Saturday, September 10, 2011

9/11 . . . Never Forget

Yesterday, I took part (toward the end: I was tied up on the telephone for some time) in a Twitter discussion that takes place pretty much every week, called CREchat. A collection of commercial real estate agents and brokers from numerous companies exchanging best practice ideas. The topic was how brokerage, leasing, construction, etc. has changed since the United States was attacked 10 years ago.

A final question was posed: Where were you that day and what were you doing when you heard the news?

Today, as 9/11 Remembrance Ceremonies are kicking off around the United States right now, images of 10 years ago flash through my mind -- like they were yesterday:

- Sitting at my home office, hearing first on the radio that an aircraft of some sort had hit one of the World Trade Center towers.

- Stepping around the corner to turn on a television after the radio broke in for the third time with an update, only to see almost immediately --live -- the second passenger aircraft hit the second tower. My first instinct, being a former working journalist many years ago, was amazement that NBC had obtained such incredible footage from the incident I had first heard about. Only when Matt Lauer suddenly exclaimed that a second jet had missiled into the second tower did I realize....

- Watching smoke pouring, billowing, into the atmosphere like a volcanic eruption. Only this was no natural event. When I learned that peoples were jumping out of buildings, I turned it off. Then back on later, but turned away if that tape was shown. I didn't need to witness someone's agony, their no-win decision when faced with heat and inability to breathe vs. a 100-story freefall to the pavement below. I rationalized, saying it was decent to give them one last bit of privacy in their final moments. But to be frank, it was to protect me.

- Watching transfixed, saddened, empty, as I watched first one, then another tower, collapse. Knowing that perhaps tens of thousands of people had died in that instant.

9/11 As Seen From Space

- Calling school to check on the status of classes.

- Calling clients and telling them to postpone all projects, that nothing was going to be the same after this. That news cycles and editorial focus had been extraordinarily altered for weeks, if not months, to come.

- Racing to Wal-Mart to buy a five-gallon gas can, thinking it would not be a bad idea to have some extra fuel on hand. Called two friends advising them to do same. Knowing gas prices could spike, or we might face shortages, um ..... I filled seven cans, and drove home with 35 gallons of gasoline. The crazy stuff that goes through your mind in times of great distress.

- Calling friends and loved ones to see if they had heard the news.

- Watching the sky in the days following and marveling at how I could not remember a time when there wasn't a passenger aircraft, or helicopter, or general aviation airplane in the sky at least once a day. A sky utterly empty. Surreal. But no more surreal than turning on the television and seeing live pictures of a still smoking pile of debris, two 100+ story towers reduced to a dangerous pile of rubble a few stories high.

- Heading out of Columbus a few days later to a state park campground, just to get out of the city, and away from the news. Seeing more American flags posted in one small area than I had probably seen in my lifetime. But a normally bubbly, ebulient, sometimes loud park setting utterly quiet for three days. People respectful, somber, thoughtful, pondering....

- Watching what was one of the best speeches I have ever heard given by President George W. Bush to a joint session of Congress, and in the audience, then British PM Tony Blair, lending the collective support not just of Great Britain, but of the world. 

- Knowing that our national pain was felt worldwide. Knowing that our known enemies around the globe had surely been warned not to trifle with us that week.

- My first flight approximately three weeks later. Passengers eyeing each other while waiting. Far different than pre-9/11. Odd seeing armed National Guard soldiers in various airports. Though I did notice, also, that while long guns appeared ready to go, sidearms were missing magazines. Curious.

- In later years, three nephews serving in the U.S. Army. All of them serving time in "the sandbox," playing active roles in the war against terrorists.

- Fast forward 9/11 plus seven years. Trips to Washington DC. To Arlington National Cemetery both times, the latter trip to bury a good friend and colleague. Both trips including somber, reflective visits to the Pentagon Memorial.

- Being startled at how low passenger jets come into the DC area, particularly on The National Mall, as they approach Reagan National Airport. It took a while to get used to.

