September 11, 2001. It seems like a lifetime ago, but in many ways, I still remember it so vividly. Probably always will.
I clearly remember listening to Jim Brickman’s tune “Sudden Inspiration” that morning. I always played easy listening music before class and during breaks, and Brickman was a favorite of mine. It’s beautiful and sad, and for me, it has become part of the official soundtrack of the event. I still can’t listen to that song without being reminded of that horrible day.
I was teaching an Excel class that morning to a full house, when the news came from a student in that “a plane had crashed into the UN building in New York.” It wasn’t uncommon for students to surf the Web during class. A few minutes later, someone else clarified that it wasn’t the UN building at all, but the World Trade Center instead. Of course everyone in class was shocked, but none of us expected it was anything but a terrible accident. I decided to check into MSNBC.com at the next scheduled class break. A few minutes later, the receptionist knocked on the classroom door and announced that a plane had hit the WTC. I told her that we’d just heard about it online, and she clarified that this was a second plane. The class fell silent, and I immediately opened up a browser to check the news.
Here’s (more or less) what the MSNBC page looked like (albeit a little later) that day (courtesy of the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine). It was eerie how slow pages were loading that morning (even for 2001). Take a look at the note near the bottom of the page, which reads “MSNBC is experiencing high site traffic.” By noon, traffic across the Web had slowed to a crawl as people swamped major news sites. At times, you couldn’t even get a cell phone signal.
Of course, the news just got worse and worse. Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. Flight 93 crashed into a Pennsylvania field. The country was under attack. Around 10 AM, the employees and students gathered in the large auditorium we used for hosting seminars and observed several moments of silence. Some wept. Some prayed. Otherwise, it was dead silent.
We made the decision to cancel class, and my company closed our offices for the remainder of the day. Business around the region closed, and events were canceled. TV and radio suspended their regular programming. All flights in the US were grounded. The stock markets closed. It was about as close to a true national emergency as I’ve seen in my lifetime, and around Knoxville, everyone was uneasy and nervous. It seems kind of dramatic to say in retrospect, but Oak Ridge – home to one of the largest US DOE labs in the country (it’s where they built the first atomic bomb) – is just down the road. For all we knew that day, it could’ve been another target.
It was a tense couple of days. Initially, there were reports that some faction in Afghanistan was behind it; the evening news reported an air attack on the capitol city of Kabul. Others started talking about this little known terrorist group called Al Qaeda. Tales of unspeakable tragedy and incredible heroism started pouring out of “Ground Zero.” The 24-hour news channels played amateur video of the attacks over and over and over. Around the country, people were heading to NYC to offer any help they could. Around the world, people were angry, confused, and frightened. I can’t imagine that our country would look much different after a nuclear attack.
Memories and feelings about September 11 still hit me at random times. The day after the attack, when I saw the first homemade “God Bless America” sign on a sheet hung from a downtown office building, it took my breath away. After my wife and I found out we were pregnant in 2006, I remember watching a news special following some of the “9/11 children” who are growing up without their mothers or fathers, and it brought me to tears. My kids will grow up in a world that is markedly different from the one I experienced. I sometimes think of all of the amazing things that have happened over the past eight years that those who died in the attacks will never experience. I know that their deaths are no more or less meaningful than any of the thousands of people whose lives are randomly taken too soon every day, but the event still provides a focal point like no other.
I know that 9/11 has become something between a cliché and a punch line for a lot of people over the past several years. That’s inevitable when time passes, it seems less real, and people just grow tired of mourning. I’m glad to see that people are choosing to honor 9/11 as a national day of service. That seems like a wonderful way to honor the fallen.
Anyway, I just wanted to share some of my memories of that day. Feel free to do the same in the comments.