Human beings don’t like to dwell on the tragedies of our past. We want to move on. But trauma isn’t content to say in our yesterdays. It’s a fast-growing weed that—if left unchecked—spreads into today.
Eighteen years ago today, America suffered the collective trauma of the September 11th attacks. With each anniversary, there’s less fanfare, as though as a nation, we should be “over it” by now.
Yet we would not expect an individual to shake off trauma so easily. Would 18 years be enough to “get over” the death of a child? Being assaulted? Witnessing a murder? That person’s whole perspective on the world would probably be altered forever, whether he realized it or not.
Likewise, every American has his own profound memories of the 9/11 attacks. And though we may not realize it, we bring those memories into the voting booth, the economy, and the public square. 9/11 planted some potent seeds in the soil of the American soul, and its bitter harvest is still being reaped even now.
For the 18th anniversary of this world-altering tragedy, I asked a few folks to share their memories of that trauma—what they were feeling and how these memories remain with them today. Each is noted as the age he or she was at the time of the terrorist attacks.
Kathleen, Age 17, Haddonfield, NJ
I was seventeen years old waiting to be called to take my senior class picture. I stood in my high school hallway and waited in a short line where a “goth” student with jet-black hair and facial piercings asked me if I’d heard that the World Trade Center blew up. I was shocked and obviously emotional, but she relayed the message matter-of-factly so as to not contradict her steady, too-cool image.
After smiling brightly for my class photo, I returned to my science class where I shared the news with my teacher and classmates. Years later, my teacher informed me that I was the one who first told him the news, and I was forever etched that way in his memory.
During the day, students huddled into a small cafeteria lounge to watch a TV replaying the morning’s tragedies. Teachers let students use school phones to call long-distance phone numbers to check on relatives who worked in the city. For a day, a group of self-oriented high school seniors were sobered by the news of the greater community.
Billy, Age 49, New York, NY
I lived on the Upper West Side and on that day, I had a meeting scheduled with brokers from Guy Carpenter, a reinsurance company located on the 52nd floor of the South Tower. The broker had asked if I wanted to meet at 9:00 am. Well, I knew there was this great restaurant downtown at Duane and Reade Streets, so I said, “Why don’t we meet for lunch instead?” He laughed and agreed to meet later.
That morning while I was getting ready, someone told me to turn on the TV and we saw what was happening. The South Tower was struck at 9:03 am, and I was just watching in disbelief, wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t changed our meeting time.
We lived at 88th Street and Central Park West, which is about five or six miles from the World Trade Center site. Even that far north, you could smell it. For weeks, it smelled like an electrical fire. Nobody wanted to go downtown after it happened. It was in shambles, everything was closed and the cops were telling us not to come.
Today, I’m starting to forget things because it’s been a long time. But I do remember that, in those days after, people took it very personally as New Yorkers. This was our neighborhood and we were attacked. And not by some Timothy McVeigh guy, these were foreigners who attacked our home. I remember a lot of very anti-Arab feelings in those days because we were mad. Of course, that’s not the case now.
I also remember being on a city bus in the days following the attacks, and a Sikh man was riding along with his wife. People were yelling at him because he was wearing a turban. They thought he was Arab; Arabs don’t even wear turbans. Finally I had to tell people to leave him alone, that he was Indian—an ally—and his religion was all about peace.
Something that bothered me both then and now, was that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi. So when I see our current relationship with the Saudis, I get frustrated. It was fantastic when President Bush went down to speak at Ground Zero, but then he went and attacked the wrong country. It wasn’t Iraqis who flew the plane into the towers.
Weeks after the attacks, when we finally did go down to Ground Zero, the thing that brought me to tears was seeing all the pictures that people had hung on the fences around the site. When you saw their faces, it really brought it home that these people suffered. These people died. And thank God we were safe.
I have so many pictures of New York with the Twin Towers. Whenever I see one, I have to keep it. Today, I’ll see pictures of the new Freedom Tower, and my first reaction is “That doesn’t belong there. The Twin Towers belong there.”
Peggy, Age 36, Alexandria, VA
I was at a Bible study at Calvary Road Baptist Church. Someone came into the room and said that “something major” was happening in New York City and in Washington, D.C.—just a few minutes away. We prayed and then they dismissed us. I remember thinking how quiet it was outside. The absence of air travel above my head was ominous.
I called my husband, Mark, and he explained that while he was passing over the 14th Street Bridge, he heard an explosion. He looked over his shoulder and saw the Pentagon on fire. Mark also told me that planes flew into the World Trade Center in New York.
I turned on the television for a few minutes to verify and gather some information. I made the conscious decision to turn off the TV to spend time with Emma Claire, my two-year-old daughter, and quietly reflect on the tragedy for so many innocent people.
I was just bewildered by the motives behind such a senseless act. I contemplated how these images of death and destruction that were in faraway places on the television had come to America, and I pondered how it would affect our way of life.
Rebekah, Age 16, Kingwood, TX
[Typing this out made me tear up all over again. It still feels so shocking and heartbreaking.]
