Photo by Kate Larsen.
This Sunday marks 15 years since the horrific September 11th attacks back in 2001. Four coordinated attacks killed nearly three thousand people and injured twice as many. I had the realization the other day that there is a whole new generation of kids and teens out there who didn’t live through that terrible time, who didn’t know a life before. At least in my mind, there’s definitely a Before and an After. So I wanted to get people to talk about where they were and what happened.
I lived in central Illinois at the time. I had saved up and taken a year off from regular life to go live in sin with my husband Chris, who was my fiance in those days. Chris was at the bank with one of our roommates, paying the rent. This was the one week in my life I worked retail. I was scheduled to start training on the cash register that day, and as I was getting dressed I had the TV on. I remember seeing the footage of the first plane hit, and then the second. I was glued to my TV for as long as I could manage before I knew I had to get in the car and drive to work. I don’t remember anything about that day at work. The numbness set in the longer I thought about the magnitude of what I had witnessed. After I got home from work I heard that the police showed up at one of the research institutions on campus, checking things out because they thought it could be a potential target as well. You could see the building, just three blocks away, outside my bedroom window on the 4th floor. The rest of the year I slept uneasily thinking that we could be next.
I know a lot of people have a similar story: I was getting ready for work and I learned what had happened. But I knew there would be variations, and entirely different stories altogether. So I gathered some EPL staffers together and asked them to share the stories of where they were that fateful day. I would love it if you would consider sharing your story in the comments. We remember. We will always remember.
It began like any other day…. I got up and got my two kids off to school. My big goal of the day was canning my pickled garlic, and I had all my supplies ready – the brine, the jars, my canner, etc. It is an all day job boiling each small batch of jars. About 10:30 I turned on the TV, just for some back ground noise in between batches, and I remember turning it on and the first image was a replay of the plane flying into the tower! My first thought was it was some kind of a weird disaster show… but then I realized it was real! My mind couldn’t register that it had happened! I think I was in shock along with the rest of the world for days.
I was in transition, moving from Boston to Chicago, but between homes, couch surfing with a variety of friends in states throughout the Midwest. When I woke that morning, after a particularly bad night’s sleep – no couch this time, just hardwood floor – I was in Bloomington, Indiana and I know this is cliché, but I thought I was still dreaming. Since that was my main concern, I was dreaming about the road trip, its ins and outs, adventures to come, and so forth. After I found out my brother, who lives in Brooklyn, and worked in Wall Street at that time was OK, I spent the next day, wandering the streets of this lovely college town as depressed and devastated as everyone else. It was only later I got word from friends and family back East that for example, Brian, a boy I remember coloring with in upstate New York had lost his life in one of the towers. There isn’t a day I don’t think about 9/11.
I was in 4th grade on September 11th, and the teacher was reading us our daily chapter from whichever book we were working through that month. I remember being really into the story and was very annoyed when the school principal came in, pulled our teacher aside and whispered something to her. After the principal left, our teacher turned to the class and told us something to the effect of “the Twin Towers have been attacked”, even though to a class of fourth graders the significance was likely lost. I remember thinking that I didn’t know what that was and that we should get back to reading the story. It wasn’t until I got home and my mother had the news story on and I saw the repeated footage of people crying, the smoke, and the collapsing towers that it really sunk in what had happened that day and how serious it was.
A personal memory for me regarding September 11, 2001 actually happened two months later. A family friend passed away and in explaining to my nephew who had recently turned four that this person had died he asked “Did a plane hit her house?” It brought home to me how even the youngest children realized something devastating had happened to the country and now fear was part of their lives.
The morning of Sept 11, 2001, I had a late start time at work. I kept hitting my snooze alarm, which was tuned to an NPR station. I heard fragments of news, “plane crash….,” “…..Pentagon,” “…..terrorism.” I didn’t put all the bits together until my husband called from his office to ask if I could tell him what was going on. Rumors at his workplace were flying but no one seemed to have the full picture.
I headed to the TV room and turned on the news, and was shocked to see not one, but three buildings had been hit by hijacked planes; a suspected act of terrorism. I called my husband back: “It’s bad. It’s really, really bad.” I took the quickest shower I could, threw on some clothes and hurried to my job at the Lake City Branch Library.
