This is my experience of that Day of Terror in 2001.
I was a student at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I lived in a small but elegant room on the seventh floor of EMR/East, the newly designated floor for private rooms for males and where the Golden Eagles men’s basketball team nested. It was my fifth year and first in grad school, although to compare the past four years, their glory and workload, with the choice learning I had to look forward to, I may as well have been in sublime retirement.
I woke up about 8 o’clock with the day’s schedule swirling in my head. But I first had to complete my morning 3-mile jog. It was the way I had started most mornings the last few years. This Tuesday morning was pleasantly cool, very blue, and calm. The grass was wet and the air heavy. It was just me and the track. My goal was to hurry and finish the run and get on with the rest of the day.
There were three girls abreast up ahead as I started into my second lap. I was peeved because I hoped to be alone a little longer. I approached them intending to speak but quickly noticed they were fervently praying, which wasn’t out of the ordinary at this university. Who wouldn’t be thankful to start their day among such people?
I returned to my room, dropped my clothes, and headed straight for the shower. As I walked in, Steven stepped out. He lived just a door away from me and was a student leader serving in the role I held the previous year. He asked me if I had seen the news. I hadn’t. My television would have normally already been on CNN’s American Morning. He commented that an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center. My mind immediately fished up the image of the B-25 stuck in the side of the Empire State Building in July, 1945.
Back in my room I turned on the TV first-thing. There were the Twin Towers and an ugly black plume of smoke billowing out of them. A gigantic scar of a hole defaced the side of one building and fire burned out of control. It was nothing I expected to see. And I chuckled. It was a nervous laugh and a slight amusement, for it resembled a frame out of a comic come-to-life. It couldn’t be real.
Then the footage from the second impact was replayed. I would have seen it live had my television been on. My demeanor was instantly checked. I knew that nearly 100,000 worked in those buildings and hundreds were on those planes.
What was going on?
I called my sister Joy at her office back in Virginia who excitedly explained how everyone there was huddled around the TV. They were finance people and the nation’s financial capital had just been hit. She was reeling having just witnessed the second plane’s nosedive.
We hung up and I got dressed for breakfast, now riveted to the news. Reports started trickling in of other bizarre incidents: something had happened in Washington, at the Pentagon; something in Pennsylvania, non-responsive planes. Could these be hijacked planes? And more: evacuations at government buildings and F-16s scrambling. All added up, the analysis read ‘Attack’, at least that was the sense conveyed by reporters. And that’s when it all got scary to me.
In the cafeteria I walked straight to a table close to a TV. Every TV showed the same thing. I was upset now. No sooner than I had sat down, a young lady seated herself next to me, not unlike those girls who had moved in on my track earlier. There were few people in the cafeteria and several TVs around, but she chose to sit right beside me. But I was too gripped to be annoyed this time. Our TV was on CBS and we watched in that way of strangers brought together by news. We said a word here and there and little more.
Dan Rather spoke with staccato, his words guarded and emotions turned off. This appeared to be the Hindenburg disaster ten times over, but another Herbert Morrison, frantic, hair-raising commentary couldn’t be had without people falling dead with fear in their living rooms.
After a while I got annoyed with Dan’s overly stilted style, feeling as though he wasn’t letting me in on everything I wanted to know. There were other stations on in the cafeteria and I considered moving, but that’s when he abruptly stopped talking and the scene cut away. When it returned to the aerial shot of Lower Manhattan, the whole downtown was cloaked in a white cloud. It was the weirdest sight looking from above to see the buildings suddenly poking through this cloud that clearly wasn’t fog.
I was alarmed. “What happened? What happened?” I was unusually vocal. The girl beside me said, “Looks like it fell.” She was so unemotional about it, very matter-of-fact. That couldn’t be true and I didn’t couch my words to let her know. “Naw, I don’t think it fell.”
