The Day the Earth Stood Still

It’s been seven years since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 and it still seems surreal to me.

I watched it all unfold live on television in a newsroom in Midland, TX, the heart of George W. Bush country, hometown of the First Lady.

The attacks did exactly what the perpetrators wanted them to do — get our attention, cause mass casualties, scare us, disrupt everything from our markets to our psyches. It was the strange day when the terrorist movie came to life, only there was no Denzel Washington or Bruce Willis to save the day. This was reality and people jumped to their deaths rather than burn and due to miscommunication and misguidedness more than 300 firefighters bravely charged a pair of doomed buildings that buried them and more than 2,600 people in a concrete and asbestos filled grave.

It was strange because I didn’t live in New York or Washington, D.C. or Pennsylvania. Like a lot of Americas I was separate and removed from the attacks so there was both a pain and a disconnect. None of us could really know how the people in New York’s boroughs and how people in Manhattan felt as they walked, covered in dust, across a bridge in a daze, escaping the horror that they’d witnessed.

Years later, a photographer from a New York newspaper who was there that day came to my new job in a newsroom in Bakersfield, Calif. He recounted how his life was saved by a firefighter who shoved him down while kept taking pictures. His journalist instincts made him want to make sure there was a photographic record of such a surreal day. It wasn’t until others screamed for him to run that he realized he might be killed if he didn’t move his feet.

But he still tried to protect his cameras.

He talked about taking refuge in a store with others who also couldn’t believe what they’d seen and some of us cried while listening. I know I did. I cry just thinking about it. Because I can still remember watching it on TV after the first plane hit and hearing that firefighters were rushing to the scene and storming the building.

I told my editor that was crazy. They couldn’t fight that fire, not from a jet engine crashing into a building. They needed to evacuate everyone out of there. So many of those people didn’t have to die. But my editor, like a lot of people, assumed this was just some freak accident and didn’t expect the towers to fall. But I’m the daughter of a engineer. I knew the building was already lost, but everything was so surreal I knew that New Yorkers were relying on adrenaline and instinct, not thinking of the structural integrity of the building. They weren’t removed and remote from it, like me, in a newsroom in Texas, watching what felt like “The Siege.” The police and firefighters and EMTs and the Port Authority were trying to do what they were trained to do, but no one was trained for this.

When the second plane hit it was obvious this wasn’t an accident, but no one wanted to believe it. It was too horrible beyond words, yet there was a giddiness among reporters and editors in many newsrooms across the country. On one hand, something terrible had happened. On the other this was the biggest news story of our lifetime and we would all be part of it as witnesses, writing the first draft of a terrible history.

People didn’t know what to do and wanted to help the victims, so they donated money and blood and the government used some of that money to bail out the airlines who were facing possible lawsuits and bankruptcy in the wake of the attacks.

As time passed and shock turned to anger, my editor, not the most politically correct person, began to make “Muslim-equals-terrorist” barbs in the newsroom, ignoring the fact that one of our photographers was a South East Asian who was a Muslim. He finally told her he didn’t appreciate her asking him if he knew any terrorists in jest or calling Osama bin Laden and other terrorists “his people.”

For a lot of people it was easy to just lash out at the nearest person with a “funny” accent wearing a turban. People attacked Sikh followers even though they weren’t Muslim. And suddenly there was something worst than being a black person in America. It was Arab and other American citizens of Middle Eastern descent who were being targeted. It didn’t matter that they came here legally or were born here. They went from being respected business owners, professors and doctors to suspects. It was the equivalent of if after Oklahoma City was bombed the FBI began rounding up every militia man, former Operation Desert Storm veterans, racist and reader of the Anarchist Cookbook.

Or, to be safe, every white man between the ages of 25 and 45.

I guess it made sense at the time to do anything hastily rather than slow down and do it rationally. And that’s also what we lost on that day. All logic went out the window. It went out of the window of the citizenry now scared of more attacks. It went out of the window of the White House, which immediately began to tie the attacks to long-time enemy and former friend of the Reagan Administration, Saddam Hussein.

The death of rationality has lead us to where we are today, seven years later, embroiled in not one, but two wars rife with graft, abuse and impropriety, a tarnished international image, clinging to dictators and calling them democracies (see: Pakistan), a trashed economy, a violated Bill of Rights, and an overall lack of competence in dealing with domestic issues (see: Hurricane Katrina).

You can’t understand unless you’ve been in it. I don’t know what it’s like to sit on the roof of a flooded house for days waiting for rescue. I don’t know what it’s like to die of thirst in the Superdome or die in a hospital where it is flooded and there is no power. I don’t know what its like to be the doctor who has to decide who lives or dies or the police officer who has to search for sanity because help is not coming.

