When I learned of the attacks on New York I sat down and began to write in my journal everything that was happening. I knew it would one day be an important piece to my children. The next day I also made my students write on it. I urged them to keep that writing forever.
It was a moment that no one will ever forget, but I didn't want to forget the little things about that day. I've turned my journal into a creative non-fiction piece. I don't think it's anymore special than the story you have to tell and especially the stories from those who witnessed the catastrophes first hand. But it is my story and what I went through on that fateful day. I have not filtered the words through four years of knowledge. I have stayed true to what I felt and experienced that day. Perhaps this will inspire you to post what you wrote in your journal that day or to recollect what happened for your future generations. Let me know if you post your piece so that we may share these memories together.
It was a bright and sunny day. The first inklings of the cool fall air had blown in and for the first time in five weeks, we were somewhat comfortable at school. September 11th was an important day for us at Northeastern High School in eastern Indiana. It was the first day of the state ISTEP testing. And my students, the sophomores, were taking the test to qualify for graduation. Without a certain score, they would not be allowed to graduate from high school. Of course, they would get a few more chances over the next two years. And then if they didn’t pass, they would only be given a diploma of participation, a piece of paper that meant nothing for the twelve years they had spent in school.
J-, one of my underachieving I-don’t-care-about-anything students from the previous year, came up to me before school started and asked me if I heard the news. He said a plane crashed into the World Trade Center. He thought it was funny and I told him that it was very serious and the people on the plane probably died. He laughed and said, “It was probably a bunch of stupid tourists.” I shook my head, not so much at him but at the understanding of why the other students found him annoying.
Later that morning another teacher relieved me so that I could take a break. It was somewhere around 9:30 central time. I went to the lounge to call my wife because I needed to call a grocery store chain about a trip we won to the Greek Islands. Two interns were in the lounge doing homework and I asked them how they were doing.
“Not too good,” Mr. Griffin, the history intern, said.
“We’re listening to the news,” Mrs. Thomas, the math intern, said. I smiled because I figured she meant they had to listen to the computer technician’s radio blaring in the next room. The technician usually had Rush Limbaugh blaring from his small office.
As I dialed the phone, they filled me in. They said two planes had crashed into both buildings of the World Trade Center and another plane crashed into the Pentagon. About that time Brooke answered the phone and was relieved that I called. She had been watching the news all morning. She began to fill me in even more. Since I was talking to three different people and relaying messages back and forth, I can’t remember who said what. The facts that we knew at the time were that three planes had been hijacked. Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center and one crashed into the Pentagon. A fourth plane was unaccounted for.
As Brooke spoke, the World Trade Center building collapsed and the estimation was something like 150,000 were dead all together. All of the airports were shut down and people working in tall buildings in other large cities were evacuated. The White House and other government buildings had also been evacuated.
While I was away from my room, the school counselor came by and told the other teacher not to let the students know what was going on, so it wouldn’t affect their testing. When I was coming back from break I was stopped by the French teacher. He was given the message by the counselor, but he didn’t know what she was talking about. I filled him in on what I knew and it was apparent to him that we were going to war.
I returned to the room and sat quietly, feeling the tears building up and working their way through my body. I asked myself what all of this meant and where we were heading. When the students finished testing that morning, I filled them in on what had happened. They seemed a little cut off from what happened and didn’t seem to understand why I was so upset. I chalked it up to them being young and thinking the world centers around them. I knew it would sink in later, when they saw the news. At least, I hoped it would sink in.
After lunch we were able to watch CNN on the school TVs. We watched replays of the first tower on fire and the second plane crashing into the second tower. We watched the federal agents searching for the fourth plane that crashed into a Pennsylvania forest. We saw the Pentagon with only four standing sides. And the same two questions raced through our minds: how could this have happened and who did it?
Those two questions permeated the discussions for the rest of the afternoon. Most people believed Bin Laden was behind it, but we still held to the fact that someone else could have done it. One girl in my advanced class said that her father used to be in the military and he got some kind of newsletter or paper just last week that said the Chinese had turned their missiles toward us and we turned 250,000 toward them. She believed that China and Russia were behind it.
After school activities were cancelled and the principal encouraged all of the students to go home, be with their families and reflect upon what happened. I called Brooke to let her know I was coming home early and she was glad. She said there was a scare with the gas prices and people were saying it was going up to three or four dollars. She also said we needed milk. I told her to go ahead and get gas as long as it wasn’t that high and to get the milk.
When I got home she said she got the last gallon of milk and didn’t get gas because the lines at the pump went all the way around the block. We watched the news and Dad called. He said he just came from the gas station and they said prices were going to $4 a gallon at midnight. Since I drove 60 miles a day, I figured I’d better fill up my car and Brooke’s van at the same time. As I was going to get gas, I heard over the radio that explosions were being reported in Afghanistan. Afghanistan had been harboring Bin Laden. The newscasters speculated that we had begun to bomb them.
We waited in a long line at the gas station. One worker had to come out and direct traffic. We paid $1.91 per gallon. By the time we got to Mom and Dad’s after getting gas, the TV was showing Kabul and saying that some military camp in Northern Afghanistan was claiming responsibility.
A lot of things happened that it’s hard for me to say when or in what order these things happened. Major League Baseball cancelled all games. Amusement parks shut down; busses and trains shut down. Thursday night’s college football games were postponed or cancelled. The entire country seemed to be at a stand still.
Once home my father-in-law George called Brooke from Columbus. He had been sent home from a meeting. He told her that we should just cancel our trip to Greece. Brooke’s mom, Jean, called later that night and also told her that we shouldn’t go.
We watched the TV for the rest of the night. We watched the senators and congressmen sing on the steps of the capital. We watched with anticipation President Bush’s speech to the country. He only spoke for about five minutes. I’m not sure it was some great eloquent speech that consoled the free world, but what he did say in the middle of trying to comfort us was that we would make no distinction between the terrorist and the countries that protect them.
Around 10:00 PM we got tired of watching the same things over and over, so we turned to a BBC broadcast to get the British take. The newscaster seemed a little cynical about the U.S. We also watched the CBC to get the Canadian view. They seemed really upset, as if it had happened to them. They showed schools watching the news and children crying, a stark opposite to the reaction of the students in my class.
At the end of the day, as I reflected upon all of the information I received, these were my thoughts. The terrorists got exactly what they wanted. They wanted to disrupt the U.S. economy and that’s what happened. All public transportation stopped. The stock market closed. All sporting events were cancelled. Amusement parks and attractions were closed. Federal buildings and tall skyscrapers were evacuated. Our stocks in foreign markets took a hit. As Americans we were outraged and demanded retribution. And we called on God to comfort those who had lost loved ones in the attacks.
May those prayers never cease.