I was an 11th grader in high school, sitting in my homeroom class. I remember hearing the news of the first tower going down. My teacher turned on the classroom TV that hung on the far left corner wall. Before we could wrap our heads around what was happening, I—along with a room full of other 16-year-olds—watched in live action as the cameras captured the second plane hitting the second tower.
I remember thinking, “This is something you see in movies, something that looks real but you know deep down that it it’s just camera tricks.” But this was 100% real, and we were in complete shock.
All day, they moved us from class to class, TVs on in every room, and all we did was watch the news footage until they released us to go home early later that afternoon.
Chadwyck, Age 9, Woodland Park, NJ
I grew up in New York City and my church was in Midtown. Early in 2001 my family had moved from New York state to Northern New Jersey near Montclair University. My family was all home on September 11th.
My dad, the pastor of our church, worked from a home office. We had a large TV, but only used it for the occasional evening movie and hosting a Superbowl party. I remember my dad calling down from his office to my siblings that we should turn on the TV. We were homeschooled and a couple of us were in the living room and kitchen doing schoolwork. I was surprised that the TV worked—but was further shocked by what I was seeing and hearing.
Our house was on a mountain, but the ridge obscured the New York skyline. After the attacks seemed to cease, we went outside to the road, which allowed a better view of the large dust cloud that was building over the city. It was surreal to struggle with the peace I felt at home, and in my faith, with the challenging reality I knew was happening a few miles away—and in a deeper sense, all around the world.
We had often talked about global and national events around the house, but this was the first time that something global felt real. It had always been an abstraction. (I recall later realizing that my parents had lived through the Cold War – which in my young mind appeared to be “history” too far in the past to really mean anything.) I was shocked that we appeared to be at war. Up until then, the price of the security I felt as an American was completely undervalued.
All but a few families of our church lived and worked in Manhattan. I thankfully didn’t know anyone personally who died. However, many of my friends in my broader community lost fathers and close connections. Members of my home church still suffer from immune disorders and breathing problems that started after the attacks.
The closeness of community in the months after the attacks still impresses me. The attacks transformed strangers into a community. The resulting patriotism of that time is frankly astonishing, considering all the petty squabbles that had previously (and currently) divided America.
Closer to home, I remember the feeling of walking down the normally semi-hostile streets of NYC. After 9/11, those streets had been transformed into a place of intense local unity. We were New Yorkers. We’d had something terrible and unexpected thrown at us and—while previously we didn’t have a care about the stranger on the street—now we did. And we were stronger for it.
Over time, that feeling has faded, and the only other place I’ve found it is at my local church. But it gave me a picture of a community that cares for one another—even if we don’t know everything about each other.
Sofia, Age 17, San Pedro Sula, Honduras
I was in high school on September 11, 2001. My school was Christian, so we had chapel every day. On that day we went to chapel, like any other day. One of the preachers stood up and told us that an airplane had crashed into one of the twin towers in New York City. Not that it would be in any way funny, but I kept waiting for him to tell us that he was just joking. The more he went on, I just could not believe what he was saying.
At that age, I would regularly interpret from English to Spanish for North American church missions trips which came to Honduras to bless my people. I had made many and very dear North American friends through the interpreting.
Even though I knew most—if not all—did not live in New York, I was so worried about them. I longed to hear that they were okay. As soon as I arrived home, I rushed for the news so I could get more information. I watched report after report trying to understand, comprehend, process, take-in…
I don’t remember how long it took me to reach my friends in the United States. I do remember reaching the first friend I ever made on my first missions trip. She asked if I would please keep newspapers for her of that day. She wanted to be able to see the world’s perspective on the event.
I kept the paper for years. I don’t know what happened to it and hate that I no longer have it.
My husband and I visited the site in 2016 and the museum in 2018. I don’t even know what to say about the memorial and museum, but it still stirs my heart.
Diana, Age 45, Langley, VA
At the time, I was a caretaker for a lady with Alzheimer’s in an old house that was right by CIA headquarters. I was in the kitchen, listening to the TV in the background. After the first plane hit, everyone on TV was hoping it was just an accident with a small plane. But I knew—the bombing had already happened years before at the World Trade Center. And then the second tower was hit. It took away the illusion that the oceans surrounding us would protect us.
It was worse than the day President Kennedy was shot because we didn’t know what the beginning and the end of it was. There were so many rumors about more possible targets or attacks. I was so worried that if the CIA got hit, we’d have to take cover in the basement—how would I get my patient down there? The house was old and the basement had rickety steps and a dirt floor with rats all around.
After the attacks, I had gotten into such a negative frame of mind; I was obsessed with reading and seeing everything I could. It upset me, but I had to know everything. At the time, I was dating a German. At first, he was very sympathetic, but after a while, he got tired of hearing about it. He didn’t understand—especially our need to get back at the people who’d done this. I told him, “They came to our house and did this. Somebody’s gotta get ein Schlag – a smack.” Americans wouldn’t let this go unanswered.
