Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ten Years Later.

Ten years.  In some ways it feels like a lifetime.  In others it feels like just yesterday.  I feel lucky that the events of September 11, 2001 did not take a loved one from me.  But, like all Americans, my world changed profoundly that day.  I grieve alongside those who did lose loved ones, that horrible day and in the ten years of war since then.  I thank and respect those who have made the ultimate sacrifice and those who put their lives on the line every day for the country that I love.  My decision to join the Foreign Service was not necessarily informed by the events of that day, but its legacy looms large over my profession.  I have no profound words to say; I can only relate my recollection of that day. 

Ten years.  I was a college sophomore in Washington, DC, sleeping in on a Tuesday early in the semester, my first class not until 11.  I woke shortly after 9am to the phone ringing.  It was my roommate's father calling to tell us that there had been a couple of plane crashes.  He was safe in an airport in middle America, having just landed himself.  He didn't sound terribly concerned, but the second plane had just crashed into the South Tower, and the realization was only just becoming clear.  I heard the call waiting beep and hung up with him.  My mother was calling, screaming at me to get out of the city and to stay safe.  She had been in a senior staff meeting at the hospital where she worked in NH, and she'd watched as one by one administrators were beeped out.  The Emergency Department Director.  The helicopter squad director.  The director of security.  The nursing director.  The infection disease director.  And so on and so forth.  Finally someone told them what was going on.  She ran back to her office and called me.  Hearing her panicked voice scared me more than anything.  I assured her I was fine and would stay in place until I knew what was going on.  I called my dad at work; he'd only just heard, and they were trying to figure what, if anything, to tell the students at school. 

And then the third plane crashed.  Only a few miles from where I was standing.  By then I was in my suitemates' room, watching the towers burn on CNN.  So many questions.  So much uncertainty. 

So I went to work.  The Office of International Programs.  They were in full crisis mode, even if the full extent of the crisis wasn't quite clear yet.  Nobody had any answers or concrete advice.  We didn't know if there were more planes.

And then the fourth plane crashed, thankfully falling short of its as-yet-unnamed target. 

I walked over to my classroom.  Some others were milling about, unsure what to do.  Classes had not yet been canceled.  But it was clear we weren't operating as normal. 

I walked back to my dorm.  Watched a little more CNN.  Hugged my roommate, who had come back from her early class.

We walked together over to an apartment building where, from the roof, we could watch the smoke from the Pentagon.  It still seemed unreal.  A friend, a NYC native, almost lost it when we got word that the Towers had come down.  For him, that was the moment it became real.  I don't know what my moment was.  It still seems surreal.

We gravitated towards an apartment where several friends lived.  All day we watched the news and called loved ones and friends and grieved whenever we heard about another link to a passenger on one of the planes or an employee in the Towers or the Pentagon.  And there were many.  I remember we eventually ordered Chinese food.  That was the first restaurant that agreed to deliver.  None of us wanted to go to the cafeteria, where grief counselors were already in place. 

I spoke finally with all of my relatives in the DC area.  We realized we didn't have a contingency emergency plan.  But we were all safe, and that mattered at that moment.

As I walked home later that night, I saw that chalk memorials and tributes had been drawn all over the campus.  Many of them already calling for tolerance and interfaith community support and proclaiming God Bless America. 

The next day, there was class.  But only in the form of support and discussion and trying to make sense out of what had happened.  But of course, that sense is still not here ten years later. 

There were tanks on the streets of Georgetown.  The National Guard was all over the place.  Which was both reassuring and incredibly frightening. 

I spent that weekend with my extended family.  We discussed contingency plans and grieved for our nation and hugged each other tight. 

That was ten years ago.  But the entire week is burned into my memory, for better or worse.  It became the new normal.  The defining moment of the new history of the world. 

I certainly never imagined I'd be commemorating ten years in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.  I'm not going to dwell on this; every news outlet in the world has been doing plenty of that this week. 

For me, one of the most poignant commemorations has been playing out in the Washington Post over the last two weeks.  Each day they've published vignettes of real people affected by 9/11/01 and what their lives are like ten years later.  The heartbreak inherent in each story is what makes the anniversary real for me.  Because the concept of 9/11 is so incredibly pervasive that it almost loses meaning in the larger context.  I hear it every day, many times, and have heard it many times each day for ten years.  But beyond the implications for foreign policy and globalization and security and counterterrorism, it's about the stories.  Of not just the 2,977 innocents who died that day but the thousands of others who have sacrificed their lives since then.  And the millions of Americans and others whose lives changed that day.  They all have stories.  And mine is an incredibly lucky and relatively mundane one among millions.  But it's part of the collective memory.  And tomorrow we'll all collectively remember, though none of us has forgotten for a moment for the past ten years.  It feels like a lifetime ago.  But it also feels like just yesterday.


Connie said...

I arrived back in DC, evac'ed from my post, alone with my infant son, a couple of days after 9/11 - charter flight as air traffic was still stalled. I will never forget driving through DC and seeing all the handmade memorials, and how very helpful everyone was.

Heather Dray said...

What a exceptional recount of events. I was so far away from everything in Ohio - except for the plane that went down in Pennsylvania, which was only an hour away. But it still felt surreal. I remember watching the news all day, my work had shut down, and no one knew if it was safe to go out. It does seem forever ago and yet I can still feel it like it was yesterday.