It’s been 20 years since 9/11/2001. I look back at how much things have changed during that time but also on how much they have not. How many remember the saying “Never Forget”?
I, for one, have not. I still remember the smallest details about that day. I was working for a private ambulance service in Northeast Tennessee and had just gotten back to the station after an overnight trip to Birmingham, Alabama with a cardiac patient. I was tired, near exhaustion, and was sitting in the break room dreading the drive home. The phone rang and an off duty paramedic told us to turn the TV on to CNN or Fox.
Thick black smoke rolled out of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, the clock on the wall showed 8:49 A.M. Talking heads on the screen tried to make sense of what was happening. Where had the plane come from, how could this have happened? At first they said it was a small plane, then they started to realize that it was a huge one. At work we debated the response, the options for fighting a fire stoked by aviation fuel that high up.
The second plane, Flight 175 hit the South Tower. A tear started down my cheek. This was no accident and this was no small plane. This was WAR. We were being attacked. It hit me like a punch to the nether regions. I was sad, enraged, speechless. The room was deathly silent, we all knew what this meant. Someone had come to OUR country and had attacked us! That I know of, this was only the third time in our history that this had happened, that a foreign power or invader had entered our county. The last time flung us into a World War fighting on two fronts at once and cost almost a half a million American lives. What would happen this time?
I sat transfixed, starring at the screen. I cried openly. I wanted to scream! I tried to call home only to find that the cell phones were becoming useless. After 5 minutes the call got through, yes she had seen it, no I was still at work, no I don’t know anything else. Papers floated down out of the twin towers from above over New York and I thought how much it looked like a ticker tape parade. I watched police, EMS and fire rushing towards the buildings and thought of a friend I had met a few years before during a three week class in Baltimore who worked in New York City. Was he on duty today? How could I find out? Thirty plus minutes went by, oh dear lord did someone just jump?
They break away from New York to show the Pentagon in flames. Another plane, this time aimed at our military headquarters. I grew up on Air Force bases throughout the country and had always heard of this massive building. Here it was in flames! Where would it end? I knew people who would likely be responding there as well. Would they make it through the day?
Suddenly the sounds outside changed and we rushed out to see planes descending. Wait a minute, what’s going on? We may be in Tennessee but this area could be target rich, Oak Ridge National labs to the South West, Nuclear Fuels to our South, Holston Army Ammunition Plant and of course Eastman Chemical Company. Any of these would cause death, destruction and most probably a cloud of really bad stuff that would kill thousands. Going back inside we heard that all planes were being ordered down at the closest airports. That meant, hopefully at least, that we had seen and heard planes dropping down to land at the Tri-Cities Airport and maybe even Knoxville and Asheville as well.
By radio and station phone we were told that all employees were being called in. No one knows anything but if something happens, we need to be ready. Then the unthinkable happens, the South Tower falls. A dust cloud covers the Island. What about all of those people? What about the other tower? What about my friend? What about all my brothers and sisters who had rushed to save every one? Who would save them? Realization set in about the deaths. For the second time in one day I openly cried in front of my co-workers. I wanted to find whoever had done this and kill them with my own hands.
The TV told us of a plane down in Pennsylvania. Had it been shot down or had it crashed for another reason? Was this a strange coincidence? Back to New York, people were running away from the remaining building as even more of my brothers were rushing towards them. Over the years I have unfortunately been on calls where a coworker didn’t make it. My heart ached for them. Then the North Tower came down. I sat there for hours, barely moving and honestly had no real sense of time passing by.
Eventually I was told I could leave. Cell phone service was pretty much still shot, there was no way to get a call through to New York and Washington so I still didn’t know about my friends in either. On the way home I listened to people try and explain the scale of what had happened and fail miserably. The entirety of my day is forever crystalized in my brain. When I think of it I can recall all of the emotions, all of the thoughts, the sounds, the smells. Other than the passing of my mother it was by far the worst day of my life and one that will forever remain in my mind.
After I got home I heard Speaker of the House address the Nation: “When America suffers, and when people perpetrate acts against this country, we as a Congress and a government stand united and we stand together to fight this evil threat. Those who brought forth this evil deed will pay the price.” Then members of both parties and both houses sang God Bless America together. For the third time in one day, I cried.
The first time I had cried was more rage, the realization that WE were at war, that someone had done this to US. The second time was sadness because of the overwhelming loss of life, the people at the buildings and the surrounding areas and so many that had rushed to help their fellow man. The third time was because of an overwhelming sense of pride. We had been hit by one of the worst acts in the history of our country yet here we were, a united front. There were no groups, no hyphens, no divides, we were the United States of America! One people, one county, one thought. We ran out of American Flags, the approval ratings of the President and Congress were at the highest point in American history!
A lot has happened since that day 20 years ago. I am going to try my hardest not to point fingers or get political about the why or the how. I am simply going to say what is on my mind.
When I look out at the country I see a wider divide between groups than I ever thought possible. We are much farther apart than at anytime during my life. Ladonna and I talked about this and wondered if this is worse than in the 1960’s or the 1860’s? Since we were not around then we really do not know. Every group on the right and the left seems to have an issue with every other group. They are not liberal enough, not conservative enough, the skin color is different, the beliefs are different. There does not even seem to be two sides but an ever growing number of them as the fractures split like shards of glass.
To be sure there have been upheavals that have tossed and torn us over the last two decades and I am not going to try and get into any of them. What I am going to ask is that those of us that were there, in person or glued to a screen or radio or getting home to hear, remember. Remember what it was like when it dawned on you what was happening, the emotional roller coaster you were on. The lives that were forever changed as mothers, fathers, children were torn away from us. The pride we had for everyday Americans, first responders, military and ordinary citizens alike who rushed in to save as many as they could and the people on Flight 93 who crashed a plane so others could live. Teach our children and their children.
Remember what our flag represents, remember that we are the freest country on this planet, remember what that means and all of the sacrifices over the years that granted us this.
Remember we are the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!