Sunday, September 11, 2011

Small Town U.S.A.

When I was a young girl, studying geography in school, I remember the awe of how truly expansive America is. Our mainland is made up of forty-eight states, and two others elsewhere that we like to go to for vacations; the United States of America is 3.79 million square miles. Fifty states of different cultures, geographies, and personalities. However, on September 11, 2001, America became a small town that came together in shock and mourning.

At the time I was working for HQ Global Workplaces, and living in Castle Rock, Colorado. I had to go to work unusually early that morning, because I had to help set up an early meeting for some clients. I didn't have a car of my own at the time, so I borrowed my dad's car to drive to work, since he was taking the day off. I left home around 6:45 am, going through a checklist of what I needed to do when I got to work.

I always enjoyed listening to Dom and Jane in the morning, especially since my car ride to work averaged around an hour. I pulled out of the driveway and turned on the radio, and Dom's shaky voice announced that something has happened to one of the Twin Towers in New York City, possibly a plane had accidentally flown into it. I assumed it had to be some kind of horrible accident; who would purposely fly a plane into a building? My imagination played out a small single engine plane accidentally colliding into the top of a tower; not a passenger airline intentionally careening into the side of a national, and occupied, landmark.

I called my mother as I pulled out of our neighborhood, waking her up. I told her to turn on the news; something was happening in New York City with one of the Twin Towers. She woke up my father, telling him to turn on the news, admonished me for talking on the phone while driving, and said she would watch. I turned back on the radio, in time to hear Dom say a second plane had flown into the other tower. A wave of numb realization washed over me that this was no accident, and New York City was under attack. Suddenly, the world felt very small as I continued my drive, and all of the radio stations went to commercial for the next 15 minutes. I desperately searched stations as I continued my drive to work, searching for scraps of information. Finally I stopped on a local country station when I heard Bryant Gumble's voice as he described what he was watching unfold in New York. As I turned onto the street that lead me to my office I could see the Denver skyline, and a wave of fear came over me that it could happen anywhere.

Suddenly Bryant Gumble starting saying, "Oh my God...oh my God...", which caused me to stop my car in the middle of the, thankfully, empty road. "The Pentagon," he said in a disarming, shaky voice.  "The Pentagon has been attacked, it's on fire." At this point I started to cry, and shouted "What is happening?!", to nobody. A car came up behind me and honked. I drove onward into my building's parking lot, thinking, "If the center for our nations defense is under attack, where will it stop?"

I ran into work, assuming that all of my clients would be waiting for me in my lobby, expectantly wanting to get started on setting up their meeting. However there was nobody, and I went into the conference room where they were setting up, and they weren't planning on starting their meeting at all: they were trying to get the news on the conference room television. They asked me if I had heard what's going on, and through tears I told them the last I heard there was an explosion at the Pentagon, and both of the Twin Towers had planes fly into them. I still helped them set up their meeting, but their leader told me they probably won't get any work done that day.

The rest of my team started to arrive, and nobody was focused. We all went to our respective work stations, and started browsing websites for more news. I turned on the radio on my computer for more live news. Suddenly one of the people in the conference room came out and told me the first tower had collapsed. It was unreal; I told him that couldn't be true, it must have been the top of the tower; but I refreshed my news page and saw the new headline appeared. Suddenly, what was already impossible was possible, and my heart broke for all of the lives that were so unfairly being taken away. A newscaster announced on the radio that an average of 250,000 people, both employee's and visitor's, went through the towers a day. The thought that many lives were in danger was mortifying.

After about an hour my boss came out and announced that we were closing for the day, due to the fact nobody would be focused enough to get any work done. I recorded a message that due to the state of emergency, our center would be closed. I called my father and told him I was coming home, and my dad, who wasn't the touchy-feely-mushy kind of dad, had a lot of tenderness and concern in his voice, telling me to be careful driving home and that he loved me. That was when I felt it start: a nation that is usually very divided by our differences starting to come together in a spirit of unity and mourning.

I walked out to the parking lot, which faced Centennial Airport, and Denver International Airport just miles beyond that. The skies were typically busy with small and large planes, flying over the ever congested I-25. In this moment the world was still. No planes, hardly any cars, and rather peaceful.

My drive home I kept the radio off and just drove with the windows down. When I got home my family was crowded around the television, watching the chaos in New York being played over and over again. The collapsing of the towers were continuously being played, as if to convince everyone that this really was happening. I called a friend in New York whose husband worked in the WTC, and mercifully he was taking the day off, but he lost so many coworkers that worked on the 90th floor of Tower I. The entire day I spent glued to the television, absorbing the shock and awe of what was happening to our country.

The phenomenal thing that happened was that despite the size of our sprawling nation, America came together as a small town that day. A usually very divided congress standing on the stairs of the nation's capitol building singing "God Bless America". A record outpouring of blood donor's (including myself). The feeling of tremendous respect for the President as he addressed the nation that night, and for what he had to take on.

Everyone has a "Where was I?" story for major events that happened in the world. I remember the Challenger Shuttle explosion; Colorado Springs, after just coming home from kinder garden and seeing my mother crying in front of the television. I remember the start of Desert Storm; in Carolina Beach, watching the start of war unfolding on the news. I remember the Oklahoma City Bombing; coming home from school and watching the terror unfold on the news with my mother. I remember Columbine; standing in Clement Park outside of Columbine High School with my Arapahoe Community College classmates, watching students run for their lives. On September 11th, it felt like the start of a very typical day, that ended in changing the landscape of our nation. So today, on the 10th anniversary of what will hopefully be the most tragic thing that happened to our nation in my short lifetime, I remember not only the lives lost, but the time when America felt undivided.

Renoir once said, "The pain passes, but the beauty remains." I'd like to think that if there was any beauty born from that black day, a renewed sense of patriotism and love for our fellow man would be it.

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