I was sitting in my office at a small daily newspaper in a small western Missouri town early on that Tuesday morning when one of my newsroom staff came in and told me that a plane had slammed into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. At the time, I, like many other people, thought that it was an accident, certainly not a terrorist attack.
I flipped on the television in the office — something I rarely turned on because it had terrible reception — and tuned to the news just in time to watch as a second plane crashed into the second tower. Then and only then did I know that this was no accident but a deliberate attack.
We were an afternoon newspaper, so even though the members of that newsroom huddled in my office for a short time to watch the grainy images on that TV, we had to set aside our emotions and get back to work, revamping what we were doing on our front page for that day’s paper. Believe me, it wasn’t easy because like most Americans we were angry, stunned and numb.
Then came an email message from my older sister, reminding me and my siblings that her daughter Katrina — my niece — worked directly across the street from the World Trade Center. And since more than just the Twin Towers were destroyed that day, my sister had no idea if her daughter was dead or alive.
Katrina was one of the lucky ones. She survived the attack, though she — like so many other people in the area that day — walked from that area, covered in dust and ash, and trekked home across the Brooklyn Bridge.
In the days that followed, I heard her story unfold.
Katrina at the time had a partner named John who also worked in the financial district of lower Manhattan, actually in one of the twin towers. When the first hijacked airliner slammed into the World Trade Center, Katrina was in her office across the street and John, fortunately, was in the concourse of the WTC getting a cup of coffee.
John heard, probably felt, the impact and went immediately across the street to find Katrina. They stood outside the burning buildings, gazing from their front seats at the scene that transfixed the nation. As they watched the events unfold, she smoked a cigarette and he stood with her rather than go back into the buildings.
But as they watched as one of the towers collapsed, they, like many others in that vast throng, started to run, fearing for their lives. Somewhere in the midst of the smoke and confusion, they lost each other.
Katrina managed to get to a telephone and get word to the family that she was OK. However, she still didn’t know where John was.
Eventually, they found each other, but not before they got back to their apartment, which, as I say, they got to only by walking back to Brooklyn.
Two days after the attack, I heard from Katrina again. She said that with the buildings collapsing around her, the smoke billowing toward her and the people, herself included, running for their lives, it was like being in a bad movie. John, she said, watched as 10 or so people jumped to their deaths. He also saw the charred remains of one of the planes on the ground and the bodies of people with their arms melted off.
The only reason he wasn’t in a place where he would have been killed was that he was late for work. It was one time when his chronic tardiness was a fortunate thing.
Looking back, 15 years later, I cannot help but think that even though I was far removed physically from the places where the attacks occurred, those attacks touched my life in a very real way.
And they have since touched me in another way that at the time I could not have imagined. The attacks propelled this nation into two wars — one in Iraq, the other in Afghanistan. What I could not imagine then was that my son — also named John — would enlist in the Marines and would serve tours of duties in those wars, once in Iraq, twice in Afghanistan.
My son turned 18 three months to the day before the September 11th terrorist attack. When he turned 18, he went to the post office and registered for the draft, just as he was expected to do, required to do. I’m sure he never thought, even in his wildest dreams that it might mean going into battle, going to war as he eventually did.
I called him that Tuesday night, trying not to be too obvious in my fear that he might be called to duty some day and be sent off to some distant land. But I was hardly subtle.
“If it comes to that,” he told me then, “I’m ready to go.”
Proud of him? Of course I was, and still am. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the prospect of his going to war didn’t scare me. It scared me then, it scared me when he actually went, and it scares me still.
Those terrorist attacks 18 years ago touched us all that day, no matter how distant we were from Ground Zero. They touch us still. September 11 has changed our lives. But on this weekend, the anniversary of those attacks, we should remember first and foremost the victims of the attacks. Excluding the hijackers, there were 2,974 fatalities that day — 246 on the four planes, 125 at the Pentagon and 2,603 in New York City, in the towers and on the ground. In their memory, let us continue to fight to keep this nation safe that no such attack shall happen again.