LIKE Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination and the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger, the September 11 terrorist attacks are seared permanently in our collective minds. Anyone over 30 years old can likely tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing on that fateful morning, the morning that shook the world and changed everything.
I was on my way to the college where I taught, listening to the news radio station as is my custom, when a reporter broke in with the flash: A plane has hit the World Trade Center. No word yet as to whether it was accidental or, God forbid, intentional. Surely not. Why would someone do that? Who was angry enough to kill himself by flying a plane with hundreds of strangers into a building filled with thousands more? What could be gained?
Then the second plane crashed into the other tower, then a plane dove into the Pentagon, then another into a field in Pennsylvania bound for we knew not where. It was no accident; it was all part of a well-orchestrated plot and carried out with demonic precision. The government sprang into action, all aircraft in American air space were ordered to land immediately or risk being shot down, and six thousand aircraft landed anywhere they could.
I spoke with a friend in the Air National Guard who told me that on that morning, pilots were told to shoot down any plane that refused to land, and if they could not, they were to force it down any way they could, including ramming it. No one knew the extent of the plot so any non-compliant aircraft was considered a threat.
By then I had arrived at the college and turned on the television in my office in order to get up to the minute reports. Many of my colleagues had not heard yet, and quickly made phone calls or turned on their radios. Fear stalked the halls. With no fresh information after the fourth plane crashed, stations just kept looping the same footage of the planes crashing into the buildings over and over and over again, until that moment burned into our memories like a branding iron. Experts and analysts were rushed in to explain what we had seen and what it meant, but mostly they had no idea, so they speculated and guessed and told us nothing important, like who did this and why.
Then the fires started. After the crashes, as we processed the magnitude of the death and destruction we witnessed up to that point, something was happening. The buildings kept burning, the smoke belched an evil black smudge into the sky that could be seen for a hundred miles. The unthinkable was happening. After stoically absorbing the impacts of the planes, the colossal buildings that made up the World Trade Center were burning out of control. Doomed people jumped from windows hundreds of feet above the street, plunging to their deaths rather than burn alive. The carnage inside must have been horrendous. Surely, they could not, no, it was impossible. They could not collapse from the fires, could they? Then the impossible happened.
By the time I walked into my first class that morning, much of the disaster had already taken place. Most of my students had learned of the attacks by then and were fearful. No, that is not the word. They were stunned, shocked. Most of them did not remember John Kennedy or the space shuttle. For their generation, this was their defining statement, their “where were you when” moment. I remember saying, “I am part of you forever now. Whenever someone asks where you were on September 11, you will say you were in Professor Cook’s class.” The next day I received an email from the registrar’s office. Six of my students had withdrawn from class to join the Army.
BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.