9/11: The Day the World Stopped Turning

We’ll remember the moment the news came — where we were and what we were doing. -George W. Bush

I have my story of the day, just like you.

You remember. It was a Tuesday. The most vanilla day of the week. It was September, a mellow month sandwiched between summer and the turning of the leaves. A warm leavened day with midriff skies touching the horizon over the Atlantic Ocean. They chose the day for its humdrum cadence, its heavy beat of people in hallways, offices, and elevators. A Tuesday in the second week of September.

After it happened, the day turned sharp, forte, and jarring. A lasting dissonant refrain. We would never forget the planes used as fuel-laden missiles. The smoke heaving a slate-colored maelstrom over New York City and Washington D.C. The silver wreckage in Pennsylvania flanked by pines and maples.

The silent shriek in our throats that remained for hours, days, weeks.

Later, in his 2002 country music hit, Alan Jackson asked: “Where were you when the world stopped turning?”

I was in Utah, the hinterland or “fly over country” for those on the east and west coasts. But even though I didn’t reside near Manhattan or the Pentagon or a field in Pennsylvania, my world stopped turning because I lived in a body, a human body, with a mind and heart, flesh and bone, and blood pumping through my veins.

At the time, I worked in the tallest building in Salt Lake City, the Church Office Building, with its block-like architecture and twenty-six floors. Pregnant with our first child, I’d waddle to the bus stop each morning to catch the UTA to the corner of North Temple and State Street. The east elevators zipped me straight to the fourteenth floor where my cubicle and filing cabinets awaited. Only once had I ventured to the roof of the building to catch the view of the city. With the canyon wind fingering my hair, I peeked over the edge to North Temple below with a fishtailing stomach and a dull head. Before 9/11, I could not have named the World Trade Center let alone comprehend the skyprint of 110 floors. These doomed skyscrapers were four times as tall as the COB. Did we have any business building structures so high? All that brick and mortar, metal and cement. All those hearts and minds, fingers and toes.

On the evening of September 10, my husband and I took a stroll around the block near our apartment in West Bountiful. I teetered-tottered along with my son nestled inside, perhaps lured to sleep by the bumbling motion. We held hands as the sky pooled overhead, a few clouds softening in the evening heat. The world was quiet, as if hanging down its head in a pained silence before catastrophe blared like a trumpet.

The next morning, we turned on the news to catch a few headlines before leaving for work and class. Katie Couric was speculating on a plane that had just crashed into the North Tower. Was it a private plane, a suicide, human error, or something more sinister?  I failed to grasp the gravity of the situation. In a city thousands of miles away, a private plane hit a building. This is what I thought. A city with buildings so massive, a wayward plane was doomed to hit one of them sooner or later. Unbeknownst to me, many of my fellow citizens were facing a diabolic choice at that very moment. Either jump or be consumed by the flames.

During my brief commute, the second plane knifed the south tower and American Airlines 77 hit the Pentagon. I heard these horrifying updates as I arrived on the floor and dropped my bag at my desk. A coworker appeared and struggled out of her jacket, her face taut like packed snow.

“They couldn’t just attack us,” she cried, “they had to use our planes with our people inside!” She flung her arms out like wings as if trying to chicken-gather the horror into something manageable.

But it couldn’t be managed, or packaged, or mainstreamed. In an eyeblink, our world flickered to a sepia light. The first plane had not been a private jet with a very drunk pilot. How could I have entertained such an absurd explanation? I thought of the people on these planes bound for California, hearing the first signs of a disturbance near the cockpit. A fourth plane was unaccounted for, presumed hijacked, destination unknown. The four nonstop flights had all been destined for the west coast, and it was clear this was not a coincidence. Extra fuel meant extra combust at impact. Every detail calculated to cause the most destruction, the most death. And the key integer in the awful arithmetic of the day? The suicide pilot. Men killing themselves to kill others. Not a new type of villain perhaps, but one rarely gracing our world.

Everyone huddled in the conference room, gawking at the big screen on the south wall. Then a sudden rumble rippled across the nation as the south tower fell, a wedding cake crumbling, a cloud of white flour billowing up where metal and steel used to shine in the sun. Shell-shocked, we balked at a skyscraper falling, people pancaking in the rubble, especially the first responders and anyone above floor seventy-eight.

Ten minutes later, the missing plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. “They knew,” we surmised, “they knew about the other planes crashing into buildings. They decided to do something, they tried to take the plane back. They were Americans. They weren’t going to sit back and let it happen.” Indeed, Flight 93 changed the tone of the day. Given a chance, we would fight back, we would battle evil with strength and goodness. We hailed them as heroes, the people who stormed the cockpit. Todd Beamer’s words echoing through presidential speeches, team cheers, prayers, and rallying cries for years to come.

“Let’s roll.”

