Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering 9/11

I'm posting this instead of the SNS for two reasons: 1. 9/11, however much it's saturating the media right now, is important, and 2. I don't really have anything to post as of the moment.  Next week I can either post more of the WIP or something completely different if you guys want.

September 11, 2001 was my first cognizant (and hopefully last) encounter with both terrorism and a national disaster.  I was alive during the 1993 bombing of the Trade Centers, but I was young then and didn't even realize it had happened until after 9/11.

I was in a music theory class, trying to figure out if I should put an eighth note on that last stanza or a quarter note.  The windows were open.  The sun was warm.  I sat by the door.  The world was focused on that silly note, on which made more sense, on how much I wanted to be outside in the September sun instead of in that chair.  Then, very suddenly, one of the younger students came running in from down the hall and yelled, "A plane has hit the World Trade Center!"

We didn't really understand what was going on.  I remember thinking, "Oh wow, how could a pilot manage to do that?"  We had no idea it was intentional.  Who ever thinks it's intentional?  Who could possibly understand flying a commercial plane full of innocent people into a building on purpose, especially when you've never even been faced with such a catastrophe?  It's incomprehensible.

The day progressed somewhat normally at first.  I went to my next class.  No one really talked about the horror unfolding in New York City, maybe because we didn't want to think about it or maybe because we didn't know.  I think a few of the younger students watched it unfold on the TV, but we didn't have one in our classroom and so had no idea what was going on.  A few of us went home to be with family.  I stayed.  My family was close by and I wasn't too worried about them at the time because it hadn't occurred to me that we were under attack.  In retrospect, I should have gone home.  I wish I had gone home

Later that morning, one of the teachers walked quietly to our instructor, whispered something in her ear, and then left.  Our instructor went very silent, very still, and we went silent too as she stared hard at the back wall.  She ushered us into the library a few minutes later, warned us to stay there, and then left, and of course, we jumped on the Internet and learned that planes were crashing everywhere, that the Pentagon had been hit, and that life was changing right before our eyes.

More of us left.

You see, I experienced 9/11 while I was living in New Jersey, approximately twenty minutes outside of Manhattan, and from my house, I had a clear view of the skyline and later that day, of the smoke cloud rising solemnly and grimly in the distance.  We were close to it.  It terrified us.  There was talk among us that Newark might come under attack next.  Or Hoboken.  Or something.  We didn't know what to think.

I didn't have a cell phone at the time, and couldn't reach my parents.  Both of them worked in the city, but thankfully not at the time this was happening, so I could take some solace in the fact that they were home and safe.  I had a piano lesson in Manhattan later that day too, but when I mentioned this to one of the instructors who periodically came to check in on us and take a head count, she told me there was no chance I was getting into Manhattan that day, that the city had been closed off at all its tunnels and bridges.  I sat down and buried my face in my hands.  Manhattan, closed off.  How could that ever be possible?

I stayed until about three and then fled home, confused and agitated and not really understanding what exactly had happened.  My mother greeted me at the door and said, "The Towers are gone."

It's a simple sentence, but simple sentences are the easiest to shake you to your core.  I couldn't process it.  How could the Towers be gone?  They were always there, silent monoliths on the horizon.  How could they possibly be gone?  What on earth had happened?

We watched the news all day and deep into the night, sitting on the couch just trying to hold one another and feel safe in each other's arms.  I forget how many times I watched the planes crash, heard people screaming, listened to news reporters try to make sense of all the chaos and fail miserably at it as dust clouds over took them and their cameras.  I watched as fire and gas exploded into the sky, watched as the Towers fell, shook in horror and dismay as people jumped out of the flaming Towers because they'd rather die smashed on the sidewalk than burn to death in what had to be Hell.  (I'm shaking right now, writing this.)

We watched President Bush's address to the nation, then watched as families wailed into cameras and replayed the last messages of their loved ones while clutching at photographs and t-shirts.  I sobbed at the voice-mail of a little girl telling her father that she loved him.

We learned about United 93 and the incredibly bravery and selflessness of the passengers aboard that flight, and felt both proud and horrified for them.  We don't get to hear too much about United 93, but they are all heroes, and I plan to make a visit to the crash site to pay my respects to them.

I didn't sleep well that night, or the night after.  It took a while for things to return to some sort of semi-normalcy.

I don't write this because I think my story is worth telling over the stories of other people or because I have some sort of political stance on it.  I write it because I'm a writer and it's my job to record history and make sure that it's remembered.  And I *want* to remember 9/11.  I want to be able to say with conviction that I was there and I was doing this at the time.  I want to be able to tell my future children exactly what happened that day.  I want them to know the horror and the pain of it, not just the words of it or a few pictures pasted in their history books.

