9/11, ten years later: part 2 of 2
This is a guest post from my dad, Alan, who graciously agreed to collaborate with me on a pair of posts marking the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. If you missed part one, my side of the story, this morning, you can find it here. Part two, below, details my dad’s experience of that day and his thoughts on its meaning after ten years.
Has it really been ten years? Ten years from the day that, for all of us alive then, no matter the age, no matter the ethnicity, the education, no matter what, the world that we knew changed. Changed forever. Many people, alive at the beginning of that day and alive today, ten years gone by, will likely remember where they were when they first heard the news, for the rest of their lives.
I know this because, at the ripe old age of 4 years and 9 months, when our thirty-fifth President, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated, I remember exactly where I was. I remember my mom, a housewife and young mother of 2 boys who stayed at home with her children those days, crying. Crying like I had never seen her cry and like I never wanted to see her cry ever again. I remember trying to comfort her and stop the tears. At best, she mustered a little smile. Not because I had succeeded really but because I had tried. Her almost 5 year old first born had, for likely the first time, stepped up to the plate and tried to comfort her, because, while his dad worked, wasn’t that what he was supposed to do? Back then, I rolled the months in between birthdays forward to be able to say that I was older. These days, I stay with the last age until the very day of the next birthday.
On this day, ten years ago, I had slept in a little. Usually at work by around 8:00 A.M. after having worked many years of night work, I had a day job, in an office. So, I took advantage of it and slept another hour or so. That had me almost at the office at 8:46, the time when the first aircraft struck tower one of the World Trade Center towers. Not long after, the radio announcer reported, not yet sure of what exactly, that something had happened to cause a commercial passenger jet to crash into the tower in New York.
Moments later, still shaken but not yet too concerned, I arrived at our building and took the elevator to the floor of the United Parcel Service Southeast Region offices. When I walked through the front doors into the reception area, I noticed right away that something was off. The receptionist was not at her desk. As I walked down the hall to my desk, I heard no phones, no talking from my coworkers and I saw no one. Once at my desk, not far from our break room, I heard the television announcer. As I turned the corner into the break room hall, I saw the others. There, in that break room, stood most of the staff of the office, staring in silence at the small TV on the shelf in the corner. As I looked into the faces of my friends and coworkers, I saw the fear, the tears, the reality that what I had heard as just a short news clip with a great deal of uncertainty about it was now so much more. As I turned to look at the television, the second plane came into view and struck tower two.
That sight, instantly burned into our minds and hearts, let us know that none of this was an accident and that it just may not be over. Still, no phones rang and other than the gasps of disbelief, no real words were spoken by us. Even the TV announcers were, as announcers go, fairly quiet. Like us, in shock, scared, minds racing with questions. Is this really happening? Is this it? Is it over? What next and, where?
Quick, a phone call must be made to my wife. Is she okay? Is she even aware? Are the kids okay? Are they being sent home from school? If America was under attack, they should be home, right? But were we under attack? What do I actually need to do now? What can I do? No one really knows what is happening.
My wife is aware and at home safe. The kids are at their schools and are safe. What good would it do to get them home anyway? In the office, we start to move, at an entirely different pace, back to our desks to start to work. We have to work, don’t we? But what do we have to do? I was responsible for the planning of all of the operations in the Southeast region that processed our outbound international packages. Most of those packages fly on UPS aircraft. The order had already been given by the FAA banning takeoffs of all civilian flights. Would we even be able to fly later that night when the UPS aircraft activity was at its peak? I worked right beside the guy who was responsible for planning all of the airport and ground operations for the movement of our “air” products in and out of the region. I had just come to the region office some 7 months earlier after 15 years working in the planning and managing of the UPS air operations at the Atlanta airport. I loved that business. I knew the UPS air system in this country, and some international areas, like the back of my hands.
The phones in the office began to ring a little. The people out in the districts had questions. The government had scrambled F-16 fighter jets from a base in Virginia because there were two additional passenger jets that, by now, had been determined to have been hijacked as had the first two, by terrorists. The fighters had been scrambled and given orders to, if necessary, take these last two jets out of the air, by force, before they reached their targets. Can you imagine? US military people with orders to shoot down US passenger jets to reduce the loss of life. Collateral damage.
