Where I Was: September 11, 2001

Inspired by a video from Driving Me Crazy

I was a freshman at the University of Georgia, and I had fallen asleep the night before listening to NPR as was customary for me at the time. I woke up to Morning Edition and the hosts talking in an uncharacteristically excited manner about a bombing at the WTC. Naturally, being a cynical teenager who had seen so many “minor” terrorist attacks (including previous WTC bombings), I was a bit perturbed by the hysteria in the media and flipped the radio over to the local rock station before going about my morning routine.

As I walked across the hall to brush my teeth, I saw my roommate and his girlfriend glued to the television coverage of the attack, and stepped in to get a better look. The first tower was billowing smoke from about halfway up, and I started thinking about the structural integrity of the building–wondering if it would hold until the fires were extinguished. Then the second plane hit. I saw the explosion, the debris cutting across the skin of the building, and I knew that it was only a matter of time before collapse. Even if they extinguish the fire, the building will have to come down. We all thought it was a replay of the first impact; we had no idea that it was live. My roommate was trying to contact his mother in NYC, but all phone lines were jammed.

My first class on Tuesdays was bowling–my PE requirement–and I had to get to the bowling alley down the street. Upon reaching the alley, I still hadn’t realized the magnitude of what was going on. I didn’t even realize that both towers were hit until I saw them on the overhead screens (which, apart from the handful that were being used as scoreboards for the class, were all showing live news coverage). Then #2 fell. Everyone screamed. Thousands were dying, New York was under siege (I had friends in the City–are they okay?), one errant plane crashed into a field somewhere in Pennsylvania (presumably on the way to the White House), and yet another crashed into the Pentagon. We were at war. F–k.

After that first class period, the University cancelled all remaining classes for the day and Wednesday. I went back to the apartment and opened a chatroom in AOL Instant Messenger, inviting everyone I knew so they could check in on each other (friends in NYC were okay) and just–I don’t know–discuss what was happening. There was so much disbelief, so much speculation, so much conjecture, so much sadness, and so much anger. I alternated back and forth between the computer in my bedroom and the living room TV set, just staring at the burning wreckage and marveling at how the same scene was on every single channel. As a broadcasting major at the time, I had to amuse myself by figuring out which channels were owned by which networks by comparing the camera angles. Every channel showing “Camera A” was one network, all showing “Camera B” were another (when faced with tragedy, find the humor: it keeps you centered and focused).

My mom called me that evening (when she was finally able to get a call through). Her husband (former FDNY) lost a lot of buddies when the towers collapsed. He was taking it pretty rough. I told my mom that I wanted to do something. She warned me not to “do anything stupid” like enlisting (my enlistment story wouldn’t come for another few years), so I assured her that I wouldn’t and I called the Red Cross and asked where (as a broke teenager that still had to figure out rent and utilities) I could volunteer my time. I took the next few days and helped push paper at the local blood bank and explain to so many people eager to donate blood that it was best if they come back in a week or two when the supply gets low again. The President gave his “Defend Freedom” speech and Mr. Rogers gave his “Look for the Helpers” address. I won’t get into the politics (and they’re pretty complex for me), but on the surface those two mantras still ring in my mind to this day. The “tributes” flooded Newgrounds and SomethingAwful (back before there was a YouTube) for weeks and months following the attacks, and there was something vaguely comforting about them (especially the more violent and vengeful ones). We shared them with each other via email, ICQ, and AIM because we really had no idea what was going to happen to any of us and a gallows’s humor is better than no humor at all.

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