When I arrived, library staff were halfheartedly preparing to open the library, sniffling and clutching wads of Kleenex. By then, we’d learned about the fourth plane. We formed a circle, held hands, hugged, and talked for a bit, holding each other up. I encouraged staff to take turns stepping away from the library for a little while, to visit their church or place of worship, or simply go hug their families. Whatever their conscience was urging them to do.
Later, one of my co-workers made a tiny, black heart sticker to wear on my Seattle Public Library nametag. She thanked me for “being a sweetheart” on that tragic morning. I no longer work at the Seattle Public Library, but I still have that nametag with the black heart; it’s my souvenir from 9-11.
Photo by Kate Larsen.
I was working at the Columbus branch of the New York Public Library that day and we were getting things ready to open. The daily newspapers hadn’t been delivered (again!), so I went to the corner bodega to pick them up and soon realized something was very wrong. Everyone in the shop was intently listening to the radio and wondering aloud how a pilot could have possibly run into the World Trade Center on such a clear day. When I got back to the branch we began listening to the radio as well, we didn’t have a television, and that is how we learned of the horrible events as they unfolded.
While there was definitely a feeling of shock, confusion and horror at what was happening, the dominant concern at the time was oddly practical and personal for most of us listening: Where were the people we cared about and how the heck were we going to get home with the subway and most of the buses not running? I was technically in charge at the branch, due to a staff illness, so I had to confirm that the library would be closed that day, which took a surprisingly long time to do, and close up the branch so staff could find their loved ones and try to get home safely.
My wife was working in Midtown, in the shadow of the Empire State Building which made us both very nervous that day, and thankfully we were able to find each other and join the large stream of people for the long walk home together. We were lucky, in a way, since we didn’t have to cross any of the bridges to get home, but we did have to walk all the way to 188th street in Washington Heights, a distance of seven miles, where we were living at the time. Once home, with my mother-in-law who was on her first visit to New York no less, we were finally able to get out of survival mode and slowly take in the events of the day.
I had just moved from the East Village in Manhattan to Greenpoint, Brooklyn when 9/11 happened. I’d lived in New York for just over a year, and on Monday, September 10, had just come back into the City from a long weekend in the Catskills. I remember commenting on the drive back as we passed the World Trade Center that I hadn’t made it there yet (save for the subway stop) and that I probably should make a point to go to the viewing platform.
I’d also taken Tuesday, September 11th off of work to do some errands so I was not at my library in Manhattan that day – but if things had gone as planned I would’ve been only 12 blocks from the World Trade Center, or worse, on the subway running underneath it around the time the first plane hit. However, I was running late.
My husband went out to walk our dog and he rushed back in saying, “You have to come see this. This is crazy!” From the roof of our apartment building in Brooklyn we had a perfect view of downtown New York, so we went up; a few people from our building were already there. At that point both buildings were still standing. (I had my point-and-shoot film camera and snapped a few photos.)
I’ll never forget a French woman who was on the roof with us, cynically commenting about how stupid it was that not one, but two planes had somehow managed to fly into a building – “how could the pilots be so stupid?” she said. It was at that moment that I realized it had to be terrorism.
Both my husband and I were able to call our families and tell them we were okay before the phone lines went out. Then we sat down in front of the TV, and within moments of sitting down we watched first tower fall. We stayed in that same spot, stunned, all day and late into the night. The phone lines and cable quickly went out. You have to understand, this event wiped out services miles away from the World Trade Center site. Of course, in lower Manhattan things were much worse.
The cable company was able to reroute service back through the Empire State Building (where it’d been before the WTC was built), so thankfully we were able to get exactly one TV channel: NY1, the local 24-hour news station. And that was the only channel we had for a very long time – it may have even been months, I can’t remember now – not that having only one channel was important. It took a long time before we would’ve felt okay about changing the channel, or really doing anything other than watching the local news when we weren’t working. Things were very subdued.
On September 12th most of the NYPL branches were closed because transportation became difficult and staff just couldn’t get to them. But, the Library was justifiably proud to be able to open some branches, offering refuge and a place for people to just gather and be together and try to process what happened, and what was going to happen. Libraries have always supported their communities in important ways, but this was an event that showed the true power of libraries. Public libraries in New York became critical lifelines.
In the months that followed we watched as the City changed around us. Too many things happened to list them here– like the regular presence of armed National Guard soldiers at subway stops (imagine if armed guards were at every major intersection you drive through) to the peculiar odor that remained for months in lower Manhattan – but daily life changed drastically, and remained changed for years.