"The anniversary is more for people who were not there. For anyone who lived through it, the anniversary is pretty much every day at 8:45 in the morning." Jules Naudet, 9/11 documentary film maker, 2006
9/11 used to bring me horrific memories pretty much every day. Because I lived through it. Not on the ground. Online. Communicating with victims.
Accounts of 9/11 are filled with heart-rending descriptions of final cell phone calls before the towers fell. They don't say much about all those who went online to connect, find answers. Seek help. Comfort. Contact.
"Are they coming for us? Do you know? The fire department, are they coming? Should we go up or down? People are arguing."
I talked to hundreds of people in the Towers --and in nearby buildings-- live, as it was happening, through IM's, chat rooms, emails and message boards on AOL. I talked to their families too.
You know what it's like online. People connect. Get in each other's heads. Strangers become instant friends.
"I still can't reach my wife. They're sending us to the roof now, I might get better reception. Tell her I'll try to call from there. That I love her. And the girls."
On many days, but especially 9/11, I still have a tiny frisson of survivor guilt. I will never have the chance to meet those people or even hear from them again ... in person or online.
Because they're gone. I watched them perish. We all did.
It's impossible to describe the other-worldly sense of helplessness and rage I felt talking to so many hopeful souls on the upper floors, all the while seeing on TV that they were doomed. Some didn't yet know it. Some were frantically calling for help. And I couldn't help them.
Nobody could help them.
Although, sometimes I think, I hope, I pray, maybe I gave a little comfort. A sense of human contact. A virtual hand to hold, shoulder to lean on. And a bridge to home.
I took down phone numbers, addresses, messages for loved ones. So I think, I hope, I pray, maybe they took some small comfort knowing someone was there. Listening.
Delivering those messages was heartbreaking. And yet, such an honor. I think, I hope, I pray, maybe I gave some small comfort to devastated survivors.
How did I get there? Why was I privileged to communicate with those tragic victims?
That Tuesday morning I was preparing for my weekly commute from Philly to my office at AOL headquarters in Northern VA, just outside DC, where I'd stay til Friday.
My television tuned to the Today Show, I signed online around 8 am to check in before leaving. And didn't leave my computer until the middle of the night.
All routes and all transportation in and out of Washington, DC were closed. New York city was in chaos.
Those of us who couldn't get to our AOL desks in Virginia or Manhattan worked virtually around the clock from our home computers.
We answered IM's, emails, joined chat rooms buzzing with fear and shock. We scoured the message boards, finding dozens, hundreds, thousands of stories of terror, agony, loss, heroism, faith ... humanity.
"People jumped online and they IM'd me and said, 'Are you okay? Is your brother okay? Do you know anybody who's missing?'"
The first post I read that September 11 is one I'll never forget. Not because it was a horror story. What haunts me instead is its very ordinariness, the irony of its reality -- and its hopelessness.
And especially its embodiment of the power of online community. The woman posting didn't comprehend the enormity of her situation, hadn't a clue her fate was sealed.
She simply went online to seek answers, reassurance, contact ... clearly assuming she could stay there, or come back, to get them.
Here's her post:
"Something's wrong in our office, there's smoke outside. I can't find my supervisor. Does anybody know anyone from Cantor Fitzgerald in New York?"
Dozens of replies: "GET OUT OF THE TOWER!"
"Run! Take the steps!"
"Hurry! Get out!!!"
She never responded.
Cantor Fitzgerald, an accounting firm I'd never heard of before 9/11, lost 658 employees that day -- the most of any company in the World Trade Center.
So that one small message board post haunts me even more, because its author is surely gone. Cantor Families Memorial
"I just remember lookin' up, thinkin' how bad is it up there that the better option is to jump." FDNY Firefighter after 9/11
Internet technology has grown enormously since 9/11. While on-the-scene reactions were telecast in stunning live and film TV footage and in standup interviews, the most horrific firsthand stories came to us secondhand.
Unless you knew someone at the scene, you were cut off from the immutable reality of the event -- the individual, personal accounts of the victims. At AOL we weren't cut off, we were living the horror together with victims and families.
