It’s remarkable and unsettling to think that 20 years have passed since that day.
Like most of us over the age of 35 or so, I know exactly where I was on 9/11. Shortly before 9 a.m., I was settling in for a day’s work in my Radio World office overlooking Columbia Pike in northern Virginia.
My colleague Terry Scutt called in from her desk near my office door, telling me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.
I immediately pictured a small single-engine aircraft, though my mind also turned to the B-25 bomber that had struck the Empire State Building in 1945. In that tragedy, which took 14 lives, the ESB itself, though seriously damaged, withstood the crash. I knew that story because I was born in Manhattan and have always held a special feeling for the city.
Vaguely uneasy, I tried to envision what the World Trade Center would look like after a plane had struck it.
Of course I went online to see if I could learn more about what had happened, but the internet was locked up.
Now people were talking in the hallway, saying unbelievable things. That this maybe wasn’t an accident but an attack. Though my memory is fuzzy about the sequence, at some point someone turned on a television, and I no longer had to try to imagine what a skyscraper looked like after being hit by an aircraft.
Unbelievably, within 17 minutes, a second plane struck, and then we knew for sure that these were no accidents. Like the rest of the country, I and my co-workers felt a rising sense of fear along with our horror.
[Related: A Timeline of 9/11]
What we didn’t know in the office was that, even as we tried to absorb these two stomach-wrenching developments, Flight 77, coming from the west, was making a looping maneuver almost immediately above our own heads — not once but twice. More murderers were pointing another plane at another target.
Radio World’s office sat 4.7 miles from the home of the American military. The road outside my window pointed directly at the Pentagon, and the jet was now flying directly parallel to that road.
Shortly after it passed over our heads the second time, it struck.
My colleague Brett Moss, who lived less than a half-mile from the Pentagon, was about to leave home and was closing a window when the plane hit. “I remember it sounded much faster than a regular jet, more like a military aircraft,” he said. “There was a split second when it went quiet, then there was a boom. Arlington Cemetery is next to the Pentagon and an older section is on that side, so I thought it might have been a funeral flyover that had gone horribly wrong.”
What follows in my own memory is even more blurred. Sirens began to scream on Columbia Pike as emergency vehicles rushed to the northeast. Some of us went to the roof and could see smoke rising from the crash site. Office mates were crying and trying to call their spouses and children. Rumors flew in our hallways of yet more planes taken, more terrorists in the air, a threat to the White House. Someone said a bomb had gone off at the State Department.
All this while, images on the TV showed the two towers burning, with people visible in the upper floors, waving, pleading for help. We knew there had to be hundreds if not thousands of people in there. The news anchors were talking in hushed, frightened voices.
Without mercy, the hammer blows continued.
A tower, astonishingly, collapsed in front of our eyes.
A fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania.
A second tower crumbled.
And all under that bright-blue, cloudless sky. Forever, the blue sky of late summer in Virginia will remind me of that day.
The attacks involved the broadcasting industry not just because it was news but because WTC was home to significant television and radio infrastructure.
That infrastructure was lost and stations were knocked off the air. But human beings tended those transmission plants. Bob Pattison, Don DiFranco, Steve Jacobson, Bill Steckman, Rod Coppola and Isaias Rivera were among the almost 3,000 people who died on Sept. 11, 2001.
Shock. Fury. Numbness.
How does one speak about the unspeakable? I feel nausea coming back even as I dig up these memories.
What lesson is to be learned?
To never forget? Certainly. To honor those who died, and to revere those who rush toward such disasters, rather than away from them, to help? Yes. To cherish our lives every day, to try to remember in these divisive times that some values bind Americans together, and that we should be kinder to one another? To work against hate and fanaticism and those who would attack our home and our values?
But the feeling is so empty. The loss was so pointless. Americans seem angrier with one another than ever.
And the years move on.
Wherever you find yourself tomorrow morning, please join me and Radio World in remembering those who died; those who survived but saw their lives shattered; and those who answered the call for help.
Paul McLane is editor in chief of Radio World.