Of planes, bombs, and buildings

On Friday, I was at Barnes and Noble with Alisa and saw this book on sale. Since I watched the events of September 11 unfold on CBS, it was, in fact, what I saw, and I had wanted to purchase that book for a while. The sale price was good (better than the price on the website, if you were wondering), so I decided to go ahead and get it.

An event like September 11, 2001, is both a shared event and an intensely personal one. We can all relate to the feelings that other Americans have, but each individual deals with it in his or her own personal way. For me, anything that reminds me of the fear and confusion I felt that day is likely to bring tears to my eyes. I didn’t lose anyone that day, and I didn’t feel that I was in any personal danger. Nor has my daily life changed much, if any, in the aftermath of the events. And yet, I still feel an incredible heaviness in my chest when I think about how I sat on my couch in my bathrobe and watched the day unfold.

I was at home alone on that day, working on a paper for my class that evening. I checked my friend Richard‘s old messageboard, and saw a post by Dawn that said she was at work, she heard that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center buildings, but she couldn’t get any of the news websites up. She asked if any of us who were at home could turn on our televisions and let her know what was going on. And that is how I came to be watching TV in time to see the second plane hit. We must have been watching Everybody Loves Raymond the night before, because the TV was on CBS, where it pretty much remained for the rest of the day.

Last night we watched the DVD that came with the book I bought. The first part of the DVD contains CBS’s footage from that morning. It was stuff Mike had never seen, because he was working that day and he saw everything after the fact instead of as it unfolded. I kept pointing out things that I remembered about the interviews and the witnesses, and he asked me questions. “When did you know it was terrorism?” he asked. “When the second plane hit, I knew they were doing it on purpose, though I doubt I would have thought the word terrorism on my own,” I told him. His experiences that day were quite different than mine. His understanding of the events was filtered through my shaking voice on the phone, trying to make him understand what I was seeing, that planes were hitting buildings and that we didn’t know what was happening. I called him when the first tower fell, and again when the second one also crashed down. I remember his voice after I told him . . . he just said, “Okay,” but I could tell he didn’t believe me, exactly. I couldn’t really blame him.

The only thing that the DVD didn’t capture was the real sense of not knowing what was going on. When flight 93 went down, there were reports that it had hit Camp David. There were reports of car bombs in Washington. No one knew if there were more planes that had been hijacked. The DVD didn’t show all of the coverage from that morning, so it edited out a lot of the uncertainty and the innacuracies.

I think for an event like that, what sticks with me the most are specific images and feelings. I remember Bryant Gumbel saying, “Oh my goodness, oh my goodness, there is smoke coming from the Pentagon,” and I remember being intensely relieved when Dan Rather took over soon after that. His coverage was a lot more professional. I remember the same images everyone else does, of course, of planes and buildings and people jumping. But I also remember things like walking on campus that afternoon and seeing everyone, literally everyone talking on a cell phone. I remember a jeep driving by with a huge American flag hanging out the side. Later on, I remember Democrats and Republicans singing together on the Capitol steps, and President Bush’s speech on Mike’s birthday. I remember watching the National Prayer Service from the bar at Chili’s with my mom. “A Mighty Fortress” was playing, and my mom said, “I wish we could hear the words at a time like this.”

The only thing that wasn’t on the DVD that I felt should have been was Dan Rather’s appearance on Letterman. That was one of the hardest things for me (and I remember Rhonda and I talked about that last year when we met up in Chattanooga). My family generally watches CBS news, and I remember a lot of major events being explained to me by Dan Rather – things like Tiananmen Square and most national elections and, more recently, the Columbia spaceship disaster. I know a lot of people don’t care for his style, but I am used to him. When he broke down on Letterman, it was like watching your grandfather cry or something. It was so hard, because he’d been calm throughout everything that had happened, but he had finally hit his breaking point, I suppose.

It was sad to watch all of that last night, but it was therapeutic in a way. It allowed me to experience all those feelings with Mike instead of watching in isolation. He saw how the anchors gasped when the second plane hit, backing up the tape to be sure their eyes were telling the truth. He heard the disbelief in Dan Rather’s voice as witnesses told him the first tower had fallen. He sat there with me as I cried, knowing this time exactly what was going to happen. I suppose it could be somewhat morbid to watch all of that again, but it helped me turn an intensely personal experience into a shared one.

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