Fifteen Years Later

Today, fifteen years ago, I was a grad student sitting in a basement cubicle. The weather was pleasant, from what I remember, because just as in the present, I started the day with an early morning run. I hadn't been at work long, but I know I was toiling away on a paper I had been writing. The computer on my desk was a big, ugly plastic box made by Dell. It hummed and clicked as I worked. I was the talk of the lab because I had a "giant" monitor attached to it - not a flat screen because they hadn't been produced yet - a ridiculously large CRT. Other students were milling about the office while I wordsmithed, endlessly. As the morning passed, I began to procrastinate, turning toward the internet. After all, a university-grade internet connection was not something to waste. I remember cruising Napster for some new music. The plan was to start a download queue and let it run in the background while I got back to writing. It's funny, the things we remember. What happened next changed everything. From behind me, two cubicles down the row, a friend shouted out: "Dude, have you heard about some plane that just flew into one of the twin towers?"

My immediate thought was that a single-person, private plane accidentally clipped one of the buildings for one reason or the other. I rose from my desk and asked my friend if that's what happened and he shrugged. A friend of his elsewhere in the building had been instant messaging him (IM'ing, as we used to say) adding that "everyone is talking about it upstairs." He, too, rose from his desk before walking out of the lab to go learn more.

Whenever I think back to that day, I always have to remind myself that news didn't travel as fast over the internet as it does today. What stands out in my memory is a significant period of time not knowing what was going on; no details other than more and more people coming through the office and asking one another what we knew about it.

Eventually, my friend had returned with a television - one of those large TVs on a rolling stand that were so prevalent in college classrooms and lecture halls at the time. He plugged it in and every channel was the same news feed; the same pictures. The images that are now historical records, playing out in real time. Together, we watched.

Both towers stood, but smoke was pouring out of the North Tower. We had literally just turned the television on and we were all trying to process it. As aerospace engineering students, we all immediately began offering theories as to what happened: "maybe both engines went out and it tried gliding into the Hudson? Maybe it lost aileron control? Maybe there was some major mess-up with the flight control system?" We were young and we lived in a different time; nobody was used to thinking about terrorism. Nobody, including the newscasters, knew what was happening.

The second plane hit the South Tower before our eyes. I couldn't believe how fast it struck, and how much damage it did. My stomach sank and I thought I was going to be sick. My heart pounded. Nobody spoke. It couldn't be happening.

But it was happening. Phones were ringing in the office and people were running from room to room in our building. Professors came into our lab to see if we were okay and to watch the television with us. A ticker on the bottom of the screen said something about another plane at the Pentagon. My girlfriend at the time, now my wife, was IM'ing me, hysterical about her sister who worked in Chicago; there was rumor another plane was headed there.

I was repsonding to her on IM while watching the television. She didn't have a TV in her office, she was listening to the newsfeed on NPR. We compared with one another what we knew. Without warning, the South Tower collapsed.

On the television, smoke was everywhere. People were running. A mix of rooftop footage taken from nearby buildings played intermittently with ground-based cameras showing chaos unfoldeding in New York. More news came in about a plane crashing in Pennsylvania. It seemed like erroneous reporting; just more rumors. There was so much information to process, it was as though reality and time were operating on multiple, parallel lines at different rates.

Then, the North Tower collapsed.

I stood in disbelief, next to my friends and my professors and other students who had wandered in to watch our television. Who would do this? Why? What will happen next? We were 250 miles away and none of us had ever felt such a sense of danger. We were told to leave work; to leave campus and to go back to our homes. So I did, immediately. Once there, I sat on our living room futon with my wife-to-be and we watched the news for the rest of the day. The same footage over and over again. At 8:30 that evening, President Bush addressed the nation. We watched, speechless, wondering where we would go from here. As a country; as human beings.

A lot has happened in the fifteen years that have passed. In my life, in my country, and in our world. It can be hard some times, to take it all in and to make our way through each day. Like so many people, I have never been the same since 9/11. I've tried to explain what happened on that day to my kids, to relay what a pivotal point in our recent history it was. To teach them of the horrible things that can result from hate and greed. They've seen the Freedom Tower with their own eyes, and they've stood at the 9/11 memorials, peering in on their tiptoes to those dark, black pools. But they're young and the concepts of war and conflict and terror are simply incomprehensible. Their lives are vibrant and free and beautiful. Naive to the worst of our human behavior. If I could have one wish, it would be for them to stay that way forever.