A few weeks later, I went to New York to visit a friend. She lived right around Ground Zero and they hadn’t been allowed to return to their homes for at least a month. Cleaning crews had to clear all the white dust that covered the whole neighborhood after the attacks. That dust was from the building debris, chemicals—and the remains of the people who were killed.
She told me that after she was allowed back into the apartment, she pulled out a videotape and there was still white dust all over top of it. She didn’t know what to do with it because she knew that dust could have been someone’s ashes.
Because they were so worried people would leave the city, her building waived her rent while they were closed and even gave people cash to stay. But my friend felt badly about taking the money. There were so many businesses in the neighborhood that were forced to close for weeks. Even after they reopened, no one was coming down there. All the tourists were gone. So my friend took that money from her landlords and just went and spent it at all the shops down there, trying to keep them in business [starts crying].
Bobby, Age 33, NYPD’s 52nd Precinct, The Bronx, NY
That morning, I got a call from my brother Philip, an Air Force pilot, right after the first plane hit the towers. I was asleep and his call woke me up. He told me to turn on the TV. I said, “What channel?” And he said, “It doesn’t matter.” When I saw what was going on on the screen, I said, “Holy cow.” Only that’s not the word I used.
I got off the phone with my brother and called my wife Jackie, telling her what happened. As we were on the phone, the second plane hit and we knew immediately what was happening. I knew, “I gotta get to work.” I found out later that there was an official recall of all officers in the city, but I didn’t know about it then. I just knew I had to report for duty.
During the day of the 11th, we weren’t allowed to go to Ground Zero. Everything was a mess and the higher ups assumed that any police they’d send down there were going to get killed, so they kept us at our precinct in The Bronx.
All the officers reported for muster that morning at the school next door to the precinct, which was the only place around with enough space to hold us all. The school was right across from this bodega that was owned by Arabs. Me and a lot of guys at the precinct would go there to get coffee from time to time.
Now, it was still early in the day, but both towers had already fallen. There were officers from our precinct that we knew were on duty downtown from the night before—at court appearances and things like that. As far as we knew at the time, they were dead. And the Arabs who owned this bodega across the street were celebrating, doing the equivalent of the Irish jig.
Me and a few other guys were about to cross the street and confront them when our commanding officer grabbed us by the shoulder and stopped us. Our C.O. did right by us; we would have lost our jobs that day.
After that, nobody went to that bodega again. Even in that neighborhood, which wasn’t exactly friendly to cops, the neighborhood folks wouldn’t stand by that. They didn’t go either. It got to the point that they had to sell the bodega and move out of the neighborhood.
On the night of the 11th, going into the 12th, I was finally sent down to Ground Zero. It was surreal. You know, I wasn’t in the military, I didn’t serve in war, but I’m a history buff and that place looked like Berlin in 1945. Just bombed out and destroyed.
As cops, if we were working at Ground Zero, we were there to secure the perimeter. Since all the apartments and businesses were evacuated, no one should have been down there. We were there to make sure no one was looting and that only first responders and construction workers were down at the site. I mean, this was a mass grave—no one else could be there.
When we got sent down there, we’d be down there for hours at a time. When we’d finally get a break for a meal, we’d just be desperate for a place to close our eyes for a minute. Trinity Church opened its doors to us as a peaceful place to rest away from the scene. You’d walk into that church and see all these cops, sleeping across the pews. After everything that had happened, that church welcoming us was such a relief—and contrast—to what had happened in the attacks.
We were able to dig at the site, but we did it as volunteers on our own time. Whenever those of us digging would find a body or remains, everything on the site would stop. All the digging, all the talking—everyone was just silent and solemn. They would carry out the remains draped in an American flag.
We all knew somebody who died—it was just a matter of how close we were to them. Orio Palmer, an FDNY battalion chief who was married to my cousin—he died rescuing folks trapped in the South Tower. I knew Steven Driscoll, an officer on an ESU [Emergency Service Unit] truck. Also, the husband of a woman I worked with…we all knew someone.
But now people are forgetting. Every year that goes by, it’s less and less that people remember.
We’ve done a better job remembering Pearl Harbor than 9/11. Look at that congresswoman from Minnesota who said “some people did something.” I still have the newspapers from that day. The front page of the New York Daily News—where somebody is taking a header off the World Trade Center—to an elected U.S. official saying that? How did we get from there to here?
9/11 was the deadliest terrorist act in world history. It claimed 2,606 lives in Lower Manhattan, 265 on the four hijacked flights and 125 at the Pentagon. More than 6,000 others were injured. This is to say nothing of the health impact on 9/11 rescue workers or in the wars that followed.
It was the bloodiest day in American history since the Civil War. It revoked the faith that we were safe on our own soil. It made celebrities of terrorists. It shook America’s sense of self and its role on the world stage. That’s not something you bounce back from in 18 years.
As any historian can tell you, 18 years is a drop in the bucket; history will not see 2001 and 2019 as distinct eras in American history. Future generations will not see events like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 2008 financial crisis, the elections of Barack Obama and Donald Trump or the school shooting epidemic as unrelated events. They are all—at least in part—the legacy of 9/11. Never forget.