By Trish Milburn
History is filled with life-altering events both big and small. Sometimes those events are so big that they change the lives of everyone, not just those directly affected. When those things happen, people tend to remember where they were when they heard the news. Members of the Greatest Generation remember the attack on Pearl Harbor. People my parents’ age remember where they were when President Kennedy was assassinated. I remember that I was at home from school for a snow day when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded.
But nothing holds the clarity of that morning ten years ago when we all suddenly realized that Sept. 11 would never be just another day on the calendar again.
I remember exactly where I was standing when I heard the news about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center’s North Tower. It was outside the office of a coworker at the magazine where I worked at the time. I hadn’t been at work long, less than an hour, and another coworker arrived at work and told us she’d just heard about the crash on the news in her car. We went to the TV thinking that this was a horrible accident. When the second plane hit the South Tower, the reality that this wasn’t an accident hit us. The day just got more horrible and surreal as the minutes passed. Flights were grounded nationwide, leaving an eerie silence in the skies. Less than an hour after the first plane crash, another hit the Pentagon. The shocking images of the towers actually collapsing. The crash of the fourth plane into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after the passengers revolted, and speculation it was heading toward Washington, D.C., perhaps the Capitol or the White House.
Throughout the day, we would wander back and forth between the conference room where the TV was located and our offices because we were on deadline for the magazine. After leaving for the day, I came home and watched TV for hours, in shock at the devastation and wondering what this would mean. Would there be more attacks? Were we going to go to war? Who was responsible? Was any place safe? Because we now live in a 24-hour TV news cycle, the coverage was endless. I watched the stories of rescues, of people looking for loved ones, of heroism and loss for days after Sept. 11. I can’t remember how many days later it was, but I finally had to turn off the TV. I couldn’t handle all the sadness anymore.
It’s been 10 years since that day, and it seems like maybe half that. Our way of life has been forever changed with increased security measures and what has been dubbed the War on Terror. I choose not to focus on those aspects overmuch though because they cause too much anxiety and sadness.
Instead, as the stories about the 10th anniversary have been written and broadcast, I find hope in the stories of how survivors changed their lives after 9/11. One man was a stock trader (or investment banker, I can’t remember) on 9/11, but in the aftermath he started taking tango classes. Here he met a woman and fell in love. Now they travel the world teaching the tango. Another man, who lost his wife and unborn child aboard one of the hijacked planes, worked hard to have a maternity wing built and named after his wife at the hospital where their child would have been born. While these stories were born of great sadness, they also speak to the tremendous resilience of the human spirit, our innate need to go on and to find something good amidst so much sorrow.
In the days after the attacks, there was a tremendous swell of people helping each other, even people they didn’t know. First responders from all over the country flocked to New York to help the FDNY, NYPD and Port Authority, who’d lost so many of their fellow firefighters and police officers. People on the streets aided each other any way they could. Blood banks across the country saw huge numbers of donors show up. Support for first responders, real heroes, skyrocketed. It was a national tragedy that brought out inspiring amounts of kindness. That’s the part I like to focus on. And I think that outpouring of kindness is part of what we shouldn’t forget and what we should try to emulate every day, whether it’s the anniversary of 9/11 or the most ordinary of days.