On September 11, 2001, my oldest child was still getting comfortable with the transition to first grade.
My wife and I also had two younger kids—a three-year-old and a five-month-
old—and so most mornings, we faced a general condition of chaos. We had crying,
diapers and challenges with sleep, food and clothing.
What we did not have was a television.
Like many people, I suspect, we struggled to imagine what was really happening.
When I worked in Manhattan in the '
80s and '
90s, I often visited the Towers and knew people who worked in them. Having grown up in a tiny town in rural Indiana, I never quite got used to the scale of New York, particularly lower Manhattan where ancient low-rise buildings huddled near the soaring skyscrapers. But our first thought that morning was to keep the news from our children until we had some time to process it and figure out a way to explain it that would make sense to a 6-year-old.
Naively, perhaps, we thought keeping our daughter home from school would shield her from hearing about the attacks from other children.
Having (jointly) imposed a news blackout at my own home, I rushed off to work to help my colleagues rip up an issue of WW that was ready for the press and try to throw together some relevant reporting.
We put out a respectable issue that week for WW readers but for my own children, I never did arrive at a narrative of 9/11 that made any sense. NIGEL JAQUISS
In those days, I drove my oldest daughter to school. She woke up every morning to 94.7 KNRK and that morning, the first thing she heard was co-host Daria O’Neill talking about planes hitting the towers. By the time I had showered and shaved, she was downstairs watching the TV in the kitchen and as I walked in, the news was showing a replay of the plane flying into the second tower. We ate breakfast silently while huddled in front of the TV and then drove to school and work, listening to the radio and not speaking. I can remember trying to say something by way of explanation to Anna, but being unable to. MARK ZUSMAN
It was the second week of my last year of high school. As I wandered out of my bedroom, my father, making coffee by the radio, said a plane had just hit the World Trade Center. My response, as I remember it: “The Bush administration is going to claim this freak accident is a terrorist attack and use it as an excuse to get Saddam. I’m going to be drafted and I and all of my friends will be killed in defense of a lie.” (I had just registered for the Selective Service System.) Then I ate my toast. Then the second plane hit. When I got to school some of my classmates were stoked to kill Iraqis, but most seemed at a loss. We didn’t know any New Yorkers; it’s unlikely any of us had ever so much as visited the city. In the end no one was drafted, and none of us were killed, so far as I am aware. I guess we’ll find out at the reunion. BEN WATERHOUSE
In my sophomore year at Covenant College on Lookout Mountain, Ga., I had an Intro to Lit class at 8 am and a philosophy class at 10—giving me just enough time for a solid nap between, if I didn't stick around to talk "The Lady with the Dog" with the English prof. I was enjoying that nap as both planes hit, and by the time I got up for my next class, both towers had fallen. I was brushing my teeth when my hallmate Zach ran into the dormitory bathroom and said planes had hit the World Trade Center and they fell down. I pictured two towers toppling over like dominoes, and the image was so silly I cackled through a mouthful of toothpaste.
Then I walked out into commons and saw a little television showing the images—it was soon enough after the second collapse that the networks were still showing footage on a loop.
The college administrators, fearing that this was the first step of an extended military attack, decided that a college atop a mountain was a prominent target, and responded like it was London during the Blitz: They ordered all students to stay indoors until the threat had passed. (I recall being admonished by several school officials as I made my way across the quad to the school newspaper office, and everybody kept staring nervously at the skyline.) The school held a mandatory chapel session at 11 am, but I don't really remember any of the group prayers, or what reassurance Covenant's president gave: I was just thinking over and over, "That's it. There's going to be a war, there's going to be a draft, and I'm going to die." AARON MESH
I had never been to New York or Washington, D.C. I was a junior at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, where I spent most of my time practicing for open mic night and putting out the campus newspaper. I remember showing up fairly late to the office that morning, ready to work on a story about something that must’ve seemed important at the time but which was quickly revealed to be entirely inconsequential.
The only other people in the newsroom were the editor, Whitney, and our adviser, Dianne. We didn’t catch the news as it happened. The office had one computer connected to the internet, and a radio—no TV. Nobody knew what was happening, anyway. The newsreaders speculated about a missile attack.
Since we had no visuals, what I remember most is the editor’s look of utter horror as we listened. By afternoon, the administration had set up televisions in common areas across campus. People gathered around them like moths, helplessly watching the fire.
As I recall, I spent the day talking to the Middle East studies experts on campus. They called for tolerance and understanding. Which took a certain kind of courage at the time, since everyone else was talking about which country to start bombing. In the evening I joined a few friends at one of their apartments to watch Bush’s speech, during which I remember feeling truly terrified for the first time that day, or maybe, come to think of it, for the first time in my life. Some people roughly my own age were inspired to enlist in the military. I had a different reaction. I started hoarding newspapers. I became obsessed with the idea that I could somehow find out the truth and save it from the Memory Hole. I stopped writing music, and spent the next several years listening to a chorus of fear. COREY PEIN
I was 20. I had summer off from the University of Oregon. My mom and I visited the Bay Area. We walked the hills of San Francisco, saw City Lights bookstore and watched the trolleys. It was hot but there was a breeze. September 11 was our last day and we woke early to leave in my mom's big red pickup truck.