I don’t know what it’s like to wage battle on the streets of Fallujah and lose a friend or a limb or my mind. I don’t know what it’s like to sit in fear of a call or a visit from military officers to tell a loved one has been lost to an IED or a bullet. I don’t know what its like to be deployed over and over to dodge death again and again because there aren’t enough soldiers for the fight. I don’t know what it’s like to be kidnapped on an illegal rendition and tortured for names of people I don’t know know. I don’t know what it’s like to be targeted for believing in the Prophet Muhammad. I don’t know what it’s like to be a New York 911 operator telling people trapped that help is coming then hear all the lines go silent.

I don’t know what it’s like to walk for miles, covered in dust to cross a bridge not knowing where home is.

I don’t know what any of that is like. It’s all sad, distant and surreal for me. Like it happened in a dream because it didn’t happen to me, but knowing that in an uncertain world it could happen to anyone.

It’s been an unpleasant and surreal seven years. Here’s to hoping that the next seven, and the next presidential administration, will be a little better in an uncertain world.

17 thoughts on “The Day the Earth Stood Still

  1. I flew from Denver to New York two weeks after 9/11. Everything was still on high alert. The pilot and co-pilot stood at the door while I boarded the plane. I heard one say quietly to the other as I passed, “Is he a hero and a zero?” It was a nervous joke to themselves. They were scared. I was scared too. The plane was almost empty. Everytime I got up from my seat, someone followed me around. When I got to NY, I could still see the dust on the cars and many of the downtown roads blocked off. It was like being in a war zone. I couldn’t get too close to ground zero, but I could see the bright lights of construction crews digging in the area. The Towers were among the last places I visited before leaving New Jersey in 1993. I had one of the best times with my friends back then. On this visit, though, I visited firehouses where they lost most of their men and I videotaped a lot of stuff. It was a sad experience, one that I wouldn’t want to repeat. One of my friend’s life was spared because he missed going to work on 9/11. On many days I looked across the harbor and I watched the Towers since opened when I was a kid. They always symbolized NY. It’s incredible that something like that occurred.

  2. I’m from the Washington-Metro area, and I can remember frantically trying to call home to my family and being unable to get through. My lasting thought, along with the destruction and sadness, is how quickly communications came to a halt, and how we now felt like many other parts of the world.

  3. i can’t believe it’s been 7 years already…i flew back to phoenix from boston on sept 8th…i still get weirded out when i think about it…one of the ladies who goes to my mother’s chirch in boston was a flight attendant SCHEDULED to fly on one of the flights that crash into the world trade center…at the last minute, another flight attendant asked if she could switch with her…and not to further put a damper on this somber moment, but where is osama bin laden and why have we stopped looking for him? this is rhetorical of course…

  4. Hi,I usually a lurker. Love your Blog and this post. I have left this comment elsewhere because it strangely makes me feel a little better to share this.I worked downtown Manhattan and earlier, I had voted in the Primary Election. I was planning on going to Century 21 Department Store across from the WTC before work. However, en route, I decided that I was early, but not THAT early, so I decided to go straight to work. I had just entered my office when our building shook. Co-workers and I gathered in the hall way asking each other if we felt the building shake.I returned to my office, looked out of the window and saw debris spewing from the first building struck. I ran to the hallway, called my mother from my secretary’s phone and heard someone cry that a plane had flown into i one of the WTC buildings. I imagined a small plane and did not panic – until our building shook again and someone said that the second building had also been hit by a plane. At that point I knew that I had to get out of my tall building. A bunch of us went downstairs and outside and tried to comfort each other. We had no idea what was happening. We thought that more planes were coming and that we were sitting ducks. Then we heard people running and screaming and saw these huge debris monsters following behind. (I later learned that was when the first building collapsed) A co-worker with a radio said that the Pentagon had been hit. We were told to go back into the building b/c it was safer there. I decided that it was safer in Bklyn and began, with co-workers in tow, to walk to the Manhattan Bridge (Bklyn Br was closed). At the entrance to the Bridge, the ground shook and I took 2 of my co-workers’ hands and told them not to look b/c I knew that the second building had just fallen. Terrified and dirty, we made it to Bklyn and my co-worker from NJ stayed with me until the next day. I thought that by now the sadness for all that we lost would have dissipated. It has not, I cried today as I have cried each year and I can still smell that awful smell that remained downtown for months following the attack. I grieve for all those who lost someone and I am grateful that my experience was not worse.

