Living in a suburb of Philadelphia, most of my friend's parents worked either in Philly or Manhattan. This sort of commute was not uncommon in our bedroom community. Our home in Pennsylvania was a stone's throw from New Jersey. While I've lived south for more than a decade, I am originally from New Jersey - that's where a big chunk of my family still lives.
On September 11th, 2001 I had just started my sophomore year at SMU and was essentially a foreigner who had learned over the previous year how to adapt and live as a southerner. I had somewhat tamed my sarcastic Jersey ways and was learning how to blend in.
That morning my cell phone rang early. It wasn't even 8am central time. It was my mom sounding slightly frantic asking where specifically my father worked. My parents had been divorced for 4 years at this time and I was seriously annoyed. "Manhattan, mom." She insisted on knowing EXACTLY where he worked. I explained where the office was and attempted to get off the phone as quickly as possible. 8am is far too early for a college student to be awake - and I was waking up my roommate too! Mom explained that a plane had just hit the North Tower of the WTC.
At that point I understood why my mom was freaking out, but no big deal - dad always got to work SUPER early (the 6:40am train we took was actually LATER than his usual) and the PATH station took him into the SOUTH tower. No worries at all. Assuring my mom that everything was fine, I got off the phone and turned on the TV. Within minutes the South tower was hit. I felt numb, in shock, and disoriented. Because I knew the area so well, I knew very well how many people those buildings could hold. Things got crazy very quickly with fires, people jumping from the building, and reporters questioning whether the towers would fall.
They can't fall. There are thousands of people at work in those towers. There are hundreds of people milling about outside of the buildings selling pictures, purses, and I *heart* NYC mugs. Under the South Tower there is a huge transit station, essentially the first point into the city and where many morning connections are made to the north side of the island. There is a mall in the south tower - I purchased a pair of GAP khakis there. The towers can't fall.By the time the third aircraft hit the pentagon, I was sitting with my sorority sisters around our big screen TV - skipping class. Some sisters were going about their business, making breakfast and getting ready for class. I was unable to speak. The towers fell before 9:30am central time. While everyone around me seemed to understand that something big was happening, no one felt the incredible emotion or could see the horror in my head.
In my head, I could see the people stuck on the PATH trains headed north. I could imagine the terror of being trapped with no idea what was going on. If you've been on a NYC subway, you know that's no place you'd want to give birth or spend your last moments on earth. I couldn't close my eyes. I tried calling my dad but phones were done and cell towers weren't working. I had no idea what he was experiencing. What if he'd gone in to work a few hours late and was stuck under the South Tower? What if the debris from the collapse had caused his building to catch on fire? How would he ever be able to get OUT of Manhattan with the mass transit station now completely destroyed?
10 years ago no one had a BlackBerry. Well, not NO one. No one but my dad. He had a brand new BlackBerry and I wasn't really sure why. Why would anyone need to e-mail from their PHONE? That just seemed silly. This was pre-text messaging as well. Thankfully my dad had a BlackBerry because he was able to connect to the rest of the world and send brief little e-mails from his phone hours before he was able to call. I received a short little "I'm okay" e-mail sometime mid-morning but didn't actually hear from him until lunch time. He said everything was absolutely crazy - he sounded like he was in a dream. He didn't know how he would get home or what was going to happen, but for now, he was fine.
By lunch time, our campus had a prayer service/meeting at the flag pole. Finally out of the sorority house, I spoke with other folks from the Northeast - all of them completely dazed and confused. We compared notes and stories. I felt like I finally found people that spoke my language. I was still incredibly overwhelmed, deeply sad, and confused.
At this point, while I wanted to cry, I simply couldn't. I felt numb. I was politically stupid and didn't really understand what people were talking about when they referenced Muslim extremists. Unlike many people in our world prior to 9/11, I knew quite a bit about Islam. Not only had I grown up with Muslims, but I studied Islam in college. I knew Islam was a peaceful religion - just as peaceful as Christianity. I just couldn't comprehend this evil.
The days that followed were a blur. I remember speaking with my friends to check on their parents. It seemed as though everyone I was personally connected with was okay. Rough, damaged, but alive. It provided me a weird sense of comfort hearing from my Yankee friends because they understood me and couldn't really understand the Dallas world I was living in. How did these classmates of mine not understand Manhattan? How did they not know about the underground tunnels, street salesmen, or general layout of Manhattan? My Yankee friends knew that Central Park was not in the financial district and that Manhattan is an island. Many of my classmates didn't understand this.
It was weeks before I was really able to cry about the incredible devastation. I had horrible and terrifying dreams - during the day and at night. I thought about the hundreds of people commuting to work who died in the train station when the buildings collapsed. I thought about the homeless woman who stood outside the South tower and called everyone Susan. I cried for the families who lost their loved ones. I didn't care how it happened - these were my people.
Several weeks after September 11th, 2001 my dad came to Dallas on a business trip. I don't know if it was a necessary trip or if it was in part because I was losing my mind. I made him draw me maps of the downtown area while explaining everything that happened. I made him live through it again because I needed to put some of my own demons to rest. I had trouble closing my eyes - I could see such vivid and awful pictures. Dad's stories only confirmed my most horrible visions, but they did bring me some peace. He needed to come to terms with what happened and so did I.
For many, September 11th was a political movement, terrorism, an attack against America. For me, it was personal. I am still unable to talk about it without crying - it's taken me several days to write this and I've cried a lot. I cannot believe it's been 10 years.