Just about everyone old enough remembers where they were when they heard about the attacks on 9/11/01. But too many Americans remember the attacks but have forgotten the collective national pain and why we were attacked.
It was 21 years ago, but the memory of driving into Manhattan at six a.m. September 11th, 2001, is still fresh in my mind. For some reason, as my car made its way over the bridge leading to the Midtown Tunnel that Tuesday morning, I gazed downtown at the twin towers thinking that it was a particularly beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky. That was