- A return trip to Columbus from DC including a stopover at Shenksville, Penn., the crash site where passengers on Flight 93, informed of their likely fate by loved ones on the in-flight phone, fought back, pushed their way into the cockpit and attempted to regain control of the aircraft. They didn't do it to save themselves. They had an idea what their fate would be, but regaining control could save lives on the ground, perhaps in Washington, or New York. The terrorists' ultimate destination, we believe, was unknown to the passengers, though conventional wisdom says either the U.S. Capitol or White House was the intended target. They crashed at 500+ miles per hour into a farm field southeast of Pittsburgh. Charred evergreens are visible in the distance, as jet fuel exploded and the plane's aluminum skin was vaporized or turned into shrapnel.

- Talking to a first responder at Shanksville, who no longer goes on EMT runs, but will take calls to  fires. A sharp, quiet-spoken man, he opened up about that day, and how he saw things no person ever wants to see. Littering the ground, hanging from trees, and so on. The smell of av-gas so prevalent that he occasionally wakes up at night, sweating from nightmares, convinced he smells aviation fuel. Telling of a rustic cabin well into the woods, beyond the tree line that was covered with pieces of razor sharp bits of aluminum from the aircraft skin, violently thrown into the woods by the force of the explosion.

- Fast forward to the past week, watching and reading news coverage regarding the past 10 years.

- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie beginning his remarks now honoring residents of that state who perished on that day. As he notes, this day is not about any of us. It is about those whom we lost on September 11, their families, and those since whom we have lost in the fight for freedom.

- Watching Sarah McLachlan singing "I Will Remember You" at the Shanksville dedication a few moments ago.

- More events at in New York City at Ground Zero today and tomorrow....

The Family Fountain at 9/11 Memorial In New York City
I had thought about a trip to Shanksville this weekend to witness the dedication of the Flight 93 National Memorial. But I will make it another time. I have intentionally refrained from looking online to learn about the memorial design, or look at artists' sketches, or at work completed to date. When I go, I want to see it for the first time with no preconceived notions.

And clearly, a trip to New York City needs to be scheduled, as well. I know little about that design, nor its meaning, either. I have not been to the Big Apple in more than 15 years. A long time since I walked through the financial district and spent time at Battery Park. I remember those towering buildings, and how they reached to the sky. When I go I will honor those who died, trapped, and those 343 firefighters,  and countless police officers who died while attempting to rescue office workers. In all, nearly 3,000 dead that day. In New York City. At the Pentagon in Washington DC. And outside a sleepy town called Shanksville, 40 remarkable people, passengers and crew, on United Flight 93, whose final resting place is an open field. Forty people who, in less than 30 minutes, learned their likely fate, voted on what do do, and did it. The Heroes of Flight 93.

Ironically, on this day in 1813, nine small ships defeated a British squadron of six vessels in the Battle of Lake Erie. A rag tag bunch of American seamen defeated the most powerful navy in the world. Not unlike what these brave souls did. They stood up in the face of terror, knowing before pretty much all other Americans, what was happening to their nation. A perspective that none of us had. And successfully defended this nation against one last attack, making the ultimate sacrifice with their actions.

In all, as has been previously reported .... September 11, 2011 marked the most people killed on American soil on a single day since the Battle of Antietam more than 100 years previously.

Tomorrow is a day, like the attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941, that needs to live on. And not just in our collective memories. We will age, we will die. But the stories need to be preserved and passed on. The internet is a great tool for doing just that. So that our children, and our children's children understand what happened on that day. The incident and the aftermath needs to be handed down in words and story and music.

There have been more terror attempts, some known, others we will never know about. Those who don't like individual freedom continue to wish the worst against the United States.

The events of Sept. 11 changed our lives, but in ways that were impersonal. Yes, how we travel, how we react when planes fly low overhead, and how we look at our kids.

But also . . . also in ways that force us to imagine the lonliness of a complete stranger who has lost their child. Or parent. Or lost their life's best friend ....

Never, never forget.

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