“Did you hear about the World Trade Center?” a coworker asked.
It was September 11, 2001, just before 9:00 am. The moment the question left his lips I felt this knot sinking in my stomach while goose bumps ran up my spine to the roots of my hair — the sensation that signaled something tragic had happened.
I had the same feeling when I was in the 8th grade and the Challenger exploded. A year and a half later, I felt it again when my dad pulled me and my brother out of choir practice at church on a Sunday afternoon and told us my grandfather had been rushed to the hospital. I even experienced it on a Saturday morning at work when another coworker came in and asked if we had heard that John Kennedy, Jr. was missing.
So I almost didn’t have to stop what I was doing as the guy who asked the question brought up the CNN main page showing a gaping hole near the top of the North Tower.
Minutes later, someone else called out that the second tower had been hit. People around the office began to walk around, stopping at the desks of those who had Internet access.
My husband, then working a different schedule than I did, called half an hour later, “They hit the Pentagon.” I relayed the information down the row as another coworker was yelling the same thing. A friend called her daughter who was a freshman at Sarah Lawrence. She was on-campus, watching the trail of smoke from her dorm.
Then came the first word of the plane in rural Pennsylvania. Not knowing then that the area wasn’t the original target, panic clutched at my heart. How many more were there? How far west or south would they come?
We waited for word that the planes had been grounded. Someone went down the street to Wal-Mart to buy a TV for the break room. We watched the Towers fall. My friend, the mother of the daughter at Sarah Lawrence, cried. She had just been there earlier that year.
At the time, we did newsletters for Borders bookstores. One of our customer service representatives kept trying to call the contact at the store in the Trade Center to make sure everyone at his store got out okay. He eventually called back to let us know that he and his coworkers were some of the lucky ones.
At lunch, I had an appointment to get a haircut. Such a trivial thing to do, but being at least 500 miles away from the closest crash site, there was nothing to bring our cities to a halt. No emergency evacuations, no blackouts, no communication cutoffs — life was supposed to go on, whether we wanted it to or not.
I didn’t cry until two days later. I sat alone in the living room watching yet another hour of the national news, and at the top of the hour, the station played a montage of destruction backed by a sorrowful soundtrack with the occasional addition of phone messages left by those stranded in the Towers to their loved ones. The grief came out in heaves and sobs.
I don’t pretend to know the fear or the grief or the panic that must have gripped those areas, but the inkling of those emotions that ran through me that day and those that followed was enough to remember a lifetime.
To those in New York, in D.C., in Pennsylvania, in London, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Israel, in Lebanon, in any city that has been touched by horrendous acts — whether they killed 1 or 100 or 100,000 — I’m sorry for your loss, and I still hope for a day when we can live without the thought of dying in a violent tragedy.