From the conference room, we heard the cacophony of our phones. We could not ignore our job any longer. As fate would have it, we worked as travel agents for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and by this point, all flights had been ordered to land at the nearest airports and all future air travel canceled until further notice. Our phones rang with parents and mission offices and airline representatives. We verified no missionaries perished on any of the highjacked planes. We scrambled to find accommodations for the stranded missionaries and employees. We assuaged frenzied parents.

At 10:28am, the North Tower gave up the ghost. The first to be hit, it clung on the longest, but ultimately lost its battle against the heat. As smoke and dust assaulted the cameras and people materialized from sunless streets, Dan Rather opined, “There are no words to describe this,” followed by seconds of rare on-air silence. For weeks, the smoke would discharge from the wreckage like incense wafting to heaven. Other wan-faced anchors extolled the bravery of the first responders, the firemen and police who perished in the collapses. New York’s bravest and New York’s finest. You remember the poetic catchphrase: “They rushed in while everyone else was rushing out.”

As the morning bled slowly into afternoon, the headlines piled up like books on a thrift store shelf. The stock exchange closed. The U.S. military was placed on nuclear alert. The authorities evacuated Los Angeles International Airport. We closed our borders with Mexico and Canada. President Bush spoke to the nation: “The United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.”  We heard the whispers of a name, a strange name bubbling up from the swamp of infamy. Osama bin Laden. An Islamic terrorist plotting in caves in Afghanistan under the protection of an obscure group called the Taliban.

An announcement filtered to the fourteenth floor of the Church Office Building. Go home. The building was closing early out of respect for the national tragedy. Go home to your family and loved ones. I left the building with some relief, as though working in a skyscraper had become a hazard, a liability you might need to acknowledge on an insurance form.

At home, Wade and I cloistered on the couch and watched the news, all scheduled programming canceled in favor of twenty-four-hour coverage of the tragedy. News anchors jawboned the hours away with analysis, footage, playbacks, and personal stories. We watched the planes hit the towers again and again and again, waiting for Bruce Willis to show up and for the movie to end.

On that first evening, the country mourned together, on our separate couches in our separate houses in our different states and with our different ideologies. The news coverage heaved us into a sort of shared gospel revival, as if we were sharing in the last rites of our nation as we knew it. We watched congress, blue and red alike, sing “God Bless America” on the steps of the Capital. We prayed like frantic monks for those waiting to hear from missing loved ones. All they could do was wait. Please let my husband or wife or son or daughter be at a hospital, or stuck in traffic, and not buried in two hundred thousand tons of steel. For weeks, the New York Times would run a series of pages filled with biographies of the missing and the newly confirmed dead.

Sometime that evening, my mom called. “I had to call,” she said, “it’s a day we need each other. It’s a day for family.”

“Yes.” I fumbled to mute the TV as my son moved inside me, the pebble of a foot against my stomach. I gently pushed the protruding nub back into the depths of my womb. It was a game we played, his jab of a foot to assert his growth and autonomy, my gentle reminder that he still resided in the confines of my body. Even though I’d blurted out some version of “How can I bring a baby into this crazy world!” just moments before, my heart now seized up with joy that he still coiled and stretched inside of me. Like a piece of yellow yarn tied around my finger, he was a reminder of what should not be forgotten.

In the Uintah Mountains, a place as far away from downtown Manhattan as you can get, I recently kayaked across a wilderness lake flanked by evergreens. Nearly half the trees stood brittle and dead due to a ferocious tree beetle, yet the ground beneath was carpeted with baby pines, a grove of miniature Christmas trees in the making. My arm muscles burned with the effort of the oars, as I furrowed my brow at the foreboding clouds in the east. Despite a serious drought in the lower elevations of Utah, the rain fell every afternoon in this region, and on that lake, I felt as though I was witnessing the regenerating of the earth in real time.

On September 11, 2001, people immediately commenced the work of regeneration with simple acts of kindness, baby trees springing up between the brittle branches of terror. You remember the tales. The selfless acts in the stairways of the towers. The hundreds waiting hours in line to give blood. The true grit of the first responders. The businesses donating food and supplies. The people taking care of children not their own. The phone calls of love crisscrossing this nation like a safety net. “I want to tell you I love you,” we told each other. A window cleaner saving himself and five others stranded in an elevator by using his squeegee to pry open the doors and knock an escape hole in the plasterboard that blocked them. We heard only a fraction of the stories, thousands more buried in the rubble witnessed only by heaven.

Not only did the terrorists fail at ending our way of life, but their actions only accentuated our compassion. By the time President Bush proclaimed ten days later: “My fellow citizens, for the last nine days, the entire world has seen for itself the state of our Union — and it is strong,” we applauded it as one of the few truths spoken by a politician since the Paleolithic.

And today, that baby now stands over six feet tall with sandy blond hair and a dexterous grin, a new tree in the aftermath of tragedy. He grew up like the rest of us with skinned knees, fried chicken, timetable flashcards, and Harry Potter. He found faith in Christ, even in a post 9/11 world, or perhaps because of 9/11 and the historical truths it brought to bear once again. The fragility of life, our desire for a watchman, and our need to shine light in dark places.

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