We made our way over the Golden Gate Bridge—maybe 6 am—and mom turned on the radio. We heard reports of bombings all over the country—erroneous reports from middle America. One suggested the Golden Gate might be a target. We heard something about a second tower coming down. Having tuned in right in the middle of the chaos, it took awhile for the radio anchors to explain just what that meant. My mother said, “The whole world is going crazy!"
All I could think of was the last scene in Fight Club, where they blow up New York's financial buildings to the tune of the Pixies' "Where is my Mind." I thought someone had taken the movie to heart. We listened and I drifted off to sleep. I dreamed we stopped in a small town and gunmen with masks riddled out truck with bullets by masked gunmen. I woke up just before dying.
My mom won't like me saying this, but at a rest stop she looked suspiciously at a couple of Arab truck drivers talking to one another. She was rattled. I felt bad for those guys, though, figuring they were going to get a lot of looks like that in the months and years to come.
The next day my co-workers at the record store told me they had gotten the day off. Some of my friends were already making 9/11 jokes. And then the world got shitty. CASEY JARMAN.
I rolled out of bed around 8 a.m. and drove my boyfriend, Jeremy, through Spokane to his telemarketing job. Back home, I flipped on the TV. At the time—I’m ashamed to admit—I had the bad habit of watching CNN and Headline News relentlessly. I wasn’t prepared for the images of disaster. I soon discovered that the World Trade Towers in New York City had been attacked.
In shock, I confused the towers with the World Trade Organization and initially thought the attacks had something to do with protests against the WTO. A moment later the reality of what happened sunk in, and I felt an overwhelming rush of sadness.
Minutes later Jeremy rushed in. He had hitched a ride back because the telemarketing center closed shortly after his boss realized it was not an appropriate morning to bother people with solicitations. Jeremy said the first few calls he made—oblivious to the attack as he dialed—were met with outrage and disgust. EMILY GREEN
I was 15 years old. Like most Australians, I was either asleep or oblivious when the planes hit (around 11 pm our time). My mother, a congenitally early riser and news junkie, woke me up around 6 am. When breaking events like that happen in America, Australian free-to-air TV networks typically stream CNN or NBC, so we watched that. I wasn’t exceptionally upset by the deaths—or no more than I was whenever I saw deaths on the news—but I remember feeling slightly sick that America would react violently, and both countries would end up at war. Our then Prime Minister, a strong ally of Bush, happened to be in D.C. at the time and he immediately offered the country’s support in retaliation.
Later that day, at my very suburban high school, most kids weren’t that interested yet. I asked my social studies teacher to put Bush’s address on the TV when it started, but she said she didn’t think it was relevant to the class. Australians love an excuse to legitimize racism, so many were initially torn between “America had it coming” and wanting to jump on the Muslim-bashing bandwagon. The latter eventually won out, helped in no small part by the Bali bombings a year later. Looking back now, it marked the beginning of increased racial and religious tension with local Islamic and Middle Eastern communities that would set dominate much of the political and media discourse for the proceeding decade. RUTH BROWN
I was sitting in my 8th-grade environmental science class when the towers came down. Our principal, Mr. Alexander, came in over the loud speaker to announce that a plane had collided with one of the buildings of the World Trade Center.
I didn’t know where the World Trade Center was, much less what it stood for, or what it meant when my history teacher told us later in the day, as we watched footage of the now plural collisions, that the buildings were attacked on purpose. My identity at that time was limited to being a Hamilton. Maybe you could have called me a student at Morgan Park or a Chicagoan, but I’m not sure I would have answered.
Our teachers cried, crowded our classrooms with open mouths and clasped hands. Shook their heads and stood before us speechless.
It was probably my first experience as a part of the nation. The towers were on fire and those buildings had been attacked, and that city and its families and us all. And so I stood still too, kept silent, mouth agape, and mourned our loss. And hated those who attacked us.
Our stoic algebra teacher grazed our shoulders as he ushered us out the doors and told us to be safe. BRANDON HAMILTON
My wife and I had to be at work very early that morning. Our son was 18 months old, bright and happy and dashing around even though it was before dawn. Only the day before had learned how to turn on the TV—we usually kept it off when he was around—but his new trick of pushing a button and seeing a screen light up delighted him. That morning I heard the TV come on and he giggled. I turned the corner to see the TV: blue sky, smoke roiling from a skyscraper. The scroll said both World Trade Center towers had been hit by planes.
“You have to see this,” I called to my wife.
“How could two planes hit?” my wife asked as we watched. “It
doesn’t look foggy there.” I recalled that I had once read about a
wealthy Arab, hiding out in caves and recruiting terrorists to strike at
the United States. He’d struck elsewhere. We’d tried to drop a bomb on
him once. What was his name?
The TV images switched to a different city landscape. No tall
buildings, a river, thin smoke on the horizon. Nothing seemed distinct.
“It’s the Pentagon,” my wife said. “That’s the Potomac River. That’s
D.C.” We had lived there for two years; she recognized it.
“It couldn’t be,” I said. “The World Trade Center is in New York.”
Then I remembered.
“Bin Laden,” I said. “It’s probably bin Laden.”
“Where is that?” she said. “I’m telling you, that’s the Pentagon.”
This all happened in two minutes. We were confused by it all. Our son circled us, laughing. Once he turned the TV on, he had no interest in it. He was learning to talk in full sentences. It seemed he had only just been an infant in our arms. We thought he was so grown up then, but now I see he was so small and just beginning. It was dark outside and dark in the room except for the screen that lit up his world. BRENT WALTH