Monday, September 12, 2011

The Eerie Silence After 9/11

This picture does not convey the sober
tone of the post, but I loved the image
as a child.
Ten years ago I heard an NPR news report on my morning commute that some sort of aircraft had hit the World Trade Center. I was not immediately alarmed by this, since I had very recently read of another aircraft striking a New York building. When I arrived at work, a coworker asked me if I was aware of what was happening and informed me that a second place had hit. We decided to walk to the McKenny Union (the nearest place on campus we knew of that had decent TV reception) to watch the news. A crowd had gathered around the TV's, which were high enough that everyone could see, and we watched almost silently until the collective gasp when people realized the the South Tower was collapsing (it wasn't immediately clear what was going on when it started to collapse.)

I want to convey the confusion of that day to those of you who were too young to really grasp it at the time. We had absolutely no idea what was going on, or what the scope of it was. I heard a remembrance over the weekend of a man who was in Ukraine at the time, and all he saw were videos and images of buildings and explosions and fires. To him and his travelling companions, unable to understand the audio of the news stories, it looked like every city in the U.S. had been attacked. To those of us huddled before TV's on that day, we wondered if that was going to happen. Tension and uncertainty remained even after it was clear that the attacks were complete. I remember one of my coworkers saying, "The first person who makes a joke about this gets punched in the stomach."

In the days following the attacks, all U.S. commercial aircraft were grounded. My workplace and home are in the flight path of passenger and commercial airports. Seeing and hearing planes, and a sky filled with contrails, are commonplace here. The complete lack of all civilian aircraft during those days was eerie, evocative of a time at night when all the crickets and frogs suddenly go silent. The sky was clear and free of the normal vapor evidence of air traffic. It looked like air technology had been set back 100 years.

Even after the air traffic started again, we found ourselves pausing when an aircraft passed over. Conversation would stop until it had passed. It was months before we stopped reacting to anything passing overhead.

Oh, and it only took until Wednesday for someone to make a joke about it. We were sitting in the break room flipping through channels on the crappy TV there to watch any news, but stopped trying and left the TV on "J.J. the Jet Plane" on the local PBS affiliate. A coworker (Sheila) asked, "They aren't going to crash into any buildings are they?" We all just stared at her. Sure, some people react to stress differently than others. Other people are just idiots. Nobody got punched.


  1. I'm glad nobody got punched. People DO react strangely at times like that - I should know as I'm one of them.

    My main recollection of 9/11 is our Chinese post-doc coming into the lab and telling us "my wife call, say plane hit polygon". That was the first we heard that anything was going on. Also CNN's website was 100% screwed for hours, you could barely load it.

  2. 9/11/2007

    I was at the BIG RED ONE - first infantry division head qtr in Germany. So it was afternoon for us there. I was at a training program away from my unit and had a room with a guy from a different unit. I had got some groceries for us because while busy training it was either BK or have food in your room, or an MRE - eat quick and get back.

    I made (i remember) two big sandwhiches on marble rye with some fancy german-spice-mayo/horsey spread and piles of roast beef and pickles. So we chowed down and he flipped to the German news station to look for some soccer scores. We saw a picture of a building on fire with a headline that we translated to AIRPLANE CRASH NEWYORK CITY. I had no idea what that big building was, but I said... "geez, he hit the biggest one in the city, how didn't he see that?" and the other guy wondered if you could crash a plane into a building and "park it" and if it were possible to make it out the plane." Then we discussed what possible snafu could lead to that "accident" (right about this time - the pentagon was going defcon 100 - but we didnt know) Then as we finished or sandwiches a yelling camera guy comes on screaming about "another plane coming in" I said the words. "what are the odds that two planes would crash into the same building?" (i was oblivious to TWIN TOWERS) Then I stared at the other guy for about 5 seconds. HE jumped up and ran into the hallway, and said he could see all sorts of people running around outside. I opened the fridge. He asked what the hell I was doing (because he assumed the stare we had was a mutual "Oh shits hitting the fan now!" acknowledgment.) And I replied to him. "We gotta make another sandwich! We wont get to eat til tomorrow! We destroyed two more sandwiches and filled our cargo pockets with dry food that looked better than MRE stuff. Then grabbed our essentials and ran outside to meet MP's coming in telling people to get to the HQ assembly area. In Germany, the US ARMY was preparing for a potential attack against western Europe & every military instillation. I dont remember the next 5 days. I know I had a lot of ammo and was assigned to protect local civilians from possible terrorism. I remember an old lady met us in the middle of a road with a bowl. She lived in this little town. She had made me and my squad of American Saints some cookies, and thanked "us" for saving her in world war two. Those were the best cookies ever.


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