Where were you on 9/11?
This evocative question has haunted the American psyche for eighteen years since the events of September 11, 2001. Eighteen years ago this year, I was in Lago Maggiore, Italy celebrating my mother’s birthday. I was eight. We’d gone to Europe that Fall to visit family and attend a wedding, and we stayed a couple extra days to celebrate. My parents were having dinner on the patio of our cousin’s home while I played about the regal Alpine home until I saw it. The television had been left on Italian CNN, and on the screen, the north tower of the World Trade Center was on fire. My mother still tells the story to this day: “He ran out of the house screaming, ‘Mommy! Someone attacked the twin towers!’” and our lives would be changed forever.
On this eighteenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, most of us have an answer to this question that comes immediately to mind; it has become a part of our consciousness, but for some Freshman at Santa Monica College (SMC) this Fall, they may not. Time has passed, and now a new generation rises, born into a world that was already influenced by the terror of that day which so fundamentally altered the course of the United States in an instant. It is for this reason that on this eighteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we remember the day and how it changed us.
It all began with a picturesque, nearly cloudless sky on a late-Summer morning in New York City. Two French documentary filmmakers had been granted permission to shadow the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) in Lower Manhattan for their upcoming film. While filming the FDNY investigate a gas leak, one of the documentarians, Jules Naudet, heard a loud sound and swung his camera toward the sky just in time to catch American Airlines Flight 11’s fatal collision into the north tower of the World Trade Center. It was 8:46 am.
Around the same time above North West New Jersey, United Airlines flight 175 was in the process of being hijacked. As first responders poured to the north tower of the World Trade Center, United 175 took a turn for the North, and at 9:03 am struck the south tower of the World Trade Center. Parts of United 175’s engine crashed through the tower with such force that it was thrown through the building, landing six-blocks away. 157 people were killed instantly aboard the aircrafts, and many more would soon perish within the building.
At about 8:50 am over Ohio, American Airlines flight 77, carrying 64 passengers was hijacked. Hijackers forced passengers into the back of the aircraft, where unbeknownst to them, passengers made phone calls to families and law enforcement describing the situation. While this was happening, President George W. Bush was visiting students in Sarasota County, Florida, reading to them before a sign that read “Reading Makes a Country Great.” At approximately 9:10 am, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card approached the President and whispered into his ear that a second aircraft had just hit the World Trade Center. President Bush would remain seated, silently following along with the reading children for seven minutes after being given the news. He would spend a total of 20 minutes with the children before addressing the press and being taken to a secure location.
At 9:37 am, American Airlines flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia, collapsing part of the building and killing 125 people on the ground and injuring many others. The crash was witnessed by many on the premises and around the building, and the media quickly began covering the scene. At 9:45 am, United States airspace was shut down.
Within an hour, the United States had been attacked thrice. In New York, both towers of the World Trade Center were burning, and there were reports of people who were trapped above the firelines 70 to 90 floors up who were jumping from their windows. Just over an hour after the first impact, the north tower of the World Trade Center collapsed at 9:59 am, enveloping the surrounding area in a cloud of smoke and debris and killing many inside who were unable to escape, including some first responders.
At 10:03 am, United Flight 93 which had been hijacked some 30 minutes before, crashed in Somerset Country, Virginia just 80 miles away from Pittsburgh. United Flight 93 carried 44 passengers, most of whom, it appears in retrospect, participated in a revolt against the hijackers aboard the aircraft. Recordings from the blackbox and flight data show that the hijackers were perhaps just moments away from being overcome by the passengers, who’d been made aware of the 9/11 attacks by private phone calls they had placed after the hijacking had occurred. Using an aircraft foodcart to attempt to batter open the cockpit door, passengers continued their attempts despite extreme maneuvers carried out by the hijackers to dissuade them. Those same extreme maneuvers would eventually put United Flight 93 into an unrecoverable dive, and led to its eventual crash. It is still disputed to this day whether the passengers made it into the cockpit or not.
As the country grappled with the crisis, many returned home from work, and children were sent home from schools across the country. At 10:28 am, the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed, destroying a Marriott Hotel located at the base of the towers in the process. Many more were trapped inside.
All told, 2,996 people died on September 11, 2001, 19 of which were hijackers. Many more would die in the years to come from exposure to toxic chemicals thrown up by the buildings, and injuries sustained during the response. The United States would quickly look to assign blame, and would place it upon al-Qaeda who also claimed responsibility, beginning the “War on Terror,” which would see the U.S. invade Afghanistan for the refusal to extradite Osama Bin Laden and the refusal to oust al-Qaeda. This conflict would eventually engulf Iraq, and spread throughout the Middle East.
September 11, 2001 will be a mark of grief for the United States forever, and its long-term consequences manifest today, as they will tomorrow. It is important to remember that such an event defined the birth of a new age for the United States and the West at large; an age of conflict, paranoia, and secrecy. As it is within the minds of its people, the United States has been in a state of emergency since the attacks.