Of course it didn’t, a building that size? Perhaps there was an explosion. Yeah: when the planes hit, they set off gas lines and, just now, kaboom! Or we were watching a carefully plotted and well-executed terrorism on American soil as we regularly witnessed in other places. This is New York City, girl, the “Capital of the World.” A bomb and terrorist act, maybe; but a toppled building? Are you crazy!
“I think it fell,” she restated, undeterred and more convinced this time.
For once the network signal delay became worthwhile; still, who wished to miss even a falling building at such a moment? Dan Rather confirmed in his piecemeal fashion that the South Tower had indeed fallen to the ground. The entire cafeteria came to a standstill, haunted by the same mix of pandemonium and incredulity that gripped what had to be a fastened world.
I became physically ill, near to regurgitating my food and verging on tears. It has been the only time I’ve ever gotten physically sick with dread.
I rushed to my room. The news gradually developed out of D.C. and Pennsylvania like a horror movie. I cried and prayed distracted prayers and feared the possibility of more catastrophe. I also hated that I had to leave for class. Couldn’t classes be cancelled for the day? Surely there were many on campus suffocating in alarm for more personal reasons.
Class was awkward. The prayer that morning was made for the tragedy and all those still to learn they had been affected by it. The lesson began but it was impossible to focus. My mind was in Manhattan. Maybe we were all bluffing, Dr. Breckenridge included, touting our intellectualism but watching the news in our heads and ready to break out with what-in-the-world-is-happening.
We soon learned that the administration was cancelling the day’s remaining classes and had called for a special chapel service. The service was unusual before it even started. People chatted and talked normally but the place was edgy and heavy with angst and disbelief. Many sat dazed and peering off or in deep and tearful prayer. Some were inconsolable. These were the ones for whom it became apparent New York was home or near it or part of it. These people knew folk in those Towers.
I only had the one class that day. It turned out to be a beautiful, sunny day in Tulsa so ruined by the moral tempest unleashed far away. I returned to my room and drowned myself in the sea of coverage. I watched CNN. Now, all alone, I completely lost it. I wept and heaved and sobbed as though my own family had been caught up in that roiling mass that tumbled out of the sky. I staggered at the immensity of the tragedy, feverish to make sense of it.
It is the nature of the mind to comprehend and make sense out of things, but this was refusing to happen. Like a garment cut too short to fit, my mind wouldn’t wrap around what I was experiencing. I had reached a boggle point as when a young boy I would wonder who was before God.
So I turned to him. I prayed but it may as well have been me questioning his sovereignty; and in fits of hurt and finitude I must have shaken a fist at him. Still, I knew inwardly that only the earth had been taken by surprise because he wasn’t.
I really didn’t care to go to dinner but I was depleted, so I pulled myself together and went anyway. My close friend and her friend were unavoidable. I sat with them reluctantly and tried to mask my grief; however, they were on to me. My beet-red eyes easily betrayed me. I had never noticed them. I became upset discussing the day’s events and departed early again.
I wanted to know my mother’s thoughts, but I resisted calling home. I didn’t want to cry on the phone. In the end, I needed to hear her voice to still the panic in me; so I called. She was her usual self. Had she seen the news? Yeah. It was a terrible thing. In my mind I considered all the sons who would no longer get to chat with their moms and the mothers who would never hold their boys again. I felt myself knotting up.
My voice began to quiver but I fought it off; meanwhile tears streamed down my face. I wanted more from her but I had known what to expect. She really didn’t have words to express what it meant. It was bad as hell itself, but the sun would rise tomorrow. So it would.
Into the night I watched as people begged and pleaded for their loved ones to call or come home. They begged anyone to let them know if they had seen their special someone. It was uninhibited desperation. I watched reporters break a cardinal rule and choke up, unable to withstand their rigid professionalism any longer. In so doing, they planted viewers squarely in the heart of Manhattan where there was no sense to be made of anything.
(Originally composed: 9/11/2009)