Mom, Where Were You On 9/11?

David building a tower. Fall 2001.

When David was one he went through a phase where he would get very excited about airplanes. At the time we lived near Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. The buzz of a plane overhead going to or from Flying Cloud was a constant presence. And depending on the prevailing winds, commercial aircraft from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport would sometimes run flight paths over our house. David would look up, point, and say, “Air-pane!”

One beautiful Sunday morning, September 9, 2001, my husband and I took David out to Flying Cloud to watch some planes take off and land. We walked around a few of the hangars and let him take a peek at some of the smaller private planes that were outside. It was fun to watch him. We didn’t stay too long. I don’t remember much else about that day. I probably watched the U.S. Open finals in the afternoon while David napped.

Two days later as I sat glued to the TV after I picked up David from daycare, I watched the grainy footage of the second plane flying into the World Trade Center. David saw it too, and excitedly said, “Air-pane!”

That’s the moment I broke down and started to sob.

Writing about 9/11 is something that I’ve meant to do for years, but for some reason I haven’t done it. I wanted my children to have my personal recollection of what it was like on the day that became a defining moment in our nation’s history. Reading accounts or watching old news reports of the day’s events may accurately describe the play-by-play, as it were, of what took place on 9/11/2001, but that doesn’t capture the feeling of what it was like to watch helplessly as the situation developed, escalated, and then spun completely out of control.

Tuesday, September 11, 2001 started off as a glorious day. As I walked into my office at UnitedHealthcare that morning, I drank in the brilliant blue skies. There wasn’t a cloud in sight, it was warm with a little hint of crispness that comes when September sucks all of that late summer humidity out of the air.

I worked as a medical underwriter in a maze of cubicles on the lower level of our building. The property was once owned by Honeywell when they were involved with some defense technology, and was re-inforced for security purposes with many more support pillars than you’d find in an ordinary office building. Because UnitedHealth Group was growing so rapidly, they were running out of space. We were in the lower level, which was once a parking garage, and were in the process of moving to a location upstairs, so there were boxes and files scattered throughout the relatively open aisles where I worked.

I typically arrived a little before 7:30. I turned my radio on to the KQRS morning show, logged into the computer, began reading through some e-mails, picked up my caseload from my mailbox, and settled in. Shortly after that I heard Pam, the chatty girl in my row, whose conversations with her friends, John and Christy, across the walls from her, always carried, say something about her fiancé calling her about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. She pulled the story up on cnn.com, a couple of us went over to check it out, remarked about how bad of a pilot you had to be to not see the goddamn World Trade Center 1,000 feet up in the air, and divert course accordingly.

Kind of shaking my head, I went back to my desk and pulled up the developing story on the CNN website, and saw that the hole in the building seemed pretty large for a small plane. I wondered, logistically, how in the hell were firefighters going to get up there to put it out? I kind of went back to my day and worked on a few things. I heard John say something about seeing a news account of someone who had sent an e-mail from an upper floor saying, “We’re dying up here.” I didn’t really think it could be that bad. Surely most people would get out.

My radio was still on. Tom Barnard, Terri Traen and the rest of the show’s regulars, including Fox 9 Twin Cities anchor, Jeff Passolt, and Pioneer Press columnist, Bob Sansevere, were talking about the crash when producer, Brian Zepp interrupted them with word that a second plane had hit the towers. Their mood of controlled curiosity immediately turned to disbelief and shock. I listened as they reported back on what they were watching on cable news channels. I tried to pull up CNN and other internet news sites, but they were all frozen, undoubtedly being inundated with web traffic.

My younger sister, having just returned from a year abroad in Australia after her college graduation, was in that “between jobs” phase of her life, and living at home in Kansas with my parents after spending the summer working in Colorado Springs. Kim has always liked to sleep in. I called her anyway, even though it was only shortly after 8:00, early for her.

“Hello?” she said groggily.
“Hey, it’s me. You need to turn on the TV.”
“Why?”
“Just turn it on.”
“Ok.”

I gave her a rundown of what I knew. She then relayed back to me what they were reporting on the news. “Holy fuck,” I said. We both knew from the moment we heard a second plane hit that it had to have been a coordinated attack, no doubt carried out by terrorists. I told her that a few of my co-workers were going to the company workout room to watch TV and that I’d call her back.

I walked down to the workout room with Amy, one of my co-workers. There were about 20 or 30 people gathered among the treadmills and stairmasters, fixated on the TV coverage. No one was really saying much. People kept trickling in to watch. NBC news was on and Pentagon correspondent, Jim Miklaszewski, was giving an update on the Twin Towers situation from a defense department perspective when he said he didn’t want to alarm anybody, but there was just an explosion of some sort at the Pentagon in Washington, DC.

What the hell was going on? Unconfirmed news reports were coming in fast and furious, the FAA soon grounded all planes in the air, the terrorist groups potentially had nine planes, a car bomb went off at the State Department, the Sears Tower in Chicago was targeted or hit, another plane may be headed toward Washington. My immediate thought was that I hoped the Air Force would get an order to shoot down commercial planes that appeared to have turned hostile. Clearly it was the only option to prevent further destruction, but what a terrible position for a military pilot to placed in.

Then the unthinkable happened. What was that? Water pouring out of the building? What is happening? I watched the first tower peel apart, it was on live television, but I literally saw it in slow motion. What is happening? I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. In an instant it was gone, just a cloud of smoke. What the hell just happened? The fact that there were still hundreds, if not thousands of people left in or at the base of the tower, and that I’d just watched them plummet to their death, didn’t even register. I remember a couple of people in the room sort of gasping, one person walked out in tears, a couple of people speculated about what caused the collapse, but most of us just stood there, too stunned to move.

