I remember exactly where I was when the world changed: I was sound asleep. The first plane hit at 7:45 a.m. Houston time; my husband called me from Indiana (where he was attending a corporate training) at about 7:55 a.m. and woke me up to tell me that a "small plane" had apparently hit the WTC.
I turned on the news just in time to see the second plane hit at 8:03 a.m. Houston time. I called my husband back. I said, "Another plane just hit the second tower. This is an attack." Half an hour later, a third plane hit the Pentagon. I immediately called my husband, who had spent 8 years as a Navy Corpsman. I was nearly hysterical: "They hit the Pentagon! They hit the Pentagon! What else can they do?!" At that point, "class" was officially suspended, and the entire group gathered around the TV to watch the unfolding drama.
The footage was horrifying: the replay of the plane hitting the second tower. The bodies falling, or jumping, from the the towers. The anguish on the faces of the people on the street, frozen, not knowing what to do, or where to go. And then the towers fell: the South Tower around 9:00 a.m. Houston time, and the North Tower around 9:30. Smoke and ash billowed out and around the towers, down the streets, between buildings. By then, people were running for their lives. The pictures are incredible, all those people trying to escape the enormous cloud of ash and dust billowing down the street behind them. Afterward, it looked like a blizzard had struck. Everything was coated in ash.
I was glued to the television. I was 1500 miles from the carnage, but I felt like I was there; I felt like I'd been kicked in the stomach; I felt like I was stuck in a nightmare. My country was under attack, and we didn't know who was behind it, or what would happen next. Wild rumours flew--there was a plane confirmed aimed at the White House. Then it was the Capital. Then it was that a car bomb had exploded somewhere near the State Department. None of those things turned out to be true.
What was true was that Flight 93 was enroute to D.C. But none of us knew that then. The first we heard about it was around 9:45 a.m. Houston time, when a CNN correspondent broke the news. With all the rumours, no one was sure what to believe. Not until I saw footage of the crash site was I willing to accept that another plane had been involved. What most of us didn't know until much later was that the passengers had somehow fought back, had somehow kept that plane from hitting its target.
I couldn't stand to be alone anymore, dealing with this horror by myself. I worked from home, and didn't have to go into the office, but I got dressed and went into work anyway. The drive in was surreal: downtown Houston had been evacuated; so had the area around the basketball stadium, where the Israeli consulate was located. I saw a total of 3 cars on the freeways, from Hwy 59 & Fondren all the way up to the Memorial Park exit off of the 610 loop. This, in a city which often has impenetrable traffic jams at 3:00 in the morning. I saw one plane, and I panicked--all flights had been grounded! Was Houston under attack too? It felt like the apocalypse had arrived.
When I got to DePelchin Children's Center, I went up to the Foster Care department and found quite a few of my colleagues watching the TV in our lobby. Nobody was working. If they weren't in front of the TV, employees were watching CNN online. It was still horrifying, but at least we weren't alone, and somehow that made it bearable.
Four of us went to lunch--a clinican a couple years older than me, and two clinicians in their 20s. As we sat in the almost-empty restaurant, listening to conversations full of shock and anguish all around us, my older colleague and I realized that the younger ones didn't get it. They didn't understand that this was a country-changing, world-changing event, that nothing would ever be the same again. Maybe it was shock, maybe it was their defense mechanisms kicking in, but they seemed unconcerned about what was happening "back there."
Around 3:00 p.m. Houston time, I headed back home. I'd been talking with my husband on and off all day. The two-week training class, which had just started that morning, was canceled. So, too, were all non-military flights. He was stranded in Indianapolis. There were no cars available--everyone at the airport, ready to fly out, had hit the rental counters immediately and started the drive home. Everyone wanted to be with their families. A couple people in his class who lived in the Ohio/Kentucky area actually hired a cab to drive them home. He finally flew home on Friday.
In the meantime, I had remained glue to the TV and internet. I was overwhelmed with the stories of heroism and bravery, the thousands of people who flocked to the site of the WTC to help with search and rescue operations and stayed for clean-up, the worldwide outpouring of sympathy, memorial services the world over. The country seemed unified, partisanship forgotten in the face of a common foe. I collected editorial cartoons--cartoons, what a strange name for a medium focused on such tragedy--eventually printing them out and putting them in a photo album.
Now, eight years on, the sense of unity is gone. It is back to business as usual between the political parties. Our civil liberties were eroded in the name of security. There have been other terrorist attacks elsewhere to distract us, and time has naturally taken from us some of the horror of that day.
But I still remember why we cried: We cried for our dead, our wounded, the brave passengers of Flight 93, the heroic police and firefighters who went up while everyone else was going down. Most of all, we cried for our national sense of safety, of inviolacy, that hadn't been shaken so completely since Pearl Harbor. We cried for what we thought we had been, and what we could never be again.
In memorium. Blessed be.