“Where were you when the world stopped turning…” is how Alan Jackson began his song memorializing September 11, 2001. I am always interested in hearing what people were doing when they heard about the attacks. Where were they? What did they feel? What rumors did they hear?
I can tell you that my first recollection of that day was when I was walking out of the bathroom at work, and I ran into a co-worker who started the same day I did, almost 9 months prior. He told me that New York had been bombed, and that there were rumors that other attacks were still going on throughout the country. I was dumbstruck. This sounded too much like a poor plot to an action movie, but I figured something real had happened.
I made my way back to the area where I was receiving training with a number of other associates. I told the folks what I had just heard, and it was then that others started trickling over to let us in on what they knew. The ringing of the phones throughout the office resembled a wild fire. It was at this time we heard that commercial jets had struck the World Trade Center in New York, and the Pentagon in Washington. This was inconceivable.
The folks in my group began to ask who would do something like this to us. I mentioned the World Trade Center bombing that had occurred on February 26, 1993, and pointed out that I wouldn’t be surprised if the events were connected. Others at the table had no idea what I was talking about. I am still amazed at how little people remember the first WTC attack.
Next came the time of rumor and confusion. We obviously weren’t getting any work done that day, and how could we? Since we worked in a state capital, Lansing, we could look out our windows and see jet fighters and helicopters roaming the area. People were also calling in telling us the Sears Tower had been hit, the Trans America building had also been attacked, and that there were more than 30 planes still in the air that were unaccounted for. It sounded like the world was literally ending.
Finally at lunch we were allowed to go to the break room and watch the television. The place was packed beyond capacity, but we were a rapt audience watching Dan Rather give us a rundown. This was the first time I saw video of the planes actually striking the towers. I wanted to throw up. We sat there silent for the entire hour lunch period, nobody eating, nobody moving. We were just trying to get our minds around something so hideous.
After lunch, my group headed back to the training area, with a little more information to go on. The rumors were flying around about Osama bin Laden having a possible connection to this. Again, I was pretty shocked to learn that the majority of people I was talking with had no idea who he was. I remember getting on a soap box at that point about why other countries dislike the U.S. I even remember arrogantly stating that “they all hate us over there.” They meaning Arabs and Muslims, and overthere meaning the Middle East. I wish I knew then what I didn’t comprehend at the time, and that I could take those words back. When we were in Egypt this last summer, our guide brought up 9/11 without prompting from us. She let us know that 9/11 is a national embarrassment to Egypt, and that the overwhelming majority of Egyptians wish they could have prevented the events. Mohamed Atta, the ringleader of the attacks, was an Egyptian. This was something I kept in mind as I traveled through Egypt, because I was there within weeks of President Obama also making a visit to Egypt. The country rolled out the red carpet for our president, and they poured out adoration for him the entire time he was there. They were sending a message to us all that they love and respect America, and they don’t want to be held responsible for the sins of one lunatic terrorist. Mohamed Atta has been blotted out of Egyptian history. You will not find his name held in any kind of honor by the Egyptian people.
In the later afternoon hours we were having a round table discussion about where the country goes from here. It was then that one of my co-workers stated that we should just lock up all foreigners or send them all back to where they came from. I got to know this person much better later on, and I know this person was just lashing out in fear as we tend to do at such horrible and fearful moments. At the time I felt they were being a bigot, and let this person know that such action would make us no better than the Nazi’s. Emotions were beginning to run high. I still fear for those whose emotions continue to run high, and hold the opinion that we need to lock up or send away innocent people because they have the same skin color, nationality, or religion as someone who performed such a horrible act. We don’t get fired up about geeky white kids after the Columbine attacks. We also aren’t trying to lock up everybody who has a collection of guns after the Oklahoma City bombings. We enter dangerous territory when we start painting large populations of people with the same brush stroke.
My last recollections of the day came after work. I decided to get gasoline, and fortunately the gas station was right across the street from work. There were rumors of rationing of gas, and that prices were about to spike to $10/gallon, and all sorts of other things. I paid in the afternoon what I would have paid in the morning, but I had to wait in line because we all heard the same rumors. This was the first time I had made a point of talking to the people around me at the station. We were all encouraging each other that it was going to be OK. Then we all talked about going home and holding our spouses and children, and just praying for better days. Then I got back into my car, and drove the 40 miles I had to get back home on I-69. I remember never getting above 55 miles per hour even though the speed limit was 70. I also remember not being passed by anyone, and certainly not being cut off or tailgated. We all just wanted to get home and be close to the ones we loved the most. I got home to my wife who was already in front of the TV, crying over the events. We wrapped ourselves in a blanket and just held each other in silence, and waited for time to begin moving again.