Five years ago today...
It was a clear, sunny day. I was running late for work. (It was a particularly unhappy period for me at work. I hated getting up in the morning, so I was almost always late getting to work.) I was walking in from the East parking lot, and Angie, my director's admin, was walking in at the same time. I remember her saying, "I just heard on the radio that someone flew a plane into the World Trade Center." And my first thought was, "Oh, some daredevil screwed up trying to pull a stunt with his Cessna." I didn't really think any more about it. I got to my cubicle, logged in to check my email, and started working. A little while later, Debi, the girl in the cube next to me, got a phone call from her boyfriend. When she hung up, she said, "Oh, my God. Someone flew a plane into the World Trade Center." "Yeah, I heard that." "NO, I mean another plane." "What kind of plane? Like a Cessna, right?" "I don't think so. I think it was a big plane."
Immediately, we started checking the internet, but it was so overloaded that we couldn't get through to any of the news services. Another co-worker of ours, Craig, already had a CNN window open, so we crowded around his computer to read the news. The internet was completely bogged down, so no pictures would download on the web page, just these sketchy, distracted news bites that seemed to contradict each other every time we refreshed the page. There weren't any details, and the main facts didn't seem to make any sense.
Later in the morning, I was supposed to have a meeting in another part of the building, so I wandered over to the team area. Someone had rigged up a TV there in R&D, but it didn't have an antenna, so the reception was awful. There were snowy images of the towers burning, and the news factoids scrolling in the ticker along the bottom of the page were confusing and contradictory. People were speculating about what they would have to do about the buildings, after the fires were put out. Would they be able to repair them, would they have to demolish all the floors above the fires, and rebuild them? Some people thought they would have to be torn down completely, eventually. I don't remember anyone suggesting that they might collapse.
After awhile, it just seemed like there was no new information coming out, so we had our meeting briefly. At that point, things were still surreal and bizarre, not really tragic.
We came out of the meeting, and someone said, "One of the buildings fell down." "What do you mean, it fell down? It fell over?" If it withstood the impact of the plane, why would it suddenly fall over later? "No, it came straight down." "What? How?" "Oh, there it is, they're replaying it now." Except it wasn't an instant replay. It was the second tower coming down, live, and in slow motion. The footage must have been shot from a news helicopter that was flying over the Hudson, because the view panned back until the Statue of Liberty was in the foreground, with what should have been Manhattan behind it, except the entire borough was completely engulfed in a billowing sandstorm. It was a profound image, and I'm still surprised that I have never seen it replayed in any of the memorial news coverage. I remember thinking, "Right now, at this moment, thousands of people are dying." It was so obvious, and yet so impossible to comprehend.
The rest of the day unfolded in a blur. They set up a large television in the cafeteria, and people wandered in and out all day, in a sort of daze. Everytime I ran into people in the hallway, they told me different news reports. Some turned out to be true and some turned out to be false, which only added to the confusion. I remember hearing that malls and shopping centers were attacked, then later I heard that authorities were telling people to stay away from malls and shopping centers because of the possibility of bombs. I heard that there were several other planes hijacked, and that they had struck the White House, the Capitol building, and the Pentagon, and that there were planes heading for other major cities, including Cleveland and Chicago. The Sears Tower was evacuated, and so were other skyscrapers all over the world. I remember hearing that fighter jets were being scrambled to take out those other planes. I heard that key government members were being evacuated from Washington, and that the President had been removed to "an undisclosed location" via Air Force One. Later I heard that United 93 had actually passed over Cleveland airspace as it turned around to head back toward DC.
Of course, there were lots of rumors and conspiracy theories that circulated that day and in the following days. Some people believed that United 93 had actually been shot down by fighter jets, but that the government was using the "heroism" angle to cover it up. There were reports that the four planes had been sold out, and then most of the tickets were cancelled just before 9/11. People said that the terrorists bought extra tickets to ensure the planes would be mostly empty so that they could control the passengers more easily. Some stories claimed that more teams of terrorists had been planning to take part in the plot, but that they were apprehended at the airports, and the government was questioning them secretly. Maybe it was just crazy conspiracy theories, or maybe it was all true. I have no idea.
Locally, there were fears of other terrorist acts. The P&G headquarters building downtown has twin towers, so people wondered if it might be a target. My roommate was evacuated from her office because it was next to the Federal building downtown. The mosque up in West Chester had 24-hour police protection for months, due to bomb threats.
For three days, there were no planes. At the time, I was in the middle of my training for ski patrol, so on Tuesday and Thursday nights, I was out at the ski area, which is on the final approach path for CVG airport. Normally, when we went outside on the deck, we would see dozens of planes preparing for landing, but that week, there was only darkness overhead. On Tuesday night, 9/11, we did see one plane off in the distance, and we realized that it was a fighter jet from Wright-Patt. On Thursday a large search-and-rescue team was deployed from the air force base to help with the efforts at the World Trade Center.
My church was meeting in a school building for services on Saturdays and Sundays. They had just purchased a big-box hardware store, but the construction and renovation had barely begun. They scrambled to set up a prayer event for Wednesday night, and dozens of people turned up. It was probably the first church service held in that buliding.
Many, many people leaned into their churches, and American flags appeared everywhere. Everyone wanted to do something to help, but unlike most natural disasters, there were very few injured survivors who needed rescue or relief. Blood donation centers wound up turning people away. People were shocked and wounded, but resolved.