Image Credits: Courtesy of the author
Eighteen years have passed since the September 11th terror attacks rocked our entire nation and left us reeling. 2,977 Americans lost their lives that day, and many more since then have passed due to health complications from the clean up of Ground Zero. Overall, 2,753 were lost in New York and 184 at the Pentagon, including the flight passengers. 412 emergency workers, 343 firemen, 60 policemen, eight emergency medical technicians and one patrolman lost their lives. 40 people heroically crashed Flight 93 into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, thwarting the terrorists’ plot to destroy the Capitol.
This day has had a profound impact on my life as my Dad was working in the Pentagon during the time of the attacks. My sister and I were only seven at the time, so we were at school on that crisp, sunny September day. There were rumors of a bomb going off at some big building in New York. Teachers and administrators were scurrying around, trying to phone parents to pick up their children. My mom, meanwhile, was racing to pick us up. She helped other students leave with their parents. Then, we headed home to wait for an indeterminable amount of time for my Dad. As we drove away from our school, we saw military members out guarding and cordoning off entryways and bridges as we lived close to the Naval Academy. My mom said something to the effect of “Girls, there has been a terrible attack where your Dad works. Some people wanted to hurt Americans, but Daddy is okay.” She barely squeaked the words out as she was still frantically processing all that had just unfolded within of a couple hours.
My grandma from the west coast had called my mom early that morning when the World Trade Center was hit. Moments before the Pentagon was targeted, my mom called my Dad advising him to be safe, maybe having a premonition that we were under attack as a nation. My Dad was watching coverage of what was unfolding in New York City (he’s a New York native) with other military personnel at their regular morning briefing when they felt the impact of Flight 77 penetrate the building. They smelled the jet fuel and knew that this was no coincidence. Roughly 23,000 military personnel and civilians evacuated the Pentagon within minutes. My Dad flagged down a kind gentleman in the parking lot to use his cellphone and call my mom as all of his personal belongings had been left in the building. It took a minute to shake her from her hysteria and convince her that he was alive after seeing aerial footage of dark plumes of smoke. Some news estimates originally had the count of missing persons as high as 20,000, so it was hard to believe that Dad had made it out. Others were not as fortunate in getting touch with their loved ones, waiting and wondering for hours and days whether they had safely made it out of the war zones. Upon walking around the immediate mall area outside of the Pentagon, my Dad had this eerie feeling when only seeing one tower standing on a television. All his life growing up in the Big Apple, he had known the two-tower World Trade Center, a symbol of free market capitalism and liberty in America. That symbol had been shattered by Muslim extremists, aiming to destroy our way of life.
The waiting was endless at home, and my Dad finally arrived in the late evening. He had bused home as the trains from Washington D.C. to Maryland and Virginia were shut down for security purposes, and he hitched the ride the rest of the way home. We all watched the news coverage of the aftermath of the terror attacks, I still not really understanding the underlying horror of it all. The next day, my Dad returned to work. They had all received orders to go back to the site of destruction and work to protect our nation from future attacks. Military personnel were to wear their uniforms. In the past they had not been required, maybe to prove that we were ready for the front-lines as a nation. Both the Pentagon and World Trade Center smelled of burning ash, flesh and other debris, and yet heroes returned to salvage remains and stand strong in the face of terror. We would not be defeated.
To add onto the trauma of my father surviving that day, my cousin also served as a policeman in the clean up efforts of Ground Zero. Both cities targeted on September 11 had a direct impact on our lives and changed our world outlook forever. My Dad still struggles with survivor guilt, wondering why he was spared when so many others were not. My sister and I have come to terms with the gravity of the situation and how close we were to losing our father. Attending college in New York City and visiting the memorials both in New York and Washington D.C. reminded us every year how lucky we were. My mother went months without continuous sleep, constantly being plagued by nightmares and thoughts of my Dad not making it out. We all still are deeply affected and take pause each anniversary to count our blessings and say prayers for those less fortunate than us.
On September 11th and immediately following, Americans opened their arms and hearts to one another. People helped by giving each other a ride home. They made meals for those who lost loved ones. Letters were sent to first responders and families. Appreciation of cops, firemen, medics, and military personnel was greatly intensified. People banded together at a time of so much heartache; there was unity. At sporting events, the players and fans banded together and artists commemorated the 9/11 heroes through song. Unfortunately, I think some of this remembrance and patriotism has washed away; people forget. We cannot forget how many people sacrificed their lives on September 11th and how we as a nation rose back up immediately to defend ourselves. Many continue to answer the call of service through the military and fighting a war on terror overseas. If we lose our unity, we will lose pride in our ideals of liberty, freedom and happiness for all Americans. This is a disservice to those involved and affected by the September 11 attacks, including the September 11, 2012 Benghazi attack. I hope that we can, as Americans, find some common ground and love for each other in this time of political tumult. As Rudy Giuliani said soon after that tragic day, “The attacks of September 11th were intended to break our spirit. Instead we have emerged stronger and more unified.” Never Forget.