There's a reason why #WhereWereYou is trending alongside all of the other September 11 hashtags right now. The attack on the World Trade Center, the largest terrorist event on American soil, marked a dividing line in the lives of Americans. There was life before 9/11, and life after: foreign policy before and after; travel precaution before and after; stereotyping and racial profiling before and after, to name just a few. And, of course, there was — and is — war.
Just as our parents can tell us exactly where they were when John F. Kennedy was shot, we, too, can all say exactly where we were when we heard the news of 9/11 — or even saw the second plane strike on television. We've shared these stories with friends, and with strangers, and we will continue to. They're indicative of turning points in our lives.
We were fascinated by the commonalities and disparities we found within the stories of our own editors, who saw the events unfold from four different places: New York, California, Ohio, and Florida.
Hayley, Cleveland, Ohio
I was in 6th grade, and I'd convinced my mom to let me stay home from school that morning. I'd claimed sick, but she didn't believe me. She told me I could sleep in, but that she'd be back in a few hours to wake me up and take me to school. When 10 AM came and she still hadn't woken me up, I thought I'd caught a lucky break.
Around 10:15 AM, she finally appeared in my doorway and I knew immediately that something was wrong. My grandfather was sick at the time, so he was my first thought. I asked my mom if someone had died; she just nodded and told me to come downstairs to watch TV with her.
I'm from Cleveland, and I had only visited New York City once or twice before 9/11. As an 11-year-old, the World Trade Center barely held any significance to me. It wasn't until I heard that my uncle, who lives and works in the city, had watched the terrorist attack through his office window that I had a deeper understanding of the magnitude of the event.
We spent the rest of the day watching TV, and I remember asking a lot of questions. It was the first time I really started to think about the world outside of my comfortable Cleveland suburb — and it was the first time I had ever felt completely helpless. I remember thinking over and over, "Even my mom is scared. Even my mom doesn't what's going to happen. Even my mom can't protect me."
Meredith, Mamaroneck, N.Y.
I grew up 23 miles northwest of the heart of Manhattan in Westchester County. I was a freshman, and had a free first period class, so I slept late and walked to school for my second period Chinese class. I stopped in the deli across the street from the high school to buy a drink—a Joe Tea half-iced tea, half-lemonade—and watched live on the TV at the deli as the second plane crashed into the tower. I walked into the high school, and it occurs to me now that I could have been the only student in the building at that moment who knew what had happened. I tried to tell the students gathered outside the classroom what had happened, but it all sounded so incredible. I can't quite recall how everyone actually did get informed, but school carried on; it was the best way to keep us safe and accounted for, they told us. The cell lines were all completely dead. I remember the sound of the Verizon error message I kept getting as I tried to get through to both my parents, who worked in the city. The most surreal moments were kids who kept getting pulled out of class throughout the day — those whose parents worked at the World Trade Center, and who hadn't yet been accounted for.
At the end of the school day, my field hockey team walked together to Manor Park in Larchmont on the Long Island Sound, which overlooked the coastline of Queens, and watched together plumes of smoke billowing in the sky. We said nothing. A few people were missing from the group; they hadn't yet heard from their fathers, though we'd all finally gotten in touch with our families. We stayed there for a few hours. After that, everything is a blur.
I can't pinpoint things sliding back to "normal," nor when the posters of missing people plastered all over the city came down from the sidewalks and phone polls. But I remember having a knot in my stomach for a long time, and I know that it doesn't take much for it to come back.
Rachel, Oakland, Calif.
I was in 8th grade. Because of the time difference in California, I was just waking up for school. My dad knocked on my door. I remember him telling me "I don't want to freak you out, but there's something happening today."
I looked at the TV and saw the towers burning. As we were watching — unless this is a reconstructed memory— I remember seeing the second plane hit in real time. My dad reminded me that we had had lunch at the restaurant at the top of the towers less than a year before, Windows on the World. I remembered that lunch, because it was nicer than most lunches I had ever been out to with my dad. It had been a special occasion, a fond memory already. The early-morning staff and diners in that restaurant were killed instantly that morning.
My dad took me to the school bus, where most of the kids seemed like kids would — confused. We all got on the bus, but we didn't start driving, and the parents didn't leave. There was deliberation about whether we should go to school. Eventually, we got the word that school was cancelled.
I walked back home to my mom's house, where she greeted me at the door, crying, and hugged me. We had a huge TV, because my stepdad is visually impaired, so that made the images, combined with my mom's crying, more disturbing — though 'real' is certainly not the right word.
My parents are both native New Yorkers, and I had the sense as a kid that this was their tragedy. I just tried to show due deference to it. It wasn't, of course, until much later that I'd come to understand the attack, and the decade of war and cynicism that followed, would define my generation.
Alexandra, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
I don't remember why we were told to turn the TV on, whether our teacher had gotten a phone call or they had made an announcement over the loudspeaker. But the TV was rolled out, turned to a news channel, and my small 7th grade class watched together. I think I remember seeing the second plane hit the second tower. In South Florida, so many of us (including myself) had friends and family in New York, so we scrambled to figure out if anyone we knew would be downtown. Students asked to use the phone to call their parents, but ultimately the school made the decision to stop all calls going in and out because they thought it would be a distraction.
I was scared and confused, and at age 12, it was so hard to process what was going on. At some point, we turned the TV off and sat in a circle on the floor. And we talked. For what seemed like hours. Talked about how we felt, talked about what it meant, talked about how our lives would be different going forward. I vividly remember one discussion where we went around and said what we'd like to accomplish before we died, and how we hoped that the people who perished had experienced at least one of the things on their own list. Thinking about that now gives me the chills — that our initial reaction wasn't one of extreme sadness or fear, but one of hope. I can't imagine it would be the same today.
Image: idovermani on flickr