Blogging was in its infancy in 2001, barely understood. "Social Media" was called "Community," constantly redefined and reinvented as technology evolved. Online community allowed people to congregate, reach out, chronicle and exchange experiences and personal realities with strangers who readily became friends.
And, during the horror of 9/11, a critical venue to frantically search for missing colleagues, friends, family members, to seek information and share their grief with one another, person to person ... all in real time.
Especially on AOL. In chat rooms. IM's. Emails. And by the hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands, people turned to AOL Message Boards.
Each message board post was a kind of mini-blog, a firsthand narrative of shock and confusion and fear. And, as time went on, of outrage and grief ... and memorials.
"About 9:30 PM I heard a plane, and my body froze, waiting to see the news of another target hit. Fifteen minutes later I heard another one. Again, I froze."
In all my years creating "Community" for AOL, I believe we reached the pinnacle of its inherent value and purpose during the hours and days, weeks and months following 9/11.
Even while communicating with victims and family members, taking messages for loved ones, I starting copying postings from AOL message boards that spoke to me, moved me, angered me, made me cry.
Pasting them into emails I sent to AOL's then Editorial Director, Jesse Kornbluth, (now Head Butler). "We have something here," I told him.
Jesse got it. And how. Along with many others, I continued to supply him with quotes from the message boards for weeks. It was hard reading through so much personal grief and anger and pain.
"I was breast-feeding my three-month-old son and crying. What kind of world did I bring my son into, and will he ever be safe?"
It was also very necessary. And in the end, rewarding and uplifting. Jesse put many of those posts together in a book: Because We Are Americans: What We Discovered on September 11, 2001
AftermathAnniversaries of tragedies are sorrowful reminders of the loss of loved ones, of fellow human beings, taken from us, many too soon.
Just as painful in a different way are those anniversaries we recognize as the end of innocence. Of dreams. Of our notion of the rightness of things. The assassinations of President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a far reaching and significant impact on the lives and futures of millions.
Our eyes were opened. We got a good hard look at the havoc blind hatred and twisted ideology can wreak. Or so we thought.
In this century, young as it is, we now commemorate a bitter yearly anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. And what have we learned?
Much of Western civilization's sense of safety and superiority has been upended by the chilling, brutal reality of global terror. Our future, our children's future, is seriously at risk.
For those connected to its victims, 9/11 marks a painful personal observance of the loss of family, friends, commrades.
For the rest of us, it's a cold, hard reminder that our world has changed forever. And so have we.
* UPDATE: The Voice of a Victim
I am staggered. Stunned. In the eight years since 2001, I have never again heard directly from someone who survived 9/11 or who came online to AOL seeking a loved one.
Now here, in this space, a familiar and chilling comment, as if a posting on an old AOL message board. From one of our own bloggers, a woman who, oh god, is a 9/11 widow?
I want to ask, did we speak to each other, did you find a message from your husband? What is his name, maybe I spoke to him. What's your name, maybe I called or emailed you.
I want to say, it's possible he got your message on AOL, we were hearing from people in both towers on floors above the fire. Unbelievably they didn't lose power right away. Their cell phones didn't work, but their computers did.
I want to believe, I think, I hope, I pray, maybe he saw her message, even if he couldn't reply.
I want to highlight her comment here. I hope that's okay with her. It tells my AOL 9/11 story --the 9/11 story-- far, far better than I ever could.
I was home that day (playing hooky from my job in the city, but my husband went into work as usual -actually a little earlier, to his job on the 94th floor of the north tower. I was in the grocery store at 8:43 thinking about buying eggs so I could make him chocolate chip cookies when the clerk ran down the aisle yelling the news. I remember walking in slow motion towards the checkout counter because I didn't want to dramatically drop the eggs. I walked to my car, got in, and raced home like a maniac, screaming and trying to dial him on his cell phone. I came hone, logged onto AOL and tried to send him a message. I turned on the television, saw the first tower on fire and knelt in front of the screen trying to count the floors. Then I saw the second plane hit the second tower. My sister rushed over from her job, we turned off the television but stayed online. But I knew; I'd counted the floors and seen the black smoke. 1WomansVu (aka Nikki Stern)