
President Bush: “I can hear you! I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people — the people who knocked these buildings down, will hear all of us soon. The nation sends its love and compassion to everybody who is here. Thank you for your hard work. Thank you for making the nation proud, and may God bless America.”
“Never Forget” means forcing yourself to relive that day. Force yourself to watch the videos. But more importantly, educate the younger generations. All of my kids were old enough to “never forget”. But anyone younger than 25 has no idea. You need to explain the details. They have no idea how iconic those towers were, which of course is why they were targeted. They have no idea how resolute the response was, and the honesty regarding the motive of the attackers. I had only recently begun learning the truth about Islam, and these events were key for me. Lastly, they have no idea how everyone came together and were united as Americans, something that hardly seems possible today. That’s what sticks with me the most, 19 years later. There were no politics in the months that followed. Hundreds of American flags in the streets and on every bridge of I-95 and the Merritt Parkway. We were a unified nation, despite being only a few months removed from the most contested Presidential election since the Compromise of 1877.
Teach them real history. Never Forget.
Dear Father in Heaven,
We give you thanks for your great glory, and for the many blessings in our lives. Today we pray for all those who lost their lives in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. We pray for their families, and all those who grieve the losses of this terrible day. We also remember in a special way, firefighters, police, and all first responders, as well as our active duty and veteran military. We entrust them all to your protection. Lord, be our strength. Pour forth your abundant grace. Watch over and guide us, our family and friends, and our leaders, always to seek your Will in humble service – as individuals, as a community, and as a nation. Lord, we place our trust in you today, hoping that this once great republic might stand together in unity as one nation, under God, indivisible.
May God Bless the United States of America.