Where were you when the world stopped turning…?

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City.  I saw a headline that likened the day to ‘History Just Like Pearl Harbor.’

Well, that is certainly true.  It was history, just as our births, deaths, celebrations and actions are history.  And yet, for all the significance of our day to day activities, 9/11 somehow stands out as an especial time in history.

  • It was the day people realized that their ‘homeland’ was not immune from attack.
  • It was the day people learned of needs and incidents far greater than their own daily heartaches and activities.
  • It was the day that we learned what it is to be truly helpless.
  • And it was the day that we learned that we could survive, and that heroes really existed.

Russian ‘Tears of Grief’ memorial

(It was also a day I learned that some people are too stupid to live and need to be devoutly ignored:

A woman from Canada on a message board:

Americans need to think, sincerely and without offense, what they did to cause this attack.’

I don’t generally get nasty in public.  You don’t put out there on Facebook or message boards things that you wouldn’t want printed on the pages of the great newspapers of the world.  But my response that time reduced the poster to tears.  And I don’t regret a word.)

I heard the tales of heroism, of the firefighters and rescue workers toiling up the stairs in the Towers against the tide of fleeing people.  Going ever upward to serve and protect and rescue.  Giving their lives.

I never saw the footage of the plane striking the towers.  I missed it, somehow  In later years I decided not to seek it out.

Some months after the attack, I was talking with my father, a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam.  I was saying how humbled I was by the heroism we saw on 9/11. 

Dad frowned thoughtfully.  “We saw heroes,” he said.  “They were everywhere that day, and after.  The people lining up to give blood, to help however they could…  But, you know, if I had to say who the real heroes were that day…”

He fell silent.

“The police and rescue workers?” I suggested.

Dad shook his head.  “They were heroic,” he said.  “But you know, that was the purpose for which they pledged their lives.  To serve, protect, fight if necessary…  And they did it beautifully.  But those people on the plane in Pennsylvania, possibly headed for the U.S. Capitol…  They were everyday folk with the backgrounds they had, caught up in a situation.  And they took action. They were true heroes.”

Maybe so.   Probably so.  Everyone seemed to step beyond their own needs and turn to others’ needs…

It was a day to remember.  One that should not be forgotten or belittled, any more than the other great watersheds of history.

Where were you then?

17 comments on “Where were you when the world stopped turning…?

  1. Yvette Carol says:

    What a poignant post, Diana. I live in New Zealand. I seem to remember coming home and someone asking if I'd seen? We turned on the television and watched the footage, in horror. Terrible times.

  2. Inge H. Borg says:

    Thank you, Diana. Lest we forget.

  3. John Holton says:

    I can believe that someone would be so thoughtless to suggest that the whole thing was our fault: I still run into people who say the same thing. My usual response rhymes with “truck flu.” I was driving to work and heard it on the news. The initial report made it sound like it wasn't that big of a deal; I thought it was a light plane piloted by an inexperienced pilot. I didn't realize the magnitude until I got to the office and everyone was watching the CNN website.Funny how your mind works, though: my cousin was getting married in Chicago that weekend, and we had planned on flying up to be with them. When every flight in the nation was canceled, I started to worry that we wouldn't make it, and that everyone in the family would understand except my recently-deceased mother…

  4. We lived in Western Maryland, very near Camp David. I drove my daughter to school in the mountains of Pennsylvania. It was the first day of her sophomore year in high school. I got home and turned on the Today Show. Matt Lauer and Katie Couric spoke of a horrible tragedy. Matt Lauer said it had to be some awful air traffic control mistake. Then the second plane hit. I emailed my daughter soon after. She replied to tell me that the Head of School had already called the students to the chapel to tell them what happened. Classes were canceled. Big screen TVs were set up all over campus because some of the students had parents who worked in New York or D.C. One student had a parent who ate breakfast at the towers, walked out of the building, and the first plane hit. What a strange day, with many strange days to follow. I felt quite safe because F-16s flew over our house constantly to protect Camp David.Love,Janie

  5. I just reread your bio. I also grew up in the Navy, ha. I totally remember where I was when 9/11 happened. It was six in the morning in Los Angeles when my Serbian boyfriend's roommates began screaming. They were from Yugoslavia and Croatia. I was the only American in the house. We turned on the television and watched as people jumped to their deaths to avoid being burned alive. My journalist boyfriend who once was forced to serve in the Serbian Army rubbed my shoulder as I looked on in shock. “America is going to wipe those bomber's country off the map.” was all he said. “So many more people are going to die.” I'll never forget it. I worry about my brother all the time.

