Twenty years ago, many of us started the day like all others, coffee, shower, with the morning news playing in the background. For me, I was getting ready for work at my house on Scott Street in Paso Robles. I was 22 years old and, before this day, had no real idea of what war or a terrorist act was other than it did not happen on our American soil.
September 11, 2001, changed all that, and it is just as important today as it was then for all of us to remember and never forget.
That fateful morning as we watched the terror and horror of the aftermath of the first plane crashing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center and trying to make sense of it all, a second plane appeared and turned sharply into the South Tower. I remember watching the news reporter’s face trying to get a sense of what was happening, and I could tell she was just as fearful and confused as I was.
At that moment, it felt like the world stopped.
Twenty years ago, we did not have social media or cell phones that shared videos or even took quality photos. We relied solely on news sources to tell us what was happening.
Reports came in that a third plane hit the Pentagon just outside Washington, D.C. The news station switched between news anchors trying to explain what we were watching and experiencing. I remember hearing the fear in their voice, not knowing what to say.
No more than 22 minutes later, the South Tower collapsed, 56 minutes after the impact of Flight 175.
A fourth plane was then reported to have crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. At this point, I remember hearing the words, “we are under attack; this was no accident; we are under a terrorist attack.”
We all watched in horror as people trapped in the North Tower began to jump from the iconic towers that we visited, took photos of, and shaped how we pictured the skyline of New York City.
As a nation, we all held our breath and watched, frozen, helpless with tears running down our faces. The frantic news coverage continued, people running for safety through the streets, not knowing what they were running from, while police, firefighters, and first responders continued to run toward the site and instructing people to get as far away as possible.
Twenty-nine minutes later, the North Tower of the World Trade Center fell, 1 hour and 42 minutes after the initial impact of Flight 11. The Marriott Hotel at the base of the towers was also destroyed.
Cries, screams, and an unforgettable sadness filled the air and our hearts as we continued to watch in disbelief of what we just saw.
The reporter, now covered in soot, was crying as people ran by her. I have a vivid memory of her face that is branded into my memories, and thinking how brave she was for still being there to tell their stories, feel the impact firsthand, and share it with us. She was our eyes and ears; she and her camera operator helped keep us all connected. I remember her asking people as they ran by if they were okay. I remember people running together, sobbing, consoling one another.
Twenty-two minutes later, five Pentagon stories fell due to fire that broke out after Flight 77 crashed into it 1 hour and 13 minutes prior.
At that point, all you could see on the television was lingering grayish soot that covered everyone and papers flying everywhere.
Most of us stayed glued to the screens, trying to get ahold of loved ones that were either on flights or lived in the area to see if they were okay. Phone lines were busy, and you could not get through. I remember being on the phone with my mom and then my dad, who were both in Arizona at the time, trying to make sense of what we had all just seen over the last few hours that felt like an eternity.
Our family finally got ahold of my sisters, who lived back east, later that day.
September 11 ended with the 7 World Trade Center building adjacent to the towers collapsing as a result of the aftermath of the towers falling.
Almost 3,000 people died that day; our family, friends, colleagues, and our everyday heroes were among them.
A few years later, in 2003, I visited Ground Zero. Entering lower Manhattan, you could feel the loss lingering in the City. The chain-linked fence surrounding the area was filled with photos, letters, American flags, flowers, and clothing. Missing posters of loved ones remained, and it felt as if we were walking through a graveyard. I remember how eerily quiet it was for New York City and seeing a woman kneeling and crying while others stood around telling stories of their loved ones they had lost on that tragic day.
I could feel the deep gratitude I had for my younger brother, who became a U.S. Marine following the events of that day. As I closed my eyes, I could remember listening to the news as our troops invaded Iraq earlier that year in March. My brother’s battalion was one of the first in; we went weeks on end without hearing from him; that felt like an eternity until finally, he was able to call and let us know he was okay.
As I continued to walk around the gated area, I placed my hand on the fence. I took a moment to remember the loss of life right where I was standing and all of the families, residents of New York, and our Nation. I thought of our loved ones who joined the military to fight for our freedom, and I thought of our first responders who continued to show up even after they lost members of their crew.
But I also remembered the news correspondent that covered the events of that day. I am grateful to the woman who inspired me throughout her coverage and showed me real journalism. She told the people’s story as they lived it without any attempt to interpret it in any way. She was vulnerable and honest. She showed care and concern for others, all while being terrified herself.
Twenty years later, most of us still remember it as it was yesterday, and with the turmoil throughout the Nation today, I have hope that we can come together once again. May we remember all the lives we lost that day and all who were lost fighting for our freedoms in the events that followed.
May we never forget.
“It’s an extraordinary tale … of resilience, of survival, of courage, of love. For me, this is the legacy of 9/11.” – Gédéon Naudet