  5. At the time I was living in NJ but spending a lot of time with friends in Park Slope.I decided, on the night of the Monday the 10th to stay at a friend’s apartment in Brooklyn. I wanted the extra 30 minutes of sleep that not having to get up early to ride the PATH train provided.I remember getting up the morning of the 11th, taking one look at that gorgeous blue sky and basking in that late Summer sun, and thought about playing hooky.Instead I went to work, downtown in the Financial District.I splurged that morning and got a bagel with cream cheese and tea. I trudged upstairs to my cubicle and looked at the numbers on my computer screen.I remember hearing a commotion and thinking nothing of it. And then a few minutes later I thought that I saw snow.Upon closer inspection, I noticed that the snow was on fire and I remember thinking, “Well, isn’t THAT odd!”One of my coworkers came running to my area and said, “A plane hit one of the towers.” I said, “Is that why it’s snowing?”We.all.just.sort.of SAT THERE.And then the phones started ringing and our keyboards tapping as we searched for information about what was going on a block or so away. The news websites that we went to wouldn’t load. Our cellphones wouldn’t ring. [That, I think, is one of the most terrifying memories I have about that day. We were so close. So in it, that we couldn’t see it… didn’t know it and had very little way of finding out about it.]My friend from Georgia called me hysterically crying. She told me about what she was seeing on TV. She told me, “You have to get out! I love you, do you hear me? All of you have to get out!”And there was nowhere to go. We went downstairs to the pub and watched it on the news. We had a hard time opening the door because of all of the dust. We covered our faces with our light summer shirts to protect ourselves from the smell. In the bar there were business men whose faces were covered in dust except for the tear tracks. The bartenders just… fed us and gave us free pints. We drank and drank and our minds stayed remarkably clear. We heard the sirens on the street and then we saw on TV those firefighters rushing in and we knew they weren’t going to rush out.We drank to their families. We drank to our families that we weren’t exactly sure that we would see again.That day, I walked nearly the entire length of the island in flip-flops and a vintage crocheted shirt. Sometimes I have panic attacks if I see a certain kind of dust. I couldn’t ride the ACE for years because for years (it felt) after 2001 their destination was the “World Trade Center” and that didn’t exist anymore and I just would get so nervous.There was a smell that day and the months and months afterwards that I don’t know how to describe.At one point on my trek of the isle, I had to cross below 14th Street so that I could stay with a friend. The National Guard had posted armed Guardsmen along 14th Street and they were checking IDs. Only NYC residents with addresses in the area could get in. All others were to be turned away. I had a CT ID. I will never forget the kind young man with that AK47 looking at my ID and then looking at me and saying, “Go to your friend’s house and have a drink for me” as he let me pass.VH-1 was playing Dave Matthews Live at Luther College on loop. My friend had weed, pizza and pie. I took two hour long showers and we cried and screamed and got high on pie and pot and sang along with Dave Matthews when we couldn’t take the news any more and tried to stay sane enough to make it through the night.It took me years to be convinced that I’d gotten that smell out of my locks. I have no idea how scary that must have been for my family, seemingly a world away in Connecticut… or my friends in college. I was 21. That day really changed my life. It became very clear to me that I had to live my joy. Seven years later, it’s still a hard day. Everything today went for shit. I was jumpy. I looked up a lot. I avoided going out for as long as I could today so that I didn’t have to deal with the dust of the construction site. But… I was alive. And I was living my life as I wanted to and I realized my blessing.

  6. “For a lot of people it was easy to just lash out at the nearest person with a “funny” accent wearing a turban. People attacked Sikh followers even though they weren’t Muslim. And suddenly there was something worst than being a black person in America. It was Arab and other American citizens of Middle Eastern descent who were being targeted. It didn’t matter that they came here legally or were born here…”And that’s the part that floored me- how ignorant people are. I was in South Florida at the time and there was trouble all around for Muslims. I know Muslims who lost loved ones on 9/11 and they’ve had to deal with their loss and being blamed for the attacks at the same time. (UGH!) I was as shaken by the attacks as everyone else was.Also, as a Black, Muslim woman who wears hijab (the headscarf and modest clothing) I have to say that I’m most shocked by the Black people who have sometimes been the ringleaders when it comes to discriminating against Muslims. I was walking down the street the other day and this Black man yelled at me to “go back to my country.” BTW, Arabs and Middle Easterners weren’t the only targets of anti-Muslim attacks and discrimination. African-American Muslims (esp. the women who wear hijab) have been targets. I’ve also heard that “Arab-looking” African, Latino and African-American men have targeted.