  6. Beth says:

    Since my time zone is four hours behind, I'd just woken my son for school and was checking email. Something about a plane hitting the twin towers. Like John, I thought it was a small plane accident at first. I turned on the television, and my husband and I just stared. I'm glad you set the poster straight. I'm sure she considered herself a deep thinker, but actually showed how thoughtless she was.In times of tragedy, the bright spot is always the heroes, including those ordinary people on that plane who did what needed to be done. Also those who lost loved ones and struggled on to live and love again.

  7. Diana Wilder says:

    We felt the support and sympathy of people the world over, even as we, ourselves (Americans) have felt for others suffering. That time, more than any other, made me realize that we were, indeed, fundamentally united more than we were divided.

  8. Diana Wilder says:

    As an historian, Inge, you always remember!

  9. Diana Wilder says:

    Thank you, John Holton. I have certainly thought your response to ignorant folk. I was one of those who thought a little traffic chopper might have struck one of the towers. The news was far worse. I shouldn't smile at your worries about the wedding and what your late mother would have thought, but I suspect she would have smiled, as well.

  10. Diana Wilder says:

    It sounds like one of those days where the line between reality and dream blurred. I wonder if your daughter's classmate's mother survived. A dear friend who worked about four blocks from Ground Zero was late taking the subway from her home, emerged from the subway, saw the chaos, turned and went back home. The next several months were a blur for her.

  11. Diana Wilder says:

    Adrienne – What a vivid recollection! And how those echoes have lasted (for me, at least) all those years. (Nice to meet a fellow Navy Junior. Took me years to realize that the ocean and ships and storms and bright weather were a large part of what made me.)

  12. Diana Wilder says:

    I listened to a speech by Kenneth Feinberg about five years ago. He was the man who was given the task of awarding compensation to the survivors of the people who died in the WTC attacks. The story was amazing, and his – and the group's – actions in preparing for such a heartrending task were simply amazing. “This was one of those situations that makes you lie awake at three o'clock in the morining thinking, “What can I do?”The only amusing spot to the day was the number of coworkers who were terrified that the terrorists would strike a blow at the United States by slamming a plain into the (nine-story) headquarters of an insurance company. Yeah, right.(I kept my amusement to myself. There is nothing worse than laughing at another's fear.)

  13. I had just started my first semester as a math professor and had three classes that morning back to back to back. I was giving exams in each one and remember all the crazy rumors and stories the students were buzzing about between class changes. By two that afternoon, the university closed and we all went home to watch the news.

  14. Lexa Cain says:

    What a lovely post! I agree with your father. It's harder to choose to die in order save others from death. I can't even imagine the fear and the dread. Yet they did it. I hope I would too. Naturally, I don't mean to take anything away from the very brave first responders and all who helped others that day.

  15. Diana Wilder says:

    I imagine you had something of a struggle to maintain calm in the midst of the flying rumors. I remember most of my professors, however much I enjoyed them, had an undercurrent of strong composure. I only recently realized their strength.

  16. Diana Wilder says:

    I remember my father saying, on another occasion, “They did what they had to when the challenge came. You would do the same.”

  17. Ms Rix says:

    It was indeed a day of heroism. Sadly, in Europe we were already alert to acts of terrorism, though not on this scale. I can't imagine what drives people to carry out such unspeakable acts but if there is a Hell those people are surely burning in it. Which is no comfort to those who still mourn the loss of their loved ones.

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