Today is September 11th. 19 years ago, this country experienced one of its darkest moments since the JFK assassination or the Imperial Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, depending on how you look at it. What is certain is that it is the darkest day I’ve spent as an American. That brings me to this week’s moment in the Flashback Friday series: the September 11th attacks.
How I first came across this moment? On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in Mrs. Stephens’ Spanish 2 class…only about 3 weeks into my junior year at Huffman High. The principal interrupted with a school-wide broadcast in which he instructed teachers to “turn every available television to local news”. Mrs. Stephens complied and what we all saw was the New York City skyline with both of the World Trade Center towers burning out of control. ABC 33/40, which was showing Good Morning America, showed footage of the 2nd plane crashing into the South Tower. I had never seen anything like that before on live television. They kept saying that it was a “terrorist attack”. Then, the South Tower collapsed. It was a surreal moment that just became worse and worse. The principal suspended the bell schedule and Mrs. Stephens effectively shelved the rest of that day’s lesson and we watched everything play out in an extended A1 period on the block schedule.
What it meant to me then? In the moment, I didn’t really grasp what was happening. When Mrs. Stephens turned on the television, both towers were on fire. My initial thoughts were a plane simply crashed into the World Trade Center while trying to make an emergency landing. But when I saw the footage of the 2nd plane going into the South Tower, I knew something totally different was in play. I was stunned. My classmates were stunned. We saw people jumping hundreds of feet to their deaths amid the fire and smoke. I remember talking about it in Mr. Moore’s Honors U.S. History 11 class, where one of my classmates—the salutatorian of the 2003 class—being outraged that a newscaster let out an expletive on live national television. It was a crazy, crazy time for a bunch of mostly naïve 16 and 17-year-old kids. When I was riding the 25-Center Point from Huffman into Downtown Birmingham ahead of my shift at Domino’s, I talked to one of the students from Jefferson State Community College about what happened. It was her that explained to me some of the dynamics of the attack…particularly the events that happened at The Pentagon and in rural Pennsylvania. I bought a copy of the Birmingham Post-Herald on the corner of 6th Ave & 20th St South and the front headline read: ATTACKED. I remember my shift manager—her name was Brenda—reading the article while all of us in the store listened and it was just a very scary account of the day’s events. It was a scary day overall…though there was at least one instance of comedic relief when my mother suggested that the windy conditions of the day were because “those towers got knocked down”.
What it means to me now? I was 16 when that happened. I’m 35 now. Looking back on it, the day still feels very surreal. Many of the older Americans I’ve encountered in my life have often told stories of where they were and what they were doing when JFK was assassinated or during the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. I always found those stories to be fascinating but never truly understood their emotions of the moment considering I hadn’t met a person who was close to those scenes or directly impacted. The September 11th attacks changed that line of thinking for me. It has become my “I remember when and where” moment. The ramifications of the attack changed the way I conduct myself in skyscrapers and other high-rise facilities. One of the first things I do when I’m in buildings that are greater than 10 stories high is locate the stairwells. You can rest assured that if some crazy s*** pops off, I will be taking the nearest flight of stairs down. I’ve also made it a point to not visit major financial landmarks and I’ve only been to the Financial District section of Lower Manhattan once, with no plans to return. Of course, the fact that the way air travel has changed pissed me off but I suppose it’s a necessary evil. It’s crazy to believe that happened 19 years ago today. It literally still feels so close…the shock and awe of the moment.