Recently I came across a document I’d written about my only five memories of September 11, 2001, written 10 years after that day. It struck me that I’m in the unique position of having spent the first 12 years of my life in a pre-9/11 world, and the last 12 in a post-9/11 world.
You would think, having been 12 at the time, I would have more memories of that day. While I certainly have an abundance of memories about the immediate aftermath, I remember only five things about September 11:
1) Finding the TV on when I went downstairs, about 7 a.m. Pacific Standard Time. We never watched TV in the morning. Today it was dominated by two tall towers with smoke billowing out of them.
2) Telling my brother, who was still in bed, that a plane had crashed into a building in New York. I could hear the inadequacy in my voice, but I didn’t yet have the words, or the knowledge, to convey the importance of what I wanted to say.
3) On my walk to school, between the baseball field and the elementary school, thinking, “gray fireworks.” That’s what the smoke had looked like.
4) An eighth-grader named Chelsea talking to Mr. Pritchard in his room just before advisory started at 8:15, saying a plane had just crashed in Pennsylvania, and “they” thought it was related to the ones in New York.
5) That afternoon, hearing a news anchor – I think it was Peter Jennings – say “September 11, 2001” for the first time. It was the precise moment I realized what had happened was huge, that this date would forever be synonymous with tragedy, though at the time I probably didn’t know what the word “synonymous” meant.
I’m writing this because it’s important to record history, even our own little, seemingly insignificant part of it. If I hadn’t have waited 10 years, I might have a more comprehensive picture of the day. I think of the letters my grandpa wrote and received immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor. I think of my distant Norwegian cousin, who spent time in four concentration camps, and dictated his experiences to a friend from his hospital bed before his death. I’m so grateful for these written accounts of crucial moments in history.
Now certainly I don’t liken my experience with that of a Holocaust survivor. But personal histories, particularly when anthologized, can have just as much impact to a new generation as someone who witnessed a historical event firsthand. Maybe my story doesn’t belong in a museum, but it might matter to someone one day.
I currently possess my great-grandmother’s diaries from the early 1940s to late 1950s. Often her entries are clipped, usually related to her garden or her husband’s health. But even that seemingly mundane information, compiled with the rest of her entries, help paint a picture of an ancestor I never met.
So if I can help someone understand 9/11 from the view of a 12-year-old girl from the West Coast, I will.
Ten years after 9/11, I was studying in New Zealand. I streamed a two-hour special online about the anniversary from an American news source. I knew cognitively what had happened that day, but seeing such a specific, detailed timeline laid out minute by minute, from multiple locations, with interviews of witnesses and spouses of victims, was overpowering. Information that took years to learn and confirm was condensed into two hours. I no longer saw gray fireworks when the towers fell. I saw thousands of people dead and dying. As a 12-year-old, I understood that people died that day. But 10 years later, I unplugged my earbuds, exited the computer lab, walked back to my dorm room, lay on my bed, and wept about 9/11 for the first time.