Monday, September 12, 2011

10 Years Ago

From the peaceful haze of a departing slumber, a dull clanging outside my window shattered my dream and forced me awake 45 minutes before my alarm was to go off.  I lay in bed, willing my eyes open and cursing the construction workers who were busy outside, just a few meters from where I lay all  cozy in my bed.  The morning sun fought it's way through my blinds, painting golden lines on my beige wall.  I didn't have to look outside to know that the sky was perfectly blue, the pure white clouds fluffy and the sun out in all it's glory.  Later, my best friend at college told me that when she opened her blinds around the same time that morning, she told her roommate that it was "a perfect day".  

The low hum of the shower in the bathroom next door told me that my roommate was one step ahead of me on this Tuesday morning.  I glanced at my clock: 8:53AM.  We both had 10:05AM classes and the race for the shower was hers to win that day.  I could lay in bed, I thought, but something forced me to get up despite the extra time I had (a true feat, believe me).  I pulled on a CUA sweatshirt and lazily sauntered into the living room of our apartment.  Maybe some music would get me moving, I thought, as I reached for the clicker and turned on the tv.  I expected to see MTV (usually white noise in our apartment), but instead one of the national news networks filled the frame.  As I raised the clicker to change the channel, the news anchor's more-serious-than-usual tone made me pause to see what could have already happened on this early Tuesday morning.  I rubbed my eyes and forced myself to focus on what she was saying.  Suddenly the screen split and one of the World Trade Center towers filled the screen, a giant plume of smoke billowing from it's side.
My jaw dropped.  I immediately focused on the news anchors words - "it seems a plane has hit the North Tower of the WTC....looks like it was an accident....being investigated further....".   "Oh my God", I whispered.  Actually, I couldn't do anything but whisper - I had lost my voice earlier that week and literally couldn't speak.  In vain, I tried to shout through the bathroom door to tell Victoria that a plane had accidentally flown into the tower.  She had grown up in New Jersey on the doorstep of "The City" and the school her mother taught at afforded a clear view of the World Trade Center across the river. I eventually gave up my pathetic attempts to shout to Victoria and planted myself back in front of the news coverage.
I glanced at the clock on screen - 9:00AM.   I thought that I'd better start getting a move on or I'd miss class.  Five more minutes, I thought, and I'll start to get ready.  I flicked between MSNBC, ABC and CNN and settled on one channel who was showing a full screen shot of North tower, a column of smoke still pouring from it's side. The anchor was still unsure what caused this terrible accident, but assured viewers that we'd be updated as soon as they knew anything more conclusive.

Something entered the corner of the screen. A bird, I thought. But as it got closer I chided myself - it was clearly far too big to be a bird. It seemed to be flying toward the towers. Please let it be the Air Force or something like that, investigating the situation from the air.  Closer. Faster.  In the next second the unimaginable happened right in front of my eyes, in front of the eyes of millions I'd stunned viewers, all over the country and all over the world. That plane crashed into the side of the South tower and our lives and country were changed forever.  One minute we were witnessing a horrific 'accident', the next it seemed that no one felt safe.  Oh my God, was all I could say - both a prayer and an expression of total shock. I could hardly believe my eyes.  I can't recall the news anchors next words, only the horror in her voice as she, like the rest of us, realised that this great country we were living in had just come under attack. That a moment ago, we witnessed even more innocent people needlessly losing their lives. That in a matter of seconds everything had changed.

I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn't understand this.  Who did this?  Why did they do it?  Those questioned were probably asked millions of times that day and for these 10 years since.

Victoria was still in the shower.  This time I just went straight in and told her what happened.  She rushed to join me on the couch where we sat, glued to the screen.  I called my parents and whispered as loud as I could, telling them what happened.  There was no need - they were sitting in a cafe in Ireland, an ocean away, having lunch and watching it all unfold on the TV.  We said our goodbyes and I returned to watching the coverage.  

It was 9:25AM - the quickest shower I've ever taken (at this point going to class was still a possibility).  I sat back in front of the TV in time for more horrific news:  another plane had been hijacked and this time it hit the Pentagon.  Chills covered my entire body.  The Pentagon - a 25 minute drive from where I was sitting.  I felt my blood run cold.  Victoria and I looked at each other - fearful and wondering what the hell we should do.  The news anchors were now saying 'who knows how many more are out there'  and 'the capitol building could also be a target'.  The Capitol building was only 10 minutes away.  I felt afraid - I felt really afraid.  My family was on the other side of the ocean.  No matter how independent I was (and I was), in that moment I just wanted my parents, my family and Sue near.  We started receiving frantic phone calls - from my parents, my siblings, my friend in Galway.  But then all our phone lines went dead and we felt isolated and scared of what might be coming next.
The next 45 minutes felt like a day.  One by one, more horrendous events unfolded before our eyes:  the South Tower collapsed.  United flight 93 went down in Shanksville, PA.  The North Tower collapsed.  Countless lives perished in those towers as they crumbled, and there I was, (retrospectively) safe in my apartment watching it all through my tv screen.  I'm certain we all cried that morning - feeling a deep sadness for the loss of lives and fear of what was going to happen next.  We braced ourselves for news of an attack on the Capitol Building or the White House.  Thankfully that news never came.

I felt completely numb for the rest of the day - we all did.  Classes were cancelled and we had mass in the Basilica and a candlelight vigil on campus.  Many of my classmates were from New York, New Jersey or Connecticut with close ties to NYC.  That same best friend from college couldn't contact her brother, who worked in the building next door to the WTC.   One of our classmate's father was late to work that morning.  As he walked toward his office in the South tower he watched the first plane hit.  Thankfully he turned around and walked away.  Another classmate's father was not so lucky - he lost his life in the WTC that fateful morning.  It was so tragic.  

As the day went on, we learned of countless heroes who risked their lives, and in some cases lost their lives, in a quest to save others.  Stories of people like the passengers who courageously fought back against the hijackers on Flight 93, possibly sparing the lives of hundreds of others at whatever major site those terrorists had planned to attack with that plane.  Stories of others at Ground Zero who went back into the towers to try to help others escape - like Fr. Mychal Judge, who died as the South tower collapsed as he was administering last rights to those in the lobby of the North Tower.  True heroes, those people were.  As the day went on, it seemed that every news network created video montages of the day's events using Jeff Buckley's "Alleluia".  It was already an old favourite of mine but now it will forever remind me of that day.  

I don't think there is anyone who wasn't somehow affected by the events of September 11, 2001.  My own life was directly impacted through my husband, who joined and served 4 years in the US Army as a result of the attacks of September 11th.  During those years as an army wife, I came to a deeper understanding and respect for those truly courageous men and women who sacrifice so much so that we all might live freely.  I knew men who died for that right, and mourned with their families who were left behind - the ultimate sacrifice.

So on this day, 10 years later, I think back and pray for those souls who died so needlessly that morning.  I pray for those families who still walk through every day carrying the sorrow and loss of their loved one who never came home to them that night.  I pray for all the emergency service personnel who worked so hard and so selflessly that day - especially those lost their lives.  I pray for our all service men and women and their families - past and present - who are willing to sacrifice everything for our freedom.  How grateful I am to them for their courage and selflessness.

I will never, ever forget.



  1. Thank you Grace for giving me such a personal insight. It was a time which will be forever etched in our memories. It was so terrible that we couldn't believe it was happening - I thought for a few seconds that it was a film when I changed channels from watching QVC. We will never forget, and must never forget, those whose lives were changed forever in ways they didn't want, and which must be so hard to live with,

  2. It is so hard for me to believe it has been ten years. Thank you for sharing, Grace.