17 Years Later

The thing I remember most is that it was a beautiful day.

I wasn’t there, but it was beautiful here in Pittsburgh. I remember that blue sky. I’ve never been to New York City. As the footage and photos rolled in, the sky was blue there too. It looked like a beautiful September day. Until you saw the clouds of dust dominating through the streets, and the dark, black smoke that filled the skyline.

September 10th, 2001 was the last normal day.

We didn’t know what was coming.

There wasn’t an American not impacted that day. There isn’t an American alive today whose life has not been affected by the events of that September day.

I was nine when the attacks happened. I never appreciated the normal that we lived in.

My brother was born in 2005. This post-9/11 world is all he has ever known. To him, and all the generations that follow, this has always been the normal.

I was in fourth grade. We were coming back from gym, and the teachers seemed upset. We were all brought into one classroom where we watched the second plane hit the tower as it happened.

I freaked out and ended up going home that day. My dad was a volunteer fire chief at the time, and for some reason, I thought he was going to have to go to New York City and fight the fire. Bear in mind, I live in Pittsburgh. I also thought he could be drafted. I didn’t realize that there wasn’t a draft anymore. I also worried that my older brother would be too once he turned 18 (he was still a couple years away from that). So…they let me go home.

My brothers stayed at school as my parents felt the school was the safest place they could be. And honestly, my school was nothing significant. It was a typical suburban district. My parents were most likely right.

You can’t say that about schools today. Nowhere is safe now.

Directly from the attacks, 2,996 people died. More have died since from causes such as 9/11 related illness, like cancer.

We went to war after the attacks. Seventeen years later, we are still there. It’s crazy. You don’t hear much at all about Afghanistan these days. But we still have troops there. That war hasn’t ended. More sacrifices made, as our soldiers fought for our country.

Three separate attacks; the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City; the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and a crash into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The terrorists hadn’t planned for United Flight 93 to crash into some field. Once they hijacked the plane, the passengers tried to take it back. It is believed that plane was meant to crash into the White House. The terrorists had claimed that they were returning to an airport. However, some passengers had already heard about the attacks in New York and Washington D.C. and put together that wasn’t their plan.

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Some onboard were able to make final phone calls to loved ones and filled them in. A flight attendant told her husband she was filling pitchers with boiling water. Another passenger, Todd Beamer, was overheard saying, “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll,” now a hauntingly, defining statement of the day and showcases the courage of the passengers.

They attacked the cockpit, possibly with a fire extinguisher. In the scuffle, the plane crashed. All 44 people onboard died. Many, if not all of the passengers, knew that they were going to die. But by attacking the terrorists, the passengers and crew committed a significant, selfless act of bravery. How many lives did they save? Ordinary people whose lives are defined by an extraordinary act of courage.

The 9/11 attack was the deadliest day in the history of the FDNY; 343 people died. Entire crews gone. I read a book that I highly recommend, “Bagpipe Brothers: The FDNY Band’s True Story of Tragedy, Mourning, and Recovery” by Kerry Sheridan. It provides history of the bagpipes in the FDNY, but also the dealing with 9/11 – alternating between playing at funerals for their fallen brothers and sisters and digging through the rubble for those still missing. It took firefighter 100 days to extinguish all the flames from ignited by the New York City attacks.

Additionally, 23 NYPD died and and 37 Port Authority officers died. Many of them were trying to evacuate the building and lead workers to safety, as others tried to rescue those located on the higher levels of the towers.

The youngest victim from the attack was two, while the oldest was 85.

As of July 2018, 60% of remains have been positively identified.

There were 3,051 children left without a parent as a result of the 9/11 attacks. Additionally, seventeen babies born following the attacks would never meet their fathers as they had perished in the attacks.

There were loved ones who had to wait a year before anything was found from their deceased – Lisa Ann Frost was a passenger on the plane that hit the South Tower. Her parents waited a year until anything belonging to their daughter was found. Workers sifted through over a million tons of debris to find personal effects of the victims. Some 65,000 items were found; including 437 watches and 144 wedding rings.

9/11 became the defining moment of George W. Bush’s presidency. Three days after the attacks, the president went to Ground Zero and spoke to a crowd. One individual yells that he can’t hear him. In response, the president famously says, I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people – and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”

In response to the attacks, the Department of Homeland Security was formed. This was the result of the merger of 22 governmental agencies.

The 9/11 Commission Report was released July 2004. It is almost 600 pages. I had to read parts of it for some of my MPA classes several times. It is not an easy read. Some transcripts were included as it was realized what was happening. Factors that were ignored are included. Criticism included that not all of the warnings that were received prior to the attack were included. There is a lot to take in.

There are defining photos; such as the firefighters raising the flag in the midst of the rubble, the silhouettes of those who jumped to their death, people covered head to toe in dust as they try to escape, the black smoke contrasted against and taking over the blue sky as the towers burn, the rubble of Ground Zero and the Pentagon, and the countless photos of memorials and people together, mourning.

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And here we are now. The One World Trade Center, also called the Freedom Tower, stands tall. There is the 9/11 Memorial in New York, with the names of the victims included near the waterfall. We’ve changed. Society has changed. Boarding an airplane is different with new restrictions. The War on Terror continues. Osama bin Laden, who took responsibility for the attacks, was killed by US Navy Seals after a nearly ten year search.

The suffering hasn’t ended. Some who survived the initial attack are facing a new fight caused by 9/11. More than 150 firefighters and paramedics have died from 9/11 related illnesses. Asbesto related cancers can take twenty years for symptoms to show. We are almost at that twenty year mark. The 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund is beginning to feel strain, and not all the victims may get the assistance they need. There was $7.3 billion dedicated to the fund. Comedian Jon Stewart has become an activist to the cause of 9/11 first responders and survivors. Since leaving “The Daily Show,” Stewart has dedicated his career to this cause and has helped get vital bills passed.

In the days and weeks following, the country was united in a way that I had never experienced nor have experienced since. If I had to guess, the last time Americans were so united was probably during the World War II effort. So many of the things we see today, political differences, race, religion, whatever else separates us – didn’t matter. We were all Americans. The nation grieved together. We supported each other. We rose up together. It is sad that it took a tragedy of such immense proportions for the country to come together.

We could, and should, learn from 9/11. Learn from the helpers. Like Mr. Rogers said, “To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.” From the enormous amount of courage the passengers, first responders, and workers showed, as many knew that they were facing death.  From the acts of kindness that strangers offered one another. From the determination to find out who did this to us. The attack was meant to break us. Instead, Americans linked arms and showed that we are stronger together. That such an attack was an attack on all of us. On this one day each year, briefly, we come back together. We looked past our differences and instead focused on what was best for the nation.

I don’t know how to get that unity back. Right now, we are so divided. We attack each other instead of listening. It seems like we have turned our back on anyone who doesn’t share our beliefs. These differences is what make America great. The variety in our society is what America was built from. A melting pot, remember? Freedom of religion? Freedom of speech?  This fighting within is going to get us absolutely nowhere. If anything, it makes us more vulnerable. Perhaps if we would listen more, we would accomplish more. Those differences didn’t matter that September day. We lost so much that day. But the American spirit was not lost. We can leave a better world for our children.

I believe in America. I believe the strength and courage shown those days are still alive in all of us. It is ours to grab onto.

But most importantly, we will never forget the strength and courage of the responders and victims.

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We will never forget 9/11.

 

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