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9/11/2001 - My Story

I remember much of this day:

The purpose of my trip was to travel to Houston to meet with my boss and a graphic designer to work on a brochure, and I was bringing all the photos and negatives for review. I had several binders, all organized and cataloged, classified and labeled. As a result, I remember I didn't get to bed until about 1:00 a.m. 

I woke very early, at least for me. I was scheduled to be in Houston later that day and had a flight out of Little Rock, leaving sometime just after 7:00 a.m. My flight would take me from Little Rock to Dallas, then on to Houston.  The drive to the airport was just under 2 hours, so I probably left around 4:00 a.m.  I don't remember much of the drive, or of checking in at the airport, but I obviously made it in time.

Once on the plane, I fell right asleep.  I'm sure I slept through take-off.  Somewhere over southwestern Arkansas, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower.  None of us knew.

We landed in Dallas, but since I was not changing flights, I stayed in my seat and waited for Dallas passengers to unload, and Houston passengers to board.  Again, I slept.  After a few minutes, I was aware of the oncoming Houston passengers, and could sense that something was amiss.  There was a lot of discussion about New York, and about the plane crash.  I had no idea what was being discussed, but I didn't think too much of it at the time.  I assumed a small plane had crashed into a New York building.

The plane pushed from the gate.  We began to taxi, and then came to a stop.  I can remember being a bit aggrevated, because I was ready to get to Houston.  We held our position for a bit longer, and I can remember looking out the window and seeing other planes taxi back to the terminal...odd.  Our plane began to move back toward the terminal, and the captain made the following announcement (as best I can recall): "Ladies and Gentlemen, due to the incident in New York, the Federal Aviation Administration has ordered all planes back to the terminal. Once again, all planes have been ordered back to the terminal, and all passengers will be asked to exit the plane. My apologies for the inconvenience."  The first hint of dread trickled up my spine. This was serious.

As soon as I stepped off the plane into the concourse, I realized it WAS serious. Nervousness and anxiety were writ plain on people's faces. Groups gathered here and there, and almost everyone was using their phone. There was a palpable sense of fear, but for what I didn't yet know. I wandered around a bit, unsure of what to do. I tried to find additional information, but no one really seemed to know much, other than something terrible had happened in New York, and it involved planes. I went to a few additional airline gates (hopelessly, as it turns out) in an effort to see if there was any other way to get to Houston. I was very confused, and the reality of that day had only just begun to make its way into my brain.

Then I passed by a television, and my world shifted. It took me a few seconds to process what I was seeing: There on the screen was a shot of both towers, on fire, billowing smoke. I honestly can't remember the details, but I think I came upon the TV shortly after the 2nd plane, flight 175, had impacted the South Tower. Certainly, for those around me, there was now no doubt these acts were intentional, that New York (and the United States) was under attack.

As I watched, it became obvious that, at least within the news organizations, there was a large degree of uncertainty and chaos. Reports of a plane hitting the Pentagon began to filter in, which of course turned out to be true. But there were also reports of other planes, perhaps many other planes, that had been hijacked, that were heading towards Washington and New York and other large cities. Like Dallas.

I can't remember how long I stood in front of that television, listening to the reporters as they tried to put together some sort of narrative. Rumors of other planes, other exposions, other disasters filtered in and out, muddying the waters. But what remained crystal clear and above dispute were the images of those two burning towers. As I watched, the disaster began to become more of a human disaster. My thoughts turned from national and political implications to the plight of those trapped in those two buildings. As the cameras zoomed in and tried to peer through the smoke, the extent of human suffering, high above the ground, became evident. Of course, I didn't know all I know now. I didn't know about all of the jet fuel, and the size of the planes, and number of people aboard, or about the destroyed stairwells. All I knew was that as I watched the television, images of fire and smoke and destruction, of death, were plain to see. It was awful.

Still, I watched the images on the screen. The image of those two towers, and complete dread about what else might happen, kept me glued on place. People around me were talking about how hard a helicopter rescue would be that high up, and how the firetruck ladders would never reach. How would those people be rescued? And when, at about 9:00 a.m. CST, the South Tower collapsed, I remember thinking, "My God, 10,000 people just died." I also remember thinking, "We have just been successfully attacked, on our home soil. We're now at war."

