Like Pearl Harbor, the assassination of JFK, and the Challenger Space Shuttle, everyone remembers what they were doing when the news broke of a plane hitting the North Tower. Many of my friends and family were watching the news while getting ready for work. Listening in shock and confusion as speculations were made about how and why the plane was off course and hit a such a large building in lower Manhattan. This shock and confusion quickly melted into horror and disbelief when many of them watched on live tv the second plane hit the South Tower. The world as they knew it was dissolving right before their eyes.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, I slept. My friend and fellow American Matt called and woke me up by asking “are you watching this? The plane. The plane hit…” he trailed off, unable to finish his thought. “The Pentagon,” he whispered. The bottom fell out of my stomach. I couldn’t breathe. My heart stopped beating. It was like someone pressed the ‘pause’ button on my life. I just sat there staring into the dark, my brain trying to process. The Pentagon? Surely not, I reasoned, he must have misheard. He had to have. The Pentagon? THE PENTAGON? I sleepily marched into the living room and turned on the tv. Every station was replaying horrible images of New York under attack and producing billowy clouds of black smoke.
I call home, my hands shaking as I dialed the phone. The lines were busy. I tried again and again. Waiting. Watching the tv project surreal images of a city I had never visited, but still identified as home. My brain was trying to make sense of the entire scenario and praying for it to be some horrible made-for-tv movie. It wasn’t. My friend Penny sat up with me all night holding my hand, while we shook our heads and tears rolled down our faces, plopping into our cold cups of forgotten tea.
The morning sunshine brought no happiness. Just more horrible stories about people jumping out of the buildings, rescue workers who had perished trying to save as many people as they could, and everyone looking shell-shocked. The death toll was in the thousands. People were frantically searching for their loved ones and coworkers. The numbers of victims just kept rising and no one knew where it would stop. At that moment, 8:14 am Australian Eastern Standard Time, the newscaster said the scariest thing I had ever heard in my life:
Americans abroad are urged to stay where they are and do not under any circumstances go to any US Embassy or Consulate Office.
At that point in my life, I had been traveling for nearly a decade and the one thing that was hammered into my brain from the time I was preparing for my first international trip: if you are ever in trouble or lost or need help, go to the Embassy. Now I was being told not to under any circumstances? I couldn’t believe it. My heart started pounding. I just stared at the tv, shell-shocked. What the literal fuck was happening? I didn’t know what to do. Mind you, I was in Australia, and I felt safe. But I did have thoughts during the middle of the night that I should probably check in with the Embassy in the morning, you know, just because.
That was the moment 9/11 felt real to me.
Fast forward 17 years and I now live in New York City. I have met people who were first responders or who had loved ones die or who were stuck in Manhattan and couldn’t get back home to the other boroughs or who were in schools or buildings nearby and can remember the ground shaking when each plane hit and each tower fell. For the city of New York, nothing would ever be the same.
As a country and as a world, we mourned. We mourned the loss of nearly 3,000 people. And it changed us. We are a little less naïve. We pause a little more when a plane flies a little too close to buildings or just a bit lower than we think it should. Even I glance wearily at these planes. Me, who did not live here at the time and could never possibly hope to understand exactly how the city coped. I can only observe the aftermath as an outsider. And the aftermath is raw and rough, but yet, beautiful and graceful at the same time.
On Monday, the World Trade Center Subway Stop on the 1 Train opened. Since I moved here, it was only a grey dot on the map indicating that it wasn’t in use. Honestly, until a couple of months ago, I didn’t think it would ever open. But here it stands, as a poignant reminder of true American grit. She might be broken, but she will never stay that way and what will emerge will be better than before because of what happened, not in spite of it.
Always remember how fragile and fleeting life can be. Two waterfalls stand where two buildings once proudly towered over all. Etched into these waterfalls was every person who fell with those buildings.
Remember them. Honor them, so that they too may soar.