One of these, Flight 77, crashed into the Pentagon before the fighters could get to it. Passengers, heroes, on the fourth flight, Flight 93, had called on their cell phones to alert officials and family alike. That flight, originally headed for San Francisco, was, the heroes on board reported, now headed for Washington DC, our nation’s capital. The heroes that had called from that flight, and others on board, had decided that they would not let the plane get there. They had been told, by the people that they called, of what had happened with the flights in New York and at the Pentagon. The safe assumption was that the aircraft that they were on was, in all likelihood, headed for the capital.
On the phone calls, these heroes had made their peace and said their goodbyes. They overtook the hijackers and, as a result, went down in a field in Shanksville, Pa. Can you imagine the courage of those heroes to make the calls, placing themselves in potential imminent danger from the terrorists, to authorities and family members? The courage to make the decision and the plan to fight back. To ask their loved ones permission to fight back and, most likely die, to not allow the terrorists to win that round? And the courage of the loved ones, the mothers, fathers, wives and children to say yes, I agree with your decision and I love you and then, to listen on the phone, as the fight ensued and the plane crashed and the phones went silent? Self-induced collateral damage.
In the Southeast Region office of United Parcel Service, on this day, ten years ago, we listened to the news, watched all we could stand to watch and looked as our flight tracking program, tracking not just UPS flights but every civilian flight over US soil, went from over 4,500 flights crowded over a radar screen with an overlay of the US, to no flights at all. Not one. From a screen with thousands of little plane figures to a screen with an outline of the US only. The emptying of the skies over the United States of some 4,500 plus aircraft had taken right at 4 hours. The sky, our sky, would ultimately remain empty and silent until Thursday, 9/13. With the understandable exception of military flights, of which there were many. I remember hearing the occasional aircraft during that time and looking up to see fighter jets, C-130s and Blackhawk helicopters. Is this the future, I wondered?
My wonderful mother had passed away, very unexpectedly, in May of 2001. I was mad at the doctors who had scheduled her heart surgery for later instead of immediately. I was mad at God. I needed my mom. I still do. But now, when I could clear my head a moment, I thought, this, this attack on the land of the free, and the subsequent death of so many, would have killed my mom. I wanted her back but I was so glad she didn’t see that. Was that wrong? I still don’t know the answer to that. I still need my mom. And, on this I must confess, God and I were never what you could call tight. Eleven years earlier, I had been diagnosed with a serious and life long illness. My mom, the single most important person in my life, had been taken from me. And now, my country, our country, had been attacked and thousands of innocent people had died and thousands more had been left with wounds that would never heal. God and I were finished. Please don’t use this as an excuse to try to “save” me. Regardless of what you believe, I’m good.
What had we done at UPS that day and week? Does it really matter? Honestly, I have no idea. We moved through the days and we must have planned something, and it must have worked. Who really cares? These cowardly attacks of terrorism perpetuated in our country, my country, had taken the lives of nearly 3,000 people. Left children without parents, mothers and fathers without children, husbands and wives without spouses, men and women without their partners. None of what we or any other company did, short of helping in the aftermath of these attacks, mattered much at all.
So today, ten years after, I look up at the sky and I see what I saw on 9.11.01. A beautiful clear blue sky and I think of the heroes and the regular people. The ones that went in when the others were going out. The ones that, either in retirement or off duty, went to the sites of death and destruction to do what they could. Those who just went to work that day, as in so many days before, and never got to come home. And those families at home who already knew or waited, for hours, days and weeks for word of the fate of their family members who had just left home to do whatever it was they did.
As a country, a world and a people, we are safer today as a result of the events of 9.11.01. Was it worth it? Losing nearly 3000 people to force us to be safer? I don’t think so. Some might think differently.
My eldest daughter, who owns and writes almost everything you see on the blog that this piece appears in, mentioned that, at the age of 14 on that day ten years ago, she couldn’t grasp the meaning of what had happened and that she is still not sure she gets it. Don’t worry, my dear child. You are not alone. I was 42 then. I couldn’t grasp it then and I can’t now. Now, I know I never will and none of us can ever really hope to. We are not supposed to be able to comprehend the kind of hatred, anger and madness that brought on these events.
Moving on and living well and free is a clear sign that, while we were bruised and scarred on that day, we were not, will not and simply cannot be broken.
May the lost souls of that day rest in peace forever, may those of us left thrive? Simply put, we can, we must and we will!