I was still in Evanston, driving to my office in Northbrook and had just turned right on Ewing. Out of habit I tapped my radio for News Channel 780 and heard the report and confusion. I pulled over, called home and told Kathy to turn on the TV. “Something was happening in New York,” I said.
I barely remember the rest of my trip to the office that morning since the news coverage, questions and the image of the World Trade Center obliterated everything else. At the office, we had a functioning TV set in an unused room. One of my colleagues was watching the slashed tower burn. I found a chair and tried to understand what I was seeing. What a terrible accident, I thought. What could have happened to those flying that plane? News speculations helped little in those early moments. And then the incomprehensible filled the screen. A second plane sliced into the other tower. The breath went out of me. The massive explosion seemed to be happening in my mind as well. I had no place to take what I was seeing and feeling, but my eyes filled with tears and I can still hear myself cursing out loud, “Goddammit! This changes everything!”
I had no idea of the truth of those words.
With the crash at the Pentagon, then in Pennsylvania, time became surreal. I was suddenly afraid and useless and needed to get home. An hour later I was at a friend’s house. It was no time to be alone. I hadn’t known, but two days earlier he had bought a huge-screen TV which filled the far end of his family room. We sat and watched the towers burn, chewing on every new bit and piece of information and feeling even more helpless than the onlookers in the streets of lower Manhattan. We watched people leaping to their deaths as rescue operations took shape. The distance between the images on the screen and that room in Evanston disappeared. I did not know that until the moment the first tower fell and I felt myself running from the horror of what I was seeing. But there was no escape. Then the second tower. As I am remembering, writing this, I am still running.
A few months later, in May 2002, I stood at Ground Zero. It was an early Sunday morning, early enough that the largest gathering was of flowers, photos and memorials spread around the site and surrounding the small church nearby. The solemnity of that early hour recreated for me that morning in Evanston as I stood overlooking that silent, screaming acreage. More tears, mingling with prayers for our country.
What happened on 9/11 did not happen only to New Yorkers. It happened to every American – and, ten years later, is still happening. The wound remains open and picked at with every headline of war and insane act of terrorism. Yes, we still have our freedom, but we are not as free as we were ten years ago … before everything changed.
It is good and right to honor the heroes and martyrs of that day, but for Americans 9/11 will always be a day of sadness and resolve. The deaths of innocents are rarely wasted if only because they never allow us to forget.