Ask most people what they were doing on September 11, 2001, and they'll have an answer for you instantly. That Tuesday morning remains frozen in our minds 14 years later — we can recall exactly where we were, who we were talking to and what we were doing in the moments before modern American life changed forever.
But for those who were in the middle of growing up during the terrorist attacks of September 11, the day takes on a separate significance — for many Millennials, the collapse of the World Trade Center and everything that came after was their first introduction to very adult concepts like violence, death, tragedy and war. Many of us didn't even really understand exactly what was going on — but we knew that people were terrified and that things were different now.
We spoke with 15 people who were children and teens on September 11, 2001 to find out how they remember the day, what they understood at the time and how their understanding of the event changed their childhoods.
Whether being a child or teen on 9/11 made you permanently worried that something like that could happen again, motivated you politically, or simply taught you how confusing and terrifying life could be, few of us who were young then don't think of 9/11 as a turning point that shaped the rest of our lives.
1. Erin, 10 On 9/11
"I remember that my elementary school didn't tell us what was going on, but they kept us inside for recess because you could see the smoke from the buildings outside (I'm from Long Island, close to Queens). A lot of my classmates were taken out of school that day. My mother told me what happened when she picked me up that afternoon but I was mostly confused. I think what scared me the most was that all the adults in my life were so scared."
2. Paul, 17 On 9/11
"I remember cars that were never picked up from the train station. Their owners never returned from the city to pick them up."
3. Caroline, 9 On 9/11
"All the teachers were freaked out but didn't communicate anything to the students — I remember knowing something had happened, but didn't know what. My thoughts were confirmed when the school didn't let us play outside for recess. I knew something definitely happened when I came home from school, and my sister and mom were sitting on the couch watching TV — which was super atypical. That's when my mom explained what happened, as I watched the replay of the buildings crashing."
4. Sarah, 7 On 9/11
"I remember lots of kids being signed out of school for no reason. On the way home, the mom driving carpool mentioned what happened, so I asked my mom when I got home. I saw the clip of the crash on the news, and I remember being very upset by it. But I was so young that I didn't really understand all that it would mean for our country."
5. Colin, 11 On 9/11
"I remember watching the first plane fly into the World Trade Center on the news that morning with my parents, and then going to school and talking about it with my classmates. My friend told me that his dad said that this was the beginning of a war. We then both promised each other that we would fight for our country when we turned 18. Neither of us upheld that promise — he went on to become an investment banker, and I went on to become a paramedic.
"The events of 9/11 greatly impacted the training that I received during EMT and paramedic school, and I have yet to find a firehouse that doesn't have some form of dedication to the 343 firefighters that made the ultimate sacrifice that day...9/11 was the first time in my life that I understood the previously intangible concepts of mortality and sacrifice. Should a tragic occasion ever arise again, I hope I am there and able to make difference by caring for the sick and injured — I have hoped this ever since watching those towers fall."
6. Carly, 10 On 9/11
"I remember my teacher telling me to run across the hall and tell another teacher that there was an attack on the World Trade Center. I tried to remember exactly what she said, but I didn't understand. The other teacher already had the news on and was crying. I never got to deliver the message and I didn't realize the message and her crying were related. I never understood the impact of the event until years later, and I wish someone had explained it to me earlier. I went to elementary school in NY — I think the teacher that was crying had a loved one in the attack, but I never got a chance to hear her story."
7. Nikki, 14 On 9/11
"I remember coming out after taking a standardized test (our teacher didn't tell us anything until lunch, so we were already a couple hours behind) and everyone was whispering frantically in the lunch room. The school wheeled in big screen TVs so we could watch the news. I remember the mom of one of my really good friends came and got her out of school because she was so worried. Testing was called off for the rest of the day. I went home and watched the news with my mom for the rest of that night."
8. Becca, 7 On 9/11
"My second grade teacher told us at the end of the day that if we had sports or other activities at night, they would be cancelled, and that our parents would explain the reason why. I got in the car and asked my mom and she told me there was a terrorist attack. I had no idea what that meant. Later, I learned that planes flew into buildings, but I didn't understand exactly what happened for a long time."
9. Joseph, 16 On 9/11
"I was driving to my high school after finishing my morning college courses. I had a college visitation trip planned to New York colleges the following week. It was the first and only time in my life that I have been in a place of complete and utter disbelief. I remember how things became eerily quiet in the afternoon and evening, and I remember the country uniting and becoming one people."
10. Michelle, 14 On 9/11
"It was one of the scariest days of my life. I was confused, sad and completely petrified. I grew up 18 miles outside of Manhattan, and you could see the World Trade Center from our riverfront. Most of the kids in my high school had parents who worked in the city, and some in the World Trade Center. I just remember a ton of chaos that day — everyone was just trying to find out if their families were OK and where they were. We were all called into the office to call our parents, and then we were sent home early. I sat in my room watching the news for the rest of the day and didn't want to leave."
11. Hannah, 10 On 9/11
"I was waiting outside of our house for the school bus with my mom. When the bus came, I got on, and once I was out of earshot, the bus driver told my mom to go inside and turn on the news. Once at school, my teachers explained to us what happened. A few kids stayed home from school, or had their parents come pick them up. I remember we lit a candle and had a moment of silence in the classroom. When I got home, my dad (who grew up in NY) was crying. I was old enough to understand that a tragedy had happened, but not mature enough to grasp how tragic it really was."
12. Courtney, 13 On 9/11
"I remember the kids thought that it was a bomb threat on the school, because of how the adults were acting. They gathered us in the school library to tell us what was actually going on. After that, it was like you couldn't get away from a 24 hour news cycle."
13. Lauren, 8 On 9/11
"I was watching the news and not really understanding it. It felt like I was watching a movie, and so I didn't understand why everyone was so upset."
14. Kathryn, 12 On 9/11
"My school bus had gotten into a fender bender that morning, so when I finally got to school, that's what I thought everyone was freaking out about. TVs were on everywhere playing the news, but I didn't really pay attention to any of them — I was too shaken up by my own personal bus drama."
15. Samantha, 9 On 9/11
"I was in elementary school in New Jersey, but I remember a lot of kids being picked up early from school. Eventually my mom picked me up and explained what was happening as best as she could. She also told me that my dad, who worked in the city and sometimes worked in the World Trade Center, was OK. Years later, she told me she had actually waited to pick me up until she'd heard from him and was sure he was OK.
"I think she also told me at that point that my grandparents, who also worked in NYC, were OK. Then we picked up my brother from preschool, went home, and I think some neighbors came over. My mom was on the phone a lot. I remember my dad not getting home until after I went to sleep. I think I didn't really understand what was happening at the time."
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