Remembering 9/11: The Story Of That Day From My 16 Year Old Self
The day started out like any other. I woke up around 6:20, had breakfast while watching the news and reading the sports page of the Boston Globe (I know it’s hard to believe now, but newspapers were once a big thing) and headed off to Hanover High School, which has been in session for the year for about a week. We had to be there at 7:25 for homeroom, classes started at 7:30. I was habitually late, if only by a minute or two, but was on time today.
I was 16, a few months away from driving on my own. Massachusetts laws at the time said you had to have a learners permit for six months before you could take a road test; I had gotten mine in late May. On this Tuesday, we had an early release and would get out around 12:30, but I’d have to be back for football practice around 3:30. It was a typical, 70 degree early September day.
During 4th period, our principal came over the loudspeaker with an announcement, unusual at this point in the day. He mentioned there had been an accident in New York City. The way I initially heard it, I thought two planes had crashed into each other near the World Trade Center. While that sounded terrible, at the time I kept on going with my day. Nothing sank in quite yet.
Our principal did say one other thing: that we were in the safest place we could possibly be. When I heard it I didn’t understand why he said it, but looking back years later he did a really good thing. My old principal made his share of mistakes, but on this one he nailed it.
After lunch, I had Spanish class. This was an honors class, so we were only allowed to speak Spanish while in the class. To top that off, my aunt was my teacher (a great teacher, by the way), and took that requirement very seriously. So when I walked into her class, saw a worried look on her face and heard her declare we were speaking English today, I knew something was very wrong.
That’s when I learned what really happened: two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center towers, which were now on fire. We were listening to the radio in class; the broadcaster came on to say that the U.S. Embassy in London has closed for the day. Everyone in the room exhaled when we heard the word ‘closed’. To this day, it was the only time in my life when I’d been in a room where everyone - literally everyone - had been holding their breath. I’ll never forget that moment.
When I went to chemistry next, I hopped on a computer. I remember the main internet news sites at the time were so flooded with traffic they were crashing, so I went to a local news site, Boston.com, instead. It was the first time I saw the images that have since been seared into everyone’s memories: the plane flying towards the World Trade Center, the towers on fire, the panic on the face of people looking on. I was shocked to say the least, but the gravity of it all hadn’t hit me yet. I suppose when you’re 16 years old things process differently than they would have if I were older.
School got out and I headed straight home. Football practice was canceled that day, the only time I can ever recall that happening. I put on the news and saw another image that would be seared into my mind: a plane, flying towards one of the towers which was already on fire, would disappear behind it. A second later, an explosion, and the second tower was now burning. At that point I recognized what most in the country already knew. This was no accident.
I used the afternoon off to hang out with one of my good friends, who also happened to be my teammate on the football team. I rode my bike over to his house, and we subsequently went over one of his friends’ houses a ways up the street. We didn’t talk much, if at all, about what had happened. When you are that young, you tend to focus just on what is in front of you. If it had happened when we were of age, I think that would have been all we talked about.
I did notice one thing when we were outside: no planes were in the air. It’s something you never notice until they aren’t there. This afternoon - and for a few days after - they weren’t. My father still brings it up today as an eerie feeling from that day and the days that followed.
Later that night my family and I went to dinner at The Ground Round in Norwell. We didn’t talk about it there either; I have three younger siblings and none of them were older than 11 at the time so I can see why. Afterwards I had to pick up something from my work, a stone’s throw away from the restaurant. Walking out of there, I remember that was when the totality of what happened hit me. I distinctly remember this feeling of dread, like I had no idea what tomorrow would bring. It was legitimately scary to me at that moment.
That night, I put on the news to get caught up. Eventually I switched over to ESPN to see if they were covering it like the other news outlets were. Sure enough, they were. On that channel I saw the one video that I think about most when I think about 9/11: a group of people in New York City running for their lives as a giant cloud of smoke and dust raced towards them. I also saw another startling image: a man, standing alone, covered head to toe in dust and smoke, with the ground beneath his feet and the background near him completely gray. I don’t have the words to describe how it made me feel.
ESPN also carried President George W. Bush’s address to the nation. It was the first time I remember sports interacting with the real world in this way, and that struck a chord with me. I re-watched it as I wrote this. Nothing he could have said would have taken the pain of what happened away, but I thought he told Americans exactly what they needed to hear in that moment. He rallied a frightened and stunned country, and I give him a ton of credit for that. I remember going to bed anxious for what the next day, and the days ahead, would bring.
I was fortunate in that I didn’t know of any family or friends that knew anyone in the towers, The Pentagon or on Flight 93 that day. I would later learn that my sophomore year English teacher sprinted out of school once she heard the news; her fiance worked in one of the towers and she was unable to reach him. Thankfully, we later found out he wasn’t in the towers that day.
In the time that followed that day, a few things struck me in a positive way. The biggest one was the story of how Todd Beamer, traveling for a sales meeting in California, led a group of passengers in overpowering the plane’s hijackers. Having heard about what happened in New York City, they were determined to not let the plane reach its intended destination (suspected to be the White House or U.S. Capitol), instead regaining control of the plane and crashing it into a field.
They knew that by doing this, they were going to die, but they were going to save countless lives. I can’t comprehend how selfless that is. They are true heroes. There were so many others, including the first responders to Ground Zero and the sites of the other crashes. We owe them a debt we can’t pay. I think of them any time I hear the phrase “let’s roll”.
Everyone lost something that day - some far more than others. But out of that day grew a sense of unity, a sense of shared purpose. I recall members of Congress standing on the steps of the Capitol and signing God Bless America. Democrats, Republicans, Independents, it didn’t matter your political party - you were an American. It’s something we could learn from today.
We all have those days where we remember just about every detail, where things that normally don’t stand out stand out in a big way. For my grandparents, that was Pearl Harbor. For my parents, it was when JFK was assassinated. I have two: the Boston Marathon bombing, and 9/11.
I write this because I think we all need to take a moment and reflect on that day. When it happened, we promised we would Never Forget those we lost that day, those whose sacrifices saved lives, those who ran towards the towers to try to help, those who toiled at the sites looking for survivors, those who helped the country heal and rebuild. This is my way to call attention to that pledge.
There are a lot of stimuli that compete for our attention in the national news these days - a pandemic, race relations, police brutality and a highly charged presidential election to name a few. News that is an hour old is stale, news that is a day old might as well have happened 5 years ago. But this is one day that, in the middle of everything going on, we can take a moment to reflect on the things we learned, the people we lost, the heroism we saw. Even if it’s as simple as pausing for a moment during the day to reflect.
We can take a few moments out of our day to do what we said we would then.