  7. all: For the people who shared their stories I really want to thank you. It was so incredible to read them.Jamerican Muslimah: I’m glad you made the point about black American Muslims and “Arab-looking” Hispanics. I was living in California where a lot of Hispanics were targeted as “terrorist suspects” because the looked Middle Eastern.And I too was appalled by the prejudice black Americans expressed towards Muslims. We’re the last people who should be slinging accusations knowing injustice and prejudice so intimately. We should be more sensitive and understanding, identifying with the individuals targeted, not joining in with the ignorance. (Because on any given day that could easily be us.) But what can I say, we bash gays and Asians too. We can be just as ignorant as everyone else. It was almost like some black people were happy to bond with white people over a mutual hate.

  8. Hi Danielle, When the second plane hit the World Trade Center, I was on a bridge riding my bike to work. From where I was, I could see the towers smoking. I remember passing people sticking their heads out of windows, and standing on roofs to get a better view. I didn't realize what was going on until I arrived at work, where everyone crowded around a radio. Seven years later, many of us still question what really happened. More than 30,000 New Yorkers have signed a ballot referendum for a new COMMISSION OF INQUIRY. Some unanswered questions include:1) How did WT7, a building which wasn't hit by any plane just fall down, neatly in it's own footprint in just NINE SECONDS? 2) How come no air force jets scrambled to shoot down a plane headed for the Pentagon, which along with the White House is the most protected airspace in the nation? 3) Why was there molten steel dripping for over a week in the basements of the three towers which collapsed? The planes it the tops of the buildings not the bottoms!These and other questions are discussed in a video which many hundreds of thousands of people, have watched for free world-wide!The video is called LOOSE CHANGE.Here's Part I:

    Here's Part II:

    If you haven't seen them, you are missing something! Best Wishes,

  9. 7of9, I watched those 9/11 conspiracy videos and found them implausible, as all the others. The creators of the video take little truths and grossly distort them, while turning quirky happenings into diabolical governmental schemes. It’s amazing that a lot of intelligent people believe this stuff. Peace always

  10. @My Brother Draven7, I wouldn’t call a steel building melting down in the heat of a fire, not once but THREE times – “a little truth or quirky happening!”Neither would the more than 474 LICENSED architectural engineers who have signed on to the” ” web site demanding that an investigation be reopened regarding the events of 911. I respect your sad memories of the day, that you regard yourself lucky to be alive. I understand that it may be painful for you to go back and revisit the events of that day. However many of the families of the 911 martyrs are in the FOREFRONT of the movement demanding an inquiry as to who is responsible for the deaths of their heroic loved ones. The evidence supported by the 474 engineers points to the fact that the WTC towers were brought down by CONTROLLED DEMOLITION.Controlled Demolition is only possible if the explosive charges are set days advance of the incident. It is a sad realization that whoever set up the demolition KNEW that they would be blowing up buildings with thousands of people inside! (Only WT7 was evacuated in advance.)Here are some of the events cited by the 474 licensed Architectural Engineers : ==========================” As your own eyes witness — WTC Building #7 (a 47-story high-rise not hit by an airplane) exhibits all the characteristics of a classic controlled demolition with explosives: (and some non-standard characteristics)1. Rapid onset of “collapse”2. Sounds of explosions at ground floor – a full second prior to collapse3. Symmetrical “collapse” – through the path of greatest resistance – at nearly free-fall speed — the columns gave no resistance4. “Collapses” into its own footprint – with the steel skeleton broken up for shipment5. Massive volume of expanding pyroclastic dust clouds6. Tons of MOLTEN metal found by CDI (Demolition Contractor).7. Chemical signature of Thermate (high tech incendiary) found in slag, solidified molten metal, and dust samples by Physics professor Steven Jones, PhD.8. FEMA finds rapid oxidation and intergranular melting on structural steel samples9. Expert corroboration from the top European Controlled Demolition professional10. Fore-knowledge of “collapse” by media, NYPD, FDNYAgain I refer you to the web-site hope you will join with me in praying for our country!

  11. 9of7, I respect your views. I know how the expert game is played, though. I could probably get 874 engineers in a court of law to testify in the reverse, supporting the official 9/11 report. While I’m not engineer, I think it if you allowed jet fuel and other materials to burn steel for awhile, it’ll turn molten. I watched videos of the Towers falling numerous times and it doesn’t seem like a controlled demolition. Sure, it resembles one and looks surreal. It still seems like gravity and heat showing its effects. The buildings were more than a 100 stories tall. That’s a lot of weight. When one floor collapsed, things started to cascade rapidly. No one knew what would happen if a building of that size caught on fire after a jet crashed into it. All they had were theories. Now we know differently. Our government is guilty of a lot of things. I don’t believe it had involvement in this, though. Peace always

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