For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated and moved by the events of September 11, 2001.
My feelings are complicated.
I knew nobody directly impacted. I don’t have any real memories from the day itself, save for my dad turning off Spongebob and turning on the news when he got home from work that day and telling me, “Katie, sometimes people do bad things.” I thought I was in trouble.
As a 6-year-old, I remember watching hours of the same footage on every major news channel: blooms of fire and thick, smoggy clouds of smoke rocketing from two identical buildings in a confusing—but eventually numbing—display of chaos.
Aside from being a citizen of this country, I have no ties. And sometimes, I feel a strange sense of guilt and fraud for feeling so emotionally connected to and disturbed by 9/11, given my own technical distance from it—almost like I don’t deserve to feel so strongly about something that didn’t affect my loved ones or my friends’ loved ones.
But for whatever reason, I’ve always felt inexplicably, extraordinarily close to the events of that day. It is something that I think about not just on its dark anniversary, but on almost all of the other 364 days as well. My feelings have grown only more complex as I’ve entered the airline industry—some of my coworkers were at Southwest or other airlines that day and describe the sheer panic and horror in a way that somehow makes the attacks seem all the more personal.
This March, I finally got the chance to visit the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City. It was something I’ve wanted to do ever since its completion several years ago, as I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time learning about every facet of that day—searching for the answers that seem to promise some explanation and clarity.
I knew I’d probably be a mess inside the museum, but I didn’t anticipate the feeling that came over me when I approached Ground Zero. I had barely come within 10 feet of the first reflecting pool when I began sobbing. It was surreal to stand there, where the world stopped turning, experiencing the magnitude of a place I had spent countless hours reading and learning about. The significance was palpable and heartbreaking.
Embarrassed, I walked away from my parents and down the perimeter, reading the victims’ names engraved in the edges. I couldn’t pull it together and felt uncomfortable openly crying in front of them (in public, no less).
I kept imagining those people leaving for work that morning. These people, who, at the risk of oversimplification, had done things right in life. They worked in the Twin Towers on Wall Street in NYC—you don’t get a job like that without working your ass off. Hell, you don’t get a job in NYC at all without working your ass off.
I kept imagining the people boarding those planes that morning, thinking about their loved ones waiting for them in their destinations, settling into the routine of flying with the promise that it’s the safest way to travel and they’d be on the ground in a few hours.
I kept imagining 19 men full of misguided hatred and overzealous, brainwashed fervor sitting in the terminals, only hours away from turning the entire world on its head.
The shattered illusion of safety and security is what gets to me most sometimes.
The attacks happened around 8 a.m., a time that’s usually full of potential for the day ahead. They didn’t happen under the suspicious cover of nightfall. They happened on a crisp, clear, sunny September day, the last time anyone would expect tragedy to strike.
It happened to people doing two of the most mundane and seemingly safe activities—working and traveling.
It happened in New York City—the epicenter of the globe, I’d argue, which pulses with a heartbeat all its own, full of tough people who ride underground, rat-infested trains to their jobs every day and forgo the cushy luxuries of the suburbs to live in one of the most culturally rich and simultaneously grueling environments.
It happened in America, land of the free and home of the brave, where war and violence is something we see on the news happening in faraway deserts to people who don’t look or sound like us. 9/11 was the first time I’ve ever felt unsafe in my country, and even then, it was a fuzzy, vague sense of insecurity, shrouded in disbelief and confusion.
There’s a story I read last year about a man named Welles Crowther who worked in the South Tower. He was roughly my age, a recent graduate of Boston College and former volunteer firefighter now working as a rookie equities trader on Wall Street.
When the North Tower was struck, Welles and many of his coworkers on the 104th floor of the South Tower began to leave, despite announcements over the intercom system that the South Tower was secure and there was no need to evacuate. When United Airlines Flight 175 ripped into the side of the South Tower, its wing tore through the Sky Lobby on the 78th floor, trapping many of the people who tried to exit when the North Tower was struck.
Welles, who was only later identified by his signature red bandanna tied around his face, proceeded to rescue—and carry—the badly injured from the elevator banks down to the 60th floor, making multiple trips up the 20 flights of stairs to do so.
Think about that for a second: This guy, only 24, stayed in a building that had just been struck by a plane to carry strangers down 20 flights of stairs. And then went back up and got more.
When they recovered his body, it was buried under rubble with a group of New York City firefighters in the lobby, only feet from the exit.
Even more poignantly, when his parents finally cleaned out his apartment, they found an application for the FDNY. It became clear later that Welles intended to quit his job on Wall Street and become a firefighter. He never finished or submitted the application, but I think he succeeded about as gloriously as any human being can (he was later named an honorary New York City Firefighter).
This story of an ordinary man’s reckless display of courage and selflessness in the face of unthinkable terror touched me on a visceral level, likely because I know I would never be brave enough to do the same. The book about Welles, Man in the Red Bandanna, poses a question: What would you do in the last hours of your life? Would you make them count?
September 11 was and still is an unthinkable, unconscionable scar on American history, but despite the massive and overwhelming tragedy of that day, there are tiny, piercing moments of resilience and never-say-die that shine through:
The passengers on United Flight 93 who stormed the cockpit and took matters into their own hands. The flight attendants on American Airlines Flight 11 who maintained their composure, followed protocol, and kept the passengers unaware of the situation so as not to induce panic. Welles Crowther, who undoubtedly was one of many Americans that day who stared death in the face and ran up the stairs anyway to sacrifice themselves for strangers.
The events of 9/11 are a reminder of many things no less relevant today—how religious extremism and international conflict can manifest indescribable death and destruction, how we’re never truly safe…but most of all, it’s a reminder that when fate comes knocking, Americans don’t back down. Even in the darkest, direst of circumstances, heroes rose from unexpected places: the back of a routine passenger flight with the rallying cry, “Let’s roll,” before taking control of the flight deck, and the desk of a 24-year-old investment banker with a red bandanna.
I don’t really know how to conclude this post because in many ways it feels like September 11 is something too significant to tie a neat little bow around. I could write 1,300 more words and still have barely scratched the surface. Things like this must go without a tidy conclusion, because they’ll never truly be over—and in a lot of ways, I think that’s a good thing.
I hope we carry the message of hope and perseverance forward and never forget the way our American brothers and sisters rose to the challenge on that fateful day, many of whom perished. I hope we remember that, regardless of the political climate, we should always be proud to be American and let this day serve as an annual reminder that to be American means something you can hardly put into words.
For me, September 11 is a reminder that I want to face my life with unfailing courage and unflappable resolve. I hope we as a collective consciousness can take some time today to remember who we are as a people, who we are as a country, and why that matters.
The freedom tower stands 1,776 feet tall in the place of the Twin Towers, a giant, gleaming “f*ck you” to all who dare threaten the freedom and safety of our great country—commemorating the year 1776 in which we gained our independence and freedom as a nation. And if that’s not the most American thing you’ve ever heard, I don’t know what is.
Thanks for reading.