Saturday, September 10, 2011

Where Were You on 9/11?

Everybody was somewhere. More precisely, everybody is always somewhere.

"Where were you when" is a popular meme, party game or conversation topic.

Where were you when Kennedy was shot? I was in social studies class in the 7th grade. Our teacher, Mrs. Alford, returned from lunch looking pale and shaken and we all thought she was simply pissed off at us, which was the usual case. However, this day she steeled herself at her desk. I remember her sitting there, unnaturally, very erect, palms flat on the desk, looking down and composing herself. We had been studying government for several months. Finally, she stood up and started talking. First things first, we knew immediately that she wasn't pissed off with us because she didn't launch into her normal diatribe about lazy students, late homework and lack of appreciation for her vast teaching skills.

This time she started off quietly and started talking about democracy and America and the President and a bunch of rambling things. Finally, she blurted out (and began to cry) that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. I remember several students in the room cheering. Kennedy was not all that popular in the South and this was a display of seventh grade ignorance at its best. Unfortunately, there are people to this day stuck in the seventh grade. Mentally and emotionally.

As Mrs. Alford was talking the school librarian appeared at the door. There was a pause. The librarian was crying and wiping her eyes with a little handkerchief. The room quieted and the librarian said, "He's dead. The President is dead."

There were a few more cheers in the classroom before the formidable Mrs. Alford brought order. We then spent the rest of the day, which was shortened, discussing the presidential succession order which we had been studying. Shortly thereafter school was let out and we all went home. I recall that school was closed for a few days as the country dealt with the assassination of a president.

Where were you on 911?

I was at work messing around with a pesky website I was building. I had CNN running in another window and vaguely heard a report about an "aircraft flying into the World Trade Center tower."

I blew it off. Probably a Piper Cub. Off course. Check it out later.

Then I got a phone call from a friend of mine in Odessa, Tx. who told me to check out the CNN coverage of a jetliner that ran into the WTC.

Jetliner? You mean a commercial jet? How could that be? Did air traffic control give the pilot the wrong coordinates? How could the pilot see that he was heading into a building?

So many questions raced through my mind as I pulled up live coverage of the accident, and also on the BBC which had a different and more rapidly updated feed.

The World Trade Center. I visited the security company ADT housed there in 1985. We stayed in the hotel (Hilton?) at the base of the towers. I remember the huge elevators that could hold 100 people, the observation deck where we saw the Statue of Liberty, the restaurant where we had a great meal and how you could feel the building sway in the wind. "You get used to it," our waiter said, nonchalantly.

I turned to my computer screen and couldn't believe the image being broadcast. One tower was engulfed in thick, black smoke. The reporters were falling all over themselves to explain what happened. However, in a few minutes it became clear that a giant jetliner had slammed into the tower, not a little, podunk Piper Cub that was off course.

How? HOW?? How could this happen? Had traffic control gone crazy? How could a jetliner be directed on a course that would take it crashing into a building?

I was on the phone with my buddy in Odessa watching the live video feeds from CNN and the BBC when the second airliner hit. Suddenly we saw this huge, orange and black fireball erupt from the other tower! At first we thought that the second tower had suddenly caught fire from the heat of the first tower, but within seconds reports started pouring in on CNN and BBC that it was not the case. A SECOND jetliner had hit the other tower.

Now, we were very confused! Clearly, something was wrong with air traffic control in New York that two jetliners had hit buildings. Yes, we had no clue at this time that it was a deliberate act. It was the farthest thing in our minds. I mean, who would deliberately crash jetliners into buildings? It had to be a monstrous accident.

In fact, it turned out to be a monstrous deliberate act.

Shortly, both buildings were burning furiously and CNN and BBC were replaying the strikes and receiving video from other viewpoints across the river and beyond. Then reports started coming in about the planes being hijacked and flown into the buildings.

A report surfaced that a jetliner had been flown into the Pentagon but no video was available at the moment. There was a sketchy report about a jetliner that had turned around over Pennsylvania and was heading back to Washington.

It was very strange and confusing.

Soon, all work stopped and we were gathered around computer screens, speculating and trying to find new video feeds to give us more information. Then word spread that the video was being projected in one of our conference rooms and we all went up to that floor to watch.

We had two, large screens in the conference room and the same CNN feed of the burning towers was being projected on both. The room was packed but I managed to find an open chair and sat down. The projector was very good and the two towers loomed large in front of me. There was a buzz of speculation, muted chatter and quiet conversations. This was history in the making, not a football game. Everybody was serious, studying the images in front of us and trying to figure out what was going on.

Suddenly, the antenna on one of the towers started to sway and somebody exclaimed, "It's going to collapse!" As we watched the tower collapsed from the top down, the sides splitting out and falling away. It just went down in a big grey cloud of debris.

The room was silent. Nobody could believe what they had just seen. Dust and smoke started to rise from the collapse and new video feeds from helicopters documented the destruction. I don't recall anybody exclaiming at the time of the collapse, but after it was over there were murmurs of "Oh my God" from around the room. There was nothing else to say.

Nobody left the room. The second tower was burning furiously. There was every expectation that it would collapse, too, and we talked about when it might go. Then somebody said loudly, "It's going!" And down it went in a big, grey cloud. By this time CNN was switching video feeds from a position on a building to a helicopter and we saw the extent of the devastation, at least in terms of smoke and dust. It was a huge, smokey, dusty blot drifting off across the harbor.

No more work got done that day. We watched the news reports, cancelled staff meetings and most of us drifted home early. Later we learned about Flight 93 over Pennsylvania and what happened at the Pentagon. It was a long and confusing day.

Years later the days are not quite so long but just as confusing.