My feelings of dread and disbelief at that time are as clear and concrete as anything I can remember. My soul was filled with anger, certainly, as I began to put together the implications of what I was seeing.  But also a sense of despair. I can remember standing in front of the TV, with scores of other travelers, trying to look into the future to the next few days, few months, few years. I certainly didn't imagine all that would unfold, but as I pondered what the images on the television might mean, I knew that our country, and lives of all Americans, had just been altered to an epic degree. That sense of, "nothing would ever be the same" was almost overpowering.

I soon moved away from the television, unwilling to just stand like a tree. I began to try to figure out what to do, how to get out of the airport. No rental cars were available, and I had no where to go without one. Finally, I called my sister-in-law, who lived not far away. She agreed to come pick me up, so we arranged to meet just outside baggage claim. As I went to retrieve my bag, police officers were starting to clear the terminal...no, the entire airport. They were polite, but firm: Everyone must depart the terminal, NOW.  Find a way home, find a hotel, find somewhere to go, but get OUT of the airport. As I stood on the curb outside baggage, a police officer made his way through the crowd, asking each of us, "Are you leaving? Do you have somewhere to go? We need you to leave as soon as possible." I remember at this point realizing, for the first time, that the entire aviation industry had just come to a halt. No planes, no flights, no passengers, nothing. Again a sense of dread, a sense of being caught in the middle of something inexplicable and huge and dangerous.

I made it to my brother's apartment, and immediately began to make plans to get to Houston. My brother allowed me to use his pickup to make the trip, so after traveling to Dallas to get his vehicle, I began to head down I-45 to Houston. For the entire trip, I was glued to the radio. I sat and listened to as many news reports as I could, mesmerized, angry, upset.  I barely remember the drive.  In fact, I was so out of it that as I neared Conroe, 3 hours down the road, I realized I had left all of my photos and negatives back at my brothers apartment in Fort Worth. I immediately turned around and headed back. I was so captivated by the events of te day, I could scarecly bring myself to even care that I had just wasted 6 hours of driving.

Once I returned to by brother's apartment, I sat myself in front of the television. For hours and hours I watch the coverage, bouncing around with the rest of the country from news report to news report. Some were credible, some were simply rumors chasesd.  Over time, though, the events of that day began to crystalize. Four planes were hijacked. Two planes hit the WTC Towers. One plane hit the Pentagon. One plane crashed in Pennsylvania.  I stayed up late into the evening, watching replays of the footage, some old, some just now becoming available. I saw footage of people jumping from the towers. I saw the footage of the planes entering the buildings. And I heard, not for the first time, the words "Osama bin Laden" and "Al Queda."  I cried a lot that night, it was all so sad and terrible.

As the images of the wreckage of the towers, the estimated loss of life, the thousands and thousands presumed dead, as these things became known, I was sick with sadness. I stayed up until the early morning hours; I can remember the sun rising. At some point, my brother came in, we said a few words. I can't remember if he went to work that day or not. But I got into his pickup, and again drove to Houston.

Some argue everything changed on that day. Some argue that nothing changed, that America was knocked down but swifty got back up. I can see it both ways, but I tend to think a lot changed. We went to war. We renewed our appreciation for heroes, however we defined them. We began to ponder our place in the world as a nation, and to reflect on how our actions affected others. We began to examine what it meant to be an American. We became a nation on guard, for better and for worse. We returned to church (although maybe only for a short time), and "God" became someone to talk about. We, for a while, were kinder to one another, and echoes of that kindness still linger, even in these tumultuous times.

Yes, I think a lot changed on that day, for many, many people. Those who argue "nothing changed" perhaps argue only for themselves, I don't know. I do know that September 11, 2001, was a terrible, terrible day, a day that shook our nation to its core, and a day whose impact still reverberates. And although the details may fade over time, I will never, till the day I die, forget what happened on that day, that terrible, awful day of violence, and death, and suffering.