I woke to the incessant ringing of my phone, torn from the warmth and comfort of my bed. My dorm room felt quiet and hollow, and the ringing phone echoed down the hall. I squinted to see my alarm clock, which had not yet gone off. "Who could be calling me this early," I thought. THIS was why I hadn't signed up for an early class this semester.
"Dude, are you watching this?"
"What? Huh? Watching what?"
"Dude, you have got to turn on the TV. A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center in New York."
"What?" I didn't have a TV in my room, but I did have a video card running a cable feed through my computer. I tuned to Fox News, which showed a single burning building on the screen.
"Are you seeing this?"
"Uh yeah, I just turned it on. What happened?"
"They think a small private plane may have made a wrong turn."
"Wow, what an idiot. Is everyone ok - Oh God! Did you just see that?"
"Huh, no what."
"Did another plane just hit the building?"
"I don't think so, are you sure that wasn't the first one. Oh wait, oh my God. Yeah a second plane hit."
"What the hell is going on!"
That is how I woke to 9/11. In a small, private, liberal arts college in Western Pennsylvania, a phone call from my best college friend, one of my fraternity brothers. We stayed on the phone all morning watching it all unfold.
Were we at war? Who was attacking us. What should we do?
The Pentagon had been hit. We were definitely at war. But with who?
And then it happened. I saw it first.
"Oh God! Oh Jesus Christ. Holy [expletive] [expletive] Did you just [expletive] see that!"
"One of the buildings is gone!"
"What? What do you mean."
"It's gone. One of the building is gone."
"No I think it was just an explosion, there is a lot of smoke."
"No dude, the building is gone. It's gone!"
"Oh [expletive]. You're right. Dude, there are no more twin towers. There is only one now. Oh my God. I can't believe it."
It was at that point that I think we all sort of went into shock. Before long, the second tower fell.
The TV showed business men, police, women, children, EMT's and firefighters covered in dust, and crowds of people fleeing the city.
It was founder's day at my college. The freshmen, faculty, and many other students had spent much of the morning completely unaware of what was unfolding. In the background, I heard the students walking through the quads. Many of them knew we were under attack, none of them knew how bad things were in New York.
I snapped out of my funk.
"Oh Christ!" I thought, "My parents were flying out to Los Angeles today." For two hours I tried calling them on a friend's cell phone. All circuits were busy. When I finally did get through, it went straight to voice mail.
I called my brother, who was going to school in New York, on Long Island.
"Are you Okay? I heard a plane went down south of Pittsburgh. Did you guys see it do down?
"No. We are fine. It didn't come down around here, but we are fine. Are you guys ok?"
"Yeah, but a few of my classmates went into the City this morning. No one has been able to get ahold of them yet."
"Don, have you been able to talk to Mom and Dad today?"
"Yeah, they called me. I think they had to land in Denver or something. They said their plane had been diverted, and they couldn't talk anymore. I guess security is really tight right now, and the cell phones don't work. They were asking if you were OK, they heard a plane went down near you guys"
I burst out in tears of relief, but also fear, shock, and anger. All morning I didn't know if my parents were safe. I didn't know if they were alive. I let go of the fear and angst with a steady release of emotion.
The television was reporting an estimated death toll between 10,000 and 20,000.
The friend who called came down to the fraternity house.
"What are we going to do."
"What can we do?"
"Sarah and I were going to go give blood. Wanna go?"
"Sure. Let's go."
A group of us who had been glued to the television all morning tore ourselves away from the footage of the towers falling, and the chaos it left in it's wake. The constant loop was seared into our hearts and I think we had to escape it.
Eight of us left the bunker like dorm and walked outside. For 5 of us it was the first time we left the building that day. I will never forget how beautiful it was outside. The sun was shining, there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Not one. There was a gentle, cool breeze. It was a picture perfect day. The sky was as beautiful a blue as I have ever seen. Infact, to this day I think of September 11th whenever I look up into a crystal clear blue sky.
We picked up a few friends on our way to the parking lot. We squeezed like sardines into the small compact cars. It was such a nice day, we probably should have walked the mile or two to the blood bank, but there was a sense of haste in our journey.
When we got to the blood bank, there was a line out the door. By the time we left, there was a line around the block. There was a Domino's Pizza three doors down owned by an (Iranian?) family. They brought free pizza and drinks to everyone waiting in line. They kept them coming for hours. The blood bank didn't ask for the help, but they had run out of cookies and punch hours before and were grateful for something to offer people. As the tv in the bloodbank showed the events of the day unfolding, I didn't have much of an appetite. But I appreciated the gesture. We were all Americans that day. The local newspaper showed up and interviewed a classmate as she gave blood. She spoke for everyone in line. We wanted to help, and the people trapped in the rubble were going to need a lot of blood.
We didn't know how few people would be pulled from the rubble.
When we returned to the school we learned that classes had been canceled and would be canceled again the following day. A ceremony was planned for 6:00PM on the 12th, the school would come together and discuss how our community would move forward.
The coming days and weeks were a blur. Like millions of other Americans, I watched the news 24/7. I probably cried more in the month of September, 2001 than in any month since I was a baby.
One of the stand out moments in television, for me, was when Dan Rather appeared on the Tonight Show with David Letterman. After the attacks, America basically came to a halt. The whole world mourned. Sports, TV shows, the late night shows, all just stopped. Letterman, based in New York, was fittingly the first late night host to return to the air waves. Before Rathergate, before the Democrats changed their mind about Iraq, back when we were all still proud, mourning Americans, Rather delivered one of the most emotional addresses and explanations of what happened that you will see. Whatever you may think of the disgraced TV anchor now, I'd like to remember him this way:
When Dan Rather quotes America the beautiful, I still break down.
"Oh beautiful for patriot's dream/That echoes through the years/Thine alabaster cities gleam/Undimmed by human tears."
"We can never sing that song... again... that way."
That was 9/11 one week on.
This is how I pay tribute and remember it 7 years on.