Friday, September 11, 2015

Remembering 9/11

Fourteen years ago this morning the world changed. Most people over the age of 30 can tell you exactly where they were when they heard the news about airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center. Today memorial services were held in New York, Washington, D.C. and Shanksville, PA, and memorials have been built in those cities, as well as other cities across the country. The entire country was affected, not only because there were passengers on those four airplanes from all over the nation (as well as many from other countries), but because the audacity of the terrorists was so mind-boggling and the results of their actions were so utterly devastating that for a few weeks at least, we as a nation were united.

While the incidents in New York and Washington are usually thought of first when 9/11 is mentioned, and rightly so, the crash of Flight 93 hit me a lot closer to home. Literally closer to home.

I was at work in Somerset, PA that Tuesday morning. Does everyone remember it was a Tuesday? That fact is etched in my brain. The weekend before I had enjoyed The Farmers and Thresherman's Jubilee in my home town of New Centerville. The tractor and truck pulls, antique threshing demonstrations, and lots of good food, the sights and sounds and smells, always took me back to my childhood. Back to a simpler, more carefree time. I always felt sad when I left the Jubilee grounds for the last time late Sunday afternoon.

Two days later I went to work at a social services agency as usual. It was a slow day in the office, and I was just killing time until our 10:00 staff meeting. We had no radio, and I wasn't on the internet, so the first indication I had that something was going on was when Tanya ran into my office and told me that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. My mouth dropped open and two thoughts went through my head. First of all, I had to think for a moment what the WTC was and where it was. "New York" and "skyscrapers" was enough of a mental answer to know this was bad. My second thought was, “This was no accident.” One airplane crashing could be an accident. Two airplanes – no way.

Not too long afterwards rumors started floating around the office that the Pentagon was on fire. It was difficult to get accurate information, but we knew something terrible was happening in our country, and fear was beginning to set in.

Business still had to be conducted, however, so we gathered for our 10:00 meeintg. There were five of us in Diane's office, and our meeting hadn't been going on for more than fifteen minutes when police and fire engine sirens began to wail. Our office was located in between two major highways, and we seemed to be surrounded by sirens and the blaring honk of horns, pushing traffic out of their way. The sirens went on. And on. And on. There was a lull, and then more sirens sounded, as outlying fire departments began to respond. We all looked at each other and said, “WHAT is going on?”

Could these sirens be related to the events happening in New York and Washington, D.C.? Surely not. After all, this was SOMERSET. We were a rural community; probably not on a terrorist's “Top Ten Places to Hit” list. Which led us back to the question: What is going on?

That question was soon answered, though with the same hit-and-miss amount of information as the other attacks. Word went around that a plane had crashed near Shanksville, a sleepy little town less than ten miles away from us. Shanksville? If Somerset wasn't on a terrorist's hit list, I guarantee Shanksville would not be. Details were few and far between. How close to town was the crash? Was anyone killed? The local hospital put in action its emergency plan, calling in all off-duty personnel to prepare for the casualties they expected to receive. But sadly, no casualties came.

And as more questions came than answers, some panic began to set in. There were people who had children in the Shanksville school. Phone lines were overloaded, and in those days most children didn't carry cell phones anyway, so there was no way to contact the school or their children to check on their safety. My friend and co-worker Claudia asked me with fear in her eyes and voice, if the world were ending. I had no children, and I knew my Bible well enough that I didn't think the world was ending, but I still felt the fear and chimed in my voice with those asking to be allowed to leave and go home.

(Speaking of the fear that overtook us, I want to take a moment to remember a dear elderly lady who worked with me as church secretary several years earlier. Marilyn Hay passed away on 9/11. A fact that was probably lost on all but her family and close friends. I've been to her house, and I know that she always had the TV on, and my thoughts on hearing of her death were that she had been frightened by the horrible events she was witnessing and had a heart attack. I don't know that to be true, but it seemed more than a coincidence to me. Regardless, I want to pay tribute to this lovely lady who liked to eat her strawberries “barefoot.”)

We were granted permission to leave work early, and I stopped at a store on my way home. I didn't know how bad this attack would be or if more were coming. and there were a few things I wanted to get. I discovered that we were not the only business closing down early.

Meanwhile, my brother and his wife in Georgia and my niece (7 months pregnant with her first son) and her husband in Arkansas were desperately trying to reach us. All they heard on the news was the crash happened 9 miles from Somerset, PA or 60 miles east of Pittsburgh. Either description could put the crash right on top of our house. After a couple of agonizing hours they were able to get through to us. We weren't able to give them much more information than they already had, other than that we were fine.

I turned the radio on in my car, and listened to the first reports about Flight 93 as I drove home. At this point they didn't know how many passengers were on the plane. They guessed as many as 240 people. That drew a groan out of me. Could all this really be happening right here in Somerset County?

What a contrast to the beautiful weather of that day. I was struck by how clear and blue the sky was. Not a cloud anywhere. Only later did I realize there were also no airplane contrails.

The other piece of information I heard on the radio was the theory that the flight was intended to hit the Capital. Without hesitation I said to the radio, “They brought that plane down. Those people were heroes.”

Flight 93 Memorial Chapel. A privately owned memorial
not far from the crash site. More on this place next week.
As the facts came out, it became clear that 40 people on that flight were indeed heroes. Within days, a temporary memorial was built some distance from the crash site. When the forensics people were finished with the crash area, the temporary memorial was moved within view of the actual crash site. I visited that temporary site often. It was a wall on which visitors from all over the world left little pieces of themselves. A poem, a picture, a message, a cross. Benches were added by donors. Rocks engraved with messages or painted added to landscape. Tens of thousands of items that were left at the memorial have been catalogued and stored.

I haven't been to the new National Memorial. I'm sure it is wonderful, but a part of me wishes it could have remained as the spontaneous expression of a nation's gratitude that the temporary memorial provided.

Once home I found it difficult to leave the television. I watched in horror as the images of the airplanes striking the buildings was played over and over. And then the pictures of the collapsing buildings, the black, billowing clouds of dust that pursued people down the streets of New York. Stories were told of firefighters and law enforcement running into the burning building as others were fleeing. The estimate was given that more than 200 rescue workers had perished in the collapse of the buildings. It was overwhelming. I felt I should cry. Surely if any situation deserved tears, this one did. But tears would not come. The pain and the horror were too deep even for tears.

It's hard to believe that this present generation, children in elementary and middle school, were not even alive in 2001. They have no memory of life before 9/11 – before long lines in airport TSA checkpoints. Before heightened terror alerts. Before metal detectors in courthouses and other public buildings. The only memories they will have of the tragedy of that day are the ones we impart to them. We must share our stories. We must make sure they know and remember the heroes of Flight 93,
the hundreds of firemen and police officers who gave their lives in the line of duty, the children who have grown up without a father or mother or grandparent, the spouses robbed of a loved one, and the parents who have lived in loneliness after the loss of a son or daughter.

We must tell them, and we must never forget.

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