I was at home in Monmouth, Illinois, illegally downloading unfathomably low bit-rate music over a dial-up connection via Audiogalaxy, because Napster had recently been shut down. I was tying up our only phone line, and I didn't even have the TV on.
My wife was at work as a phlebotomist at a hospital in the next town, 20 miles away. Her whole lab department had been watching and listening to coverage of the aftermath of the first plane strike since it began. Once the second plane struck my wife started trying to call me. The phone was busy, of course, so she couldn't reach me. Bear in mind, cell phones were not as ubiquitous then as they are now. She and I didn't have our first mobile phones until at least the following year.
It had to have been around 8:15 a.m. CDT that my neighbor from across the street, Kelly, came knocking on the door. She said my wife had called her and asked her to come over to tell me to get off the phone line and call her immediately. Kelly asked if I was watching the TV and I said no. She briefly told me there had been a terrorist attack and two passenger planes had been purposefully crashed into the World Trade Center.
I had no idea what was about to transpire and that it would become one of those “I remember exactly where I was when that happened” moments.
I called my wife and she was very upset because her mother, at that time not yet retired from the USAF, was working on base in southern Illinois. Nobody knew what could be an upcoming potential target. I tried to reassure her that her mother was most likely very safe, that it looked like they were targeting civilians to make the greatest impact, and that her mother worked in a vault on base anyway.
After the phone call, I stayed off the line. I sat down and glued myself to CNN coverage of the goings-on. It wasn't but a few minutes before another hijacked plane struck the Pentagon. “Oh my God,” I thought, “How many are there??” and, “They are targeting military sites too.” And then I heard about the other hijacked plane, Flight 93, that passengers were able to get calls out from. All flights over the U.S. were soon grounded.
At around 9:00 am the South Tower of the World Trade Center fell, and the world and I watched in stunned, saddened silence. It was surreal, and it was the first time I ever recall being brought to tears by television news coverage. The impact of all those deaths we couldn't prevent was something that shook me to the core.
Not ten minutes later, the civilian heroes of flight 93 sacrificed their lives to prevent another tactical terrorist attack with their own plane. Rather than striking the White House or Pentagon, that plane was crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania, killing everyone on board and no one not on board. Who knows how many lives were saved by the heroic actions of those passengers…
Some 20 minutes later the North Tower collapsed. The reality and gravity of the situation once again proved too much and I broke down in tears for the innocent lives lost. I couldn't believe what I was seeing.
Before the collapse, I remember seeing live coverage of people leaping from the upper floors of the towers, opting for that death over the agony of burning alive. I remember the post-collapse images of ash, blood and soot-caked civilians and emergency personnel trying to do what they could to survive and help others survive. The airwaves were overrun with replays of the towers collapsing every time a new tape came in with a new angle. People scrambled for their lives like Tokyoites fleeing from a gargantuan, destructive fire-lizard as the clouds of ash and debris overtook them. I remember the helplessness and impotence the whole nation felt as we watched those events on live television. I remember newscasters losing it and getting emotional on the air. It was heart wrenching.
We watched as those building remains burned and smoldered all through the day and into the evening. We watched as bodies were pulled out from that rubble. Mostly bodies. Very few survivors. It was a day of sickening unity across the nation.
It was one true day of infamy and sorrow, the first one of its kind my generation had seen. This was our Pearl Harbor. This was our JFK assassination. This was our Jonestown. And we will never forget.