It was eleven years ago today that terrorists hijacked several airplanes on the East Coast. They were completely fueled up and headed to the West Coast (one was actually destined for my home turf in the San Francisco Bay Area). The hijackers flew two airplanes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center causing their collapse and the deaths of several thousand people including first responders–police, paramedics and firemen.
Another plane was deliberately crashed into the Pentagon after apparently failing to find the White House. A fourth plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania killing all on board. This plane had been hijacked later than the others and several of the passengers learned by cell phone calls to and from friends and loved ones that the other planes had been deliberately crashed. Determined to go down fighting, the passenger apparently charged the terrorists and tried to retake the plane. The plan didn’t work but the passengers perhaps spared many lives on the ground at the intended target.
I didn’t know anyone who died on 9/11. In fact, I don’t think I even know anyone who knew anyone who died on 9/11. I was purely a horrified spectator on that day eleven years ago. I know that at least five Mormons died in the attacks, either as plane passengers or on the ground. My Catholic friends at Boston College were harder hit. Twenty-two alumni of BC were killed.
I recall reading an article a year later about a young man who always carried a red bandana. He was in the South Tower when the airplane hit. Several witnesses saw him wearing the red bandana over his mouth and nose to protect against the smoke and debris as he rescued and led a number of injured people out of the building. He had gone back in again with the first responders when the South Tower collapsed. His body was found in the rubble six months later with those of a group of firemen. His name was Welles Crowther, he was twenty-four, he played lacrosse, he was a volunteer firefighter in his hometown and he was a graduate of Boston College.
I remember details of that day but I remember foremost a feeling of anguish and something that I could only describe at the time as a desperate willing that the clock could somehow be turned back so somebody could have prevented all of this death and carnage. I recognize now that that feeling was helplessness and I have felt it at several times since September 11, 2011, the most prominent being when our youngest son Porter was diagnosed with cancer at age 3 months, when I was diagnosed with cancer three months later and when my wife Jennifer was diagnosed with cancer four years later. While I felt helplessness, none of us died. On 9/11, many husbands, wives, parents, children and love ones felt helplessness that was followed by hopelessness.
One of the most surreal recollections I have is that of watching on television as doctors, nurses and EMTs rushed to NYC hospitals to be on hand for the expected deluge of wounded. The deluge never came. The cameras showed images of medical professionals standing there with nothing to do because there were no victims to treat. I remember that look in their eyes. It was helplessness.
The morning of 9/11, I got up, played around with the kids, got ready and headed into the office. I arrived around 9:30. When I went to check my email, my Yahoo homepage (remember when you had a Yahoo homepage?) showed a story of about one of the towers of the World Trade Center collapsing. That’s impossible, I thought. A WTC tower isn’t just going to collapse.
When I clicked the link, however, I quickly read that a plane had flown into the tower which caught fire and eventually collapsed. I stepped out into the hall and walked down to the office of another attorney. “Paul, did you hear that one of World Trade Center towers collapsed after a plane flew into it?” “No,” Paul replied, “a plane flew into it but it didn’t collapse.” I realized that he hadn’t checked the news in the last little while. How quickly things changed that day. Shortly after that, we learned that the second tower had collapsed.
I struggled numbly through client appointments and legal work for a few more hours that day before wandering home. I remember hugging each of my kids and my wife Jennifer. My heart ached for the kids whose dads were no longer there to hug them.
I try to make meaning of 9/11, but I suppose I’ll have to leave it to minds greater than mine. I will, however, never forget the helplessness. Along with the feelings of helplessness, I think that I acquired a greater sense of humility and gratitude. Like the families of those who perished on 9/11, my life could change in a tragic instant. Perhaps that’s where the meaning is for me.