It's amazing to me that there are children now who have been born who don't know what 9/11 was.  It'll be even more amazing when I'm old and withered and the neighborhood kids will whisper, "She was alive when 9/11 happened," and to them 9/11 will be nothing more than a day that is marked by a moment of silence and a few articles online about the terror attacks.  And so I want to record what happened so that I can make it real for these future generations who will know nothing about it.  Because it needs to be passed down.

For the memories of everyone who lived, died, fought, escaped, were wounded, were scarred, who risked their own lives to help complete strangers, I want to pass something down to the children who will be born on the twentieth anniversary and the thirtieth anniversary, so on and so forth.  I want that memory to stay alive.  For the memory of my cousin, who may or may not have died in the Towers (the last we knew of her, she was working in the North Tower, I think.) I will remember my tiny, inconsequential role in the day, and will pass it down to them so that they can *know.*

And I will pass down the hope too because even Pandora's box had that left at the bottom.  And amid the chaos and the pain and the death, there are a thousand stories of hope and wonder and kindness that need to be kept alive as well.  So on this tenth anniversary of a dark, horrible time, remember the hope, the courage, and the triumph of that day as well.  In the deepest of the night, there is still light in the sky and in the eyes of people who love you.


  1. Thank you for putting your recollections down on paper, for your part in history.

    May their memories live on. xXx

  2. Oh, Marlena, such a sad day. I remember we were living in New Zealand at the time and it was night. Someone rang to say switch on the TV and we all kept glued to the TV for days afterwards. It was horrifing and at the time we didn't had much knowledge about terrorists.

  3. OK, I'll probably get flamed, but I am beyond sick of NINE ELEVEN BOO HOO HOOOO!!!!I live in DC. The National Guard was in my 'hood, and there were abuelas from Salvador wanting to know why they couldn't get in to the local Safeway, which for some reason had suddenly LOCKED UP in the middle of broad daylight. I remember how many people were trying to call each other, that my mom on the West Coast couldn't get through to me, that one of my best friends saw the plane that hit the Pentagon. But I remember a Chilean neighbor who was shunned when she said, this sort of thing happens all the time, in other countries.
    OK, maybe her timing wasn't terrific, but she was a veteran of a Pinochet prison camp, and her photojournalist son had been tortured to death by the so-called police. And she had an important point. I don't mean that we weren't entitled to mourn, but as a country we'd been living in a sort of bubble. This just didn't happen to US, right here.
    And THEN--our President, who'd lost the popular vote, remember, and was in the White House because the Supremes stopped the Florida ballot count--he lied us into a war against a country that had nothing to do with the attacks. Attacks which might have been prevented if he had bothered to listen to his advisors.
    At least twice as many Americans have died in pointless wars since then as died in the WTC, the Pentagon, and the field in PA, and who knows how many civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan.
    We have been sooo lied to. Flag-waving and monuments just doesn't do it for me. Are we really any safer because we have to pack teensy bottles of shampoo and spent a ton of money to make Iraq look like the Moon? Folks, this didn't have to happen. Don't settle for cheap settlement. Demand better.

  4. My husband and I were working on a military installation where the worst of Hurricane Katrina hit. It was bad in its own way, but at least we could say it wasn't personal; Mother Nature has no vendettas. For you to have lived so close to the site of one of the attacks is a fear I hope I won't ever know first hand, as you do, Marlena.

  5. Thanks for sharing your story. I lived on Long Island at the time, and both my sister and husband were in Manhattan that day. I've never written a post about my experiences.

    As for children not remembering 09/11, I'm sure that's how people felt when children didn't live through Pearl Harbor or other big events/wars in US History. I used to talk about it in my class each year. Now the students have no memory of it.

  6. Brooke: Thank you.

    Between The Lines: Thank you for remembering them.

    Nas: The general public really didn't have any idea what a terrorist was until then. It was a shock.

    ostrova: I agree that we don't give enough thought to the rest of the world. What we experienced on 9/11 is entirely too common in other parts of the world.

    Michelle: Working where Katrina hit must have been both horrifying and humbling. I couldn't imagine coming away from that untouched.

    Theresa: You're right. I don't have an understanding of Pearl Harbor (somewhat because my grandfather never wanted to talk about it), but I think now I would be able to appreciate its importance more. I'm so sorry that your husband and sister were in Manhattan. It must have been terrifying for you.


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