Some memories of that Tuesday in September five years ago are crystal clear. Other memories have been reduced to so much rubble by the events of that day. What I remember first is that September 11 started out for me as a perfectly normal day. While others on the west coast still slept and then later awoke to the dreadful news of the attacks, I was driving to work early that morning. My company’s customer service center opened for operations at 6:00 am, and as a manager, I was timing my arrival for just before that time. I listened to the news on my way to work as I often did but my memory isn’t good enough to be able to tell you today what it was that I heard – standard NPR fare, I suppose; there was nothing yet about the New York World Trade Center or the attack that was to come.
I also couldn’t tell you any of the thoughts that crossed my mind except perhaps that I might have wondered how my parents’ flight to New York had gone the day before and if their ability to travel a day early would enable them to meet the friends they were hoping to see for lunch that day in Manhattan. I probably wondered what time later that day my other parents would be returning from Richmond, Virginia, and if it would be early enough to be able to invite them for dinner. I’m sure it didn’t occur to me to wonder then if they were leaving from Dulles International or Reagan National. It simply didn’t matter at the time.
The day was already beautiful – the sun rising behind me as I drove westward under a clear autumn sky – and traffic was lighter than usual, even for so early in the morning. I was able to park by 5:45, glad to be on time and feeling light-hearted about the day; perhaps I even wondered how I might be able to help my teams take advantage of the nice weather amidst their other work duties. As I approached the back door of the building, I noticed two of my team members outside enjoying a smoking break before hitting the phones. It was approximately 5:50 AM, September 11, 2001.
As I drew closer, one spoke up, “Did you hear about the World Trade Center?” Although I’d been listening to the news, there’d been nothing unusual, nothing about the World Trade Center. I shrugged my shoulders assuming what I heard next would be a punch line of some joke; “Hear what?” “An airplane hit the World Trade Center.” Now, that I would have heard; clearly it must be some kind of a joke. I continued to wait for the punch line. “No, really – just now, an airplane hit the World Trade Center.”
The World Trade Center hit by an airplane? It didn’t sound possible. Still thinking it must be a prank somehow, I went indoors with the guys and bounded up the stairs, figuring I’d check online and get it all sorted out in time to make sure they were on the phones as scheduled. I logged on to my computer and brought up the CNN website and was immediately horrified to learn that the news was indeed true; a plane had hit the north tower of the World Trade Center. Worse, it wasn’t just a small plane as I’d first guessed. The sketchy details described a passenger jet with a great many people aboard hitting the World Trade Center, though it was still too early to assess what had caused the incident. No one knew anything yet about it being a hijacking, let alone a purposeful attack. I felt a clutch in my stomach but assumed it was all a tragic accident. I worked on finding something useful to do to avoid feeling sick.
My first thought was that we needed better information so that I could keep employees informed and hopefully less distracted from their work. I grabbed an old television from the employee workout room and hauled it to a cubicle near my desk. The rabbit-ears antenna was nearly useless but eventually we managed to improve the picture well enough for one local station that we could begin to make out the images on the screen amidst the static. As the picture cleared, we were able to catch the live news coverage of smoke billowing out of the north tower just as the south tower of the World Trade Center was struck by the second jet. I was dumbfounded; I could scarcely even believe what I’d just seen. Then there was the realization – twice in one morning meant it was no accident. Watching it happen live and simultaneously realizing the implications, that this had to have been some kind of coordinated attack, I felt as if I’d been kicked in the stomach. My mind raced and then shifted gears once again to begin assessing what our own risks might be, should the west coast be targeted too.
My first phone calls were to my boss since I was the only manager on site at work, and to my husband since he would soon be readying our son for school and making his way to one of the taller buildings in Seattle. My concern was for our business operations and also for my husband since if there were attacks here, he might be close to one of the more likely targets in our area. I started coordinating contingency plans for work and for family and tried vainly to keep myself as well as employees focused on work. It turned out to be an unnecessary effort: very few people cared to call in for support that day, especially after we all saw the towers unexpectedly collapse on live television from terrorist attack.
As my work duties became less demanding, my attention turned to my parents; first I was thankful my father’s plans had changed and they’d flown back east a day early. Then I wondered if they would have still been in New Jersey at that hour of the morning or if they might have already made their way into Manhattan. When I heard about the third plane hitting the Pentagon, I began to worry about what time and from which airport my mother and her husband had been scheduled to leave Washington. Then there was the news of Flight 93 crashing in rural Pennsylvania just outside of Pittsburgh – wasn’t that close to where my sister and her in-laws have one of their stores and their second home? In a way, I was glad that there was so much still for me to do at work because it helped me keep my own concerns at bay. The days’ events in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington were so distant physically and yet near enough emotionally to be disorienting. It felt surreal.
At the end of a long day, I picked up our son from school and headed home, hugging him close and wondering about the rest of my family. Almost everyone closest to us was sufficiently close to danger to make me feel a bit like holding my breath, hoping they were all okay and thinking they should be, but afraid to assume it. Slowly the news started filtering in and by nightfall, I knew everyone was safe. My father and his wife were indeed still at her parents that morning when the planes hit the World Trade Center towers – he was out on the balcony enjoying the pleasant morning when he noticed the billowing smoke and then heard the news of the attack; my mother and her husband were driving from Virginia to the airport for a midday flight when they heard what had happened at the Pentagon. They turned around and headed straight back to Richmond when they learned that flights had all been canceled.
Days later, I learned that Flight 93 actually had gone down near to where my sister’s family spends much of their time but not so close as to be a real threat other than to peace of mind. Everyone who’d been traveling dug in and began to make interim plans once they realized that it would be a while before air travel would be restored. Friends in Richmond took my parents in until they could begin to make their way home again. Theirs was one of the many success stories amidst the tragedy; friends and even complete strangers reached out that day to assist many stranded travelers. The people in Gander, Newfoundland and surrounding areas made history taking on a huge brunt of the load when 38 international airplanes with a total of nearly 7,000 people aboard were diverted to that tiny town for the better part of a week because they had nowhere else to go. Other travelers banded together and rented cars for cross-country treks, not knowing for sure how long it would take to get home otherwise. At home, I began to equate the quiet skies with the absence of family. I felt terribly isolated at a time when it seemed like an entire nations’ first impulse was to reach out for loved ones. When the airplanes were finally allowed back into the air, I cried the first time I heard one flying overhead.
It took nearly a week for the first set of parents to return and then another week to have everyone home again and begin feeling like life might return to normal. It took longer for the members of my teams to find their own way back to normal. Some never really did; the attack came so close on the heels of a major earthquake we’d experienced earlier in the year and was itself followed soon after by the anthrax scare later that autumn that at least one person seriously struggled to regain perspective and others seemed a bit on edge too for quite some time. What I came to realize was that even distant exposure to trauma can have a powerful impact that can seem from the outside to go beyond reason. Psychologists have several terms for this phenomenon: vicarious trauma (or indirect or secondary trauma), compassion fatigue, and empathetic strain. There is no such thing as one person’s pain being more justified than another’s, even when reasonable minds might agree that some people suffered far greater losses than others that day. We all suffered a loss of innocence that might never be fully restored.
Five years later, I see that we’ve healed some of our wounds from September 11, but not all. We’re less skittish perhaps (at least while things seem to be normal) but we haven’t necessarily learned much that’s truly helpful since then and we’re just that much more sensitive to new reports of terrorist threats. In the days and weeks following September 11, there was a closeness that developed between us, a bonding, caused by a shared experience. What I see now is that we’ve replaced that with a greater suspicion of our neighbors. We came together for a brief period of time, resolved to help one another and to do what’s right – whatever that might be – but it didn’t always last. The fear of vulnerability seems to have been far more enduring.
In the early post-9/11 days, I sensed a strength and fortitude backing a strong will to overcome the pain we’d all experienced together. Today I sense only more fear and the kind of obstinacy that is meant to cover up fear that we don’t care to admit exists. While I would have liked for us to have held onto that earlier unity of spirit for a bit longer, I do remain hopeful that we can recapture it once again. Hopefully it won’t take another major disaster to get back what was positive about this one. And regardless of whether we are more or less vulnerable today than we were that terrible Tuesday of five years ago, I believe that it is possible – our responsibility, even – to find a strength together and within ourselves to push away the fear that terrorists mean to cause. Embracing hope and unity in the face of fear will be our victory, one we’ll be proud to pass on to our children.