Saturday, September 11, 2010

Where were you on 9/11?

September 11, 2001.  I was a student at Indiana University.  When I walked into my astronomy class that morning, I was a few minutes late, and the lecture was underway.  My astronomy class was held in one of those big lecture halls in Swain East, with the seats sloping steeply down from the back of the room, and a huge projection screen on the front wall.

As I took my seat, I saw a hastily handwritten notice projected onto the screen: "The Dean of Students has announced that classes will continue today as usual."  Well, why wouldn't they?  I wondered to myself.  During the rest of class, I speculated as to what could have prompted such an announcement.  I concluded that someone must have died, perhaps the president of IU, or Bobby Knight.

At the end of class, as everyone stood up and started collecting books and papers, one of the associate instructors plugged something in and a movie started to play on the front wall.  In the movie, skyscrapers were collapsing in slow motion in huge billowing clouds of flames and smoke.  That's impressive, I thought, but why are they playing a movie, here, now?

I grabbed the first passing student.  "What's going on?"  I asked.  "What's that?"  I gestured towards the screen at the front of the room.

"We've been attacked.  Some terrorists hijacked some planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center," he told me, shakily.  I looked back at the screen in shock.  (Just imagine, if you will, that the first time you heard about 9/11 was as you watched it happen in an IMAX theater.  That's how it felt.)  As I watched in horror, an airplane plunged into the side of a tower, then again, from another angle.  I felt a little dizzy (dizziness enhanced by the steep slope of the room).  It couldn't be real.

I left and walked around campus feeling disoriented.  The campus was strangely empty and quiet.  In the common areas on campus, usually packed with students studying, eating, or napping on the couches, there were only a few people, huddled around TVs on black carts that someone had wheeled out of storage, watching the news channels replaying the same horrifying video clips over and over again.  Ironically, it was a beautiful fall day, crisp and cool, the sun shining brilliantly.

Most of the people I saw looked dazed.  Some were crying.

That afternoon I talked to my friend, an international student from Bangladesh.  He was holed up in his room at his fraternity and frantically trying to reach a relative who worked in the twin towers [she turned out to be okay].  He mentioned matter-of-factly that he and other Desi friends would have to stay out of sight for a while.  I didn't get it.  "Why?"  I asked.  "Why do you think?" he replied.  "I mean, hello, look at me.  Brown skin?  Black hair?"

I thought he was being paranoid.  Surely no one would be so stupid as to assume, based on his appearance, that his sympathies lay with the terrorists.  Needless to say, I was being naive.  He told me about a Pakistani friend who wore a headscarf.  She had been harassed and threatened by a group of men who had shouted, among other things, "Go home."

As I think back over the days and months surrounding 9/11, one thing that stands out in my mind is how Americans came together after the tragedy.  I was really moved to read about how people lined up for blocks to donate blood, and how people from around the country volunteered to help in any way they could.  I felt that we were united in grieving 9/11.  I even felt (briefly) united with and proud of President Bush.  In this day and age, I think it's easy to feel that you have little in common with the people around you (and I'm sure we could discuss for ages why that's so) but after 9/11, for a short while, we were all Americans together. 

Soooo...tell me your story.  Where were you on 9/11?  What stands out in your mind as you remember that day and the weeks around it? 


  1. I was in Edinburgh waiting for class to begin at college when somebody got a text message saying that the World Trade Center had been hit by a plane.

    None of us knew what the World Trade Center was, nevermind where it was, but we thought we'd switch on the TV to see if the news was reporting on it.

    Once the TV came on, we saw straight away those two sky-scrapers in New York, one of which had smoke billowing out of it, and the reporter saying a plane had hit it. At that moment I was thinking it was just an impressive accident by some kind of small aircraft.

    As we continued watching, a big plane hit the other tower, and straight away we all realised that we were witnessing an attack.

    We carried on watching until both the towers had fallen down, by which point our lecturer was wanting to get on with class.

    It didn't seem particularly shocking to us at the time, we just carried on with class, and had pretty normal conversation afterwards about other things. To us it just seemed like another terrorist attack, albeit on a grand scale. Surely this is the sort of thing that happens now and then? It didn't occur to me at that point that this was the sort of event that could affect the national psyche.

    At the end of October 2001 I found myself in a deserted Washington D.C. with my family, very much feeling like the only foreign tourists in America. You could tell that the atmosphere was very, very disturbed by what had happened a few weeks previously, which I didn't understand. It was like there was an expectation of another attack about to happen. There was a helicopter continually circling around the White House, there was a great big section of the Pentagon missing, and all the places we went were quiet. And flags flying absolutely everywhere (though maybe that's normal - I don't know). It was a strange experience to be there.

  2. It's my Mum's birthday on the 11th September and I remember phoning home as I was on a bus on my way back from teaching practice to wish Mum a happy birthday. My Dad answered the phone sounded pretty upset and just said straight away, "Something terrible's happened." Well, I immediately thought of Mum, since I was phoning to speak to her, and I thought something terrible had happened to her. I was actually quite relieved when Dad said that there'd been an attack on the twin towers in New York. It was only when I got home and watched the news that I realised how terrible it really was!

  3. Well, I was going to comment on the blog, but my story isn't as powerful as yours. A very drunk Irish friend told me to turn on the TV via email. I was on my couch.


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