Later the NBC affiliate cut to local coverage for a statement by Minnesota Governor, Jesse Ventura. A few people wanted to turn the channel to CNN, including me, because I really didn’t care about his response, but others wanted to hear what was going on from a local perspective. The IDS tower in downtown Minneapolis had been evacuated.

Soon the national news was back on and we heard the first reports of a crashed plane in Pennsylvania. They shot it down, I thought. I said it out loud, “They shot it down.”

When the second tower collapsed, it was almost expected, anti-climactic in a way. What else was there to watch now? Amy and I returned to our desks, shaking our heads in disbelief, talking about what we’d just seen. If terrorists could just act like this with no regard for their own lives, how will we ever be safe again? Our country will never be the same. Today is the day everything changes. We’ll never feel secure.

I got back to my desk and tried to call my brother, who worked at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. He was an Air Force Academy graduate, and a navigator for the RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft based at Offutt. As far as I knew he wasn’t deployed at the time, so I tried him at home first. No answer. I tried his office phone at the base. Also no answer. I left messages for him at work and home, just checking in to see what was going on there and to see if he had any idea what his level of involvement would be. I later found out the President had flown into Offutt on Air Force One. Chad had been called to the base already, and saw the plane landing there that afternoon.

I tried to work a little bit, but couldn’t focus. Amy and I decided to go out to lunch where we could watch the news coverage. We went to Champps, a sports bar, where every TV was turned to CNN. When we walked back into the office, the warm sun was shining, a soft breeze blowing my hair, the skies a brilliant blue. Then I saw the image that brought it all home. The flag in front of our building was at half-staff. It was like a punch in the gut. Suddenly I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Tears welled up in the corners of my eyes.

The rest of the afternoon was a blur. I packed a little for the move, tried to get some work done, walked down to the workout room a couple of times to see what was going on, listened to NPR. Finally around 3:30 I decided I needed to go. I wanted to see David. I picked him up from daycare, he came running to me as he always did, oblivious to everything. To him, it was just his mom picking him up to take him home after a fun day with his friends. I was so happy that he was only 20 months old, and wouldn’t comprehend a bit of what was going on.

When Barry came home it was just the three of us, safe, healthy, able to go on with our lives. We said prayers with David that night, and after the God bless Mommy, Daddy and all, we said, “And God bless America.” Because we were still free, we would move on, as would the rest of the country, standing behind those who had lost their lives in New York and Washington. No act of evil would ever be great enough to take away our spirit.

I spent the rest of the night, and the next week watching the news. A doctor had captured footage earlier in the day as the first tower collapsed. He sheltered himself from the cloud of debris barreling down the street by ducking under a car. Once the dust cleared a bit, he moved back toward Ground Zero. Shrill, high-pitched squeals pierced the dusty air, locator beacons on the uniforms of emergency personnel. All of them trapped beneath the wreckage. All of them dead.

Almost more distressing were reports out of the Middle East, where there were scenes of jubilation, men chanting, women ululating, children cheering, American flags being burned in the street. It made me sick to my stomach. What kind of culture celebrates the deaths of thousands of innocent people? We weren’t at war with anyone. These were ordinary people going about the business of their daily lives. And it was the World Trade Center. Not only Americans died, but civilians of all countries, races, and creeds. How is that cause for rejoicing?

I’ll never forget sleeping with the windows open on that cool, early fall night, and the absence of the sound of air traffic, usually so clearly audible. I didn’t sleep well. It was unnerving when I did hear the sound of a plane. I’d look out the window, and see the lights of a fighter jet in the sky. Fighter patrols. Over my house. In Minnesota. What the hell was the world coming to?

That day changed me. I felt saddened for months. There was another, unrelated plane crash in Queens, incidents of anthrax attacks on news media and mailrooms, the war in Afghanistan. I had just started a grad school program over that summer and was loving it. My second semester had just started and I lost all motivation. I got through my courses in the fall and spring, but after Cameron was born in 2002, I never started back up again. The resurgence of patriotism and seeing people flying American flags everywhere and putting “God Bless America” up on marquees was uplifting for a while, but quickly became cliché, and sort of lost all meaning. The feeling of everyone supporting one another against a greater enemy was short-lived. After all, who was this elusive enemy? It could be anyone, anywhere. I resolutely believed in President George W. Bush’s declaration, “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” But it seemed like that sentiment waned too quickly in the coming months.

One bright spot was the 9.26.11 issue of satirical newspaper, The Onion. The headline story was Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves In Hell. And there was a small icon of a bright orange fireball captioned “Holy Fucking Shit: Attack On America.” That pretty much summed up how I was feeling. Somehow their writers found a way to make their readers laugh at something that was wholly unfunny in way that was both searingly clever and reasonably tasteful. I needed that.

Obviously life has gone on, and ten years later, the “new normal” doesn’t look that much different from the old normal. I’m grateful for that. I can’t say I’ve ever felt fearful after 9/11, just profoundly frustrated, angered, bewildered. I hope families of victims have found some peace. I hope one day killing in the name of God and religion will stop. And I hope radical theocracies will be replaced with freedom and individualism. I’m forever an optimist, and maybe if it’s not within reach during my lifetime, it will be realized by my children and grandchildren.

© Jennifer Alys Windholz, 2011

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