Everyone has a 9/11 story and while my experience on this day may be very similar to yours, on this anniversary I feel compelled to share my account. I just don’t want to forget what happened ten years ago. My hope is one day my daughter will read this recollection and appreciate 9/11’s historical significance and sacrifice, just as the stories told to me by my husband’s Gram about the beginning of WW I, my grandmother about the Pearl Harbor attacks, and my parents who lived through the JFK assassination conveyed important details about the transformative events of our country.
On September 11, 2001, I noticed the weather was picture perfect as I drove to work at the National Mental Health Association office in Old Towne Alexandria, Virginia. As I sat at my desk, with coffee in hand and reading e-mails to prepare for a busy day, I heard someone in the hallway say, “Oh my god, a small plane hit the World Trade Center.” I didn’t think it was much more than an isolated accident but shortly the news was reporting a commercial airliner had slammed into the North Tower. I promptly called my husband at home hoping he hadn’t left for National Airport to travel to Boston for work as planned that day. He answered the phone, and I don’t even remember saying hello and just told him to turn on the TV because a plane had hit the World Trade Center. We quickly hung up.
When the second plane hit the South Tower, I went to Patrick Cody’s office where one of the only TV’s in the building was located. A crowd had gathered to watch the unfolding coverage and our conversation was of disbelief and horror about the events unfolding in New York City. It was apparent this was no accident. We tried to be proactive to assist with this crisis, while struggling to comprehend what was happening. One of us suggested NMHA provide a public statement directing communities to mental health and PTSD resources and offer our own educational information. We also realized our New York City affiliate would need to help the public cope on the ground. Then things got worse. Sitting around Patrick’s desk, we heard the report that the Pentagon was hit and there were still planes circling D.C. The full scope of this atrocity was more than we could handle and we abandoned our attempt at work and dispersed to call loved ones.
After that it was a bit of blur. Jennifer Bright’s husband worked at the Pentagon, and we hoped he wasn’t injured or worse. She just had a baby boy and returned to work a few months before. We got word he was okay, but who else did we know that might have been in the path of that plane? And where was this other plane going to hit? Leah Holmes-Bonilla’s daughter attended school near the Pentagon. What was happening there? And how soon could she get to her child? People ran to the roof of our building and could see the smoke billowing from the Pentagon in the distance. I looked out a window and wondered if I should try to get home, but Route 1 through Old Towne Alexandria was bumper to bumper traffic. So, after another brief conversation with my husband, we decided me staying put might be safer. Phone service was not great. Cell phones didn’t work at all and landline service was hit or miss.
My grad school classmate, Elyse Einhorn, lived in Manhattan and I was able to call her home. Her husband Michael Solomon picked up the phone breathless. He told me he had just walked from the World Trade Center area after evacuating his office. He felt the impact of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center and witnessed the second plane hit the South Tower. Elyse was stuck in West Chester and I was relieved they were both okay.
The Internet was totally jammed and I couldn’t get to any news website, but strangely my AOL Instant Messenger worked and I chatted with Eric Reading who lived in Cairo, Egypt at the time. I typed furiously, “You have to come home and get out of Egypt,” thinking a Muslim country would be a bad place for an American at that moment. I had no idea what “Al-Qaeda” was, but I had heard this extremist muslin group was responsible for these the terrorist attacks. Eric typed back, “I’m not coming home. I’m safer here.” Eric was also able to relay more accurate news information then I was hearing on TV in the states which was so odd.
Shortly after this online conversation, another co-worker, Russell Mark, walked past my doorway and said, “The South Tower just fell.” People assembled in the conference room around TVs that were set up. I just couldn’t stay in there too long but would pop in and out to hear the latest updates. A few hours later, I finally received a cell phone call from Barbie Blake. I was surprised my phone rang, since cell phones weren’t working. I answered and heard her ask, “Are you okay?” I told her I was, but stuck in Alexandria, VA and I asked her to call my mother, since phone service wasn’t great here, to let her know I was fine.
That evening I drove home slowly up Route 7 to McLean, staying off any major roads and for the rest of the night I was just glued to the TV. My husband had recorded live footage and we watched in slow motion the planes slamming into the towers. It was surreal. In the days that followed, I remember my husband waited in line at a local hardware store to purchase an American flag to hang on our front porch. We also drove by the Pentagon and saw the gapping, smoldering hole in the side of the building where the plane had crashed. It was just unbelievable to see the damage up close. The sky was strangely quiet, and for weeks all air travel was grounded. A month later I flew out of National Airport to Tallahassee for the Miami vs. FSU game. The airport was empty. While awaiting my flight, I saw the news reports about the Anthrax attacks. I had some second thoughts about getting on that plane but went anyway. I also talked to everyone I knew just to “check-in.” Strangely I never cried but just felt anger in the pit of my stomach. I also felt grateful that I didn’t know anyone that was killed in the attacks. I realized how lucky I was.
At work, we all knew that the mental health needs of the country would be forever altered and our outreach efforts quickly focused on helping all of our affiliates support their communities in coping with the disaster. If you lived in Peoria or Alaska, everyone had suffered in some way. James Radack wrote some excellent pieces on helping children and communities cope with disaster. In the weeks and months that followed 9/11 so many mental health materials like this were created. These tools are still used today after any type of disaster, natural or otherwise, with great attention paid to PTSD and the importance of immediate on the ground responses.
Today there are many reminders about 9/11’s lasting impact. The most important reminder for me is my work with the University of Southern California School of Social Work and its online MSW program, the http://msw.usc.edu. The school has an excellent military social work curriculum and many military affiliated students have enrolled in the program. These students have a strong desire to become social workers because of their experience with the waged wars that fought against terrorism. They have sacrificed so much and I am reminded often of their stories that embody true bravery.
So much has changed in the last ten years. On 9/11 ten years ago, my daughter had not been born, writing a book hadn’t even crossed my mind and so many career changes lie ahead. So today I remember and reflect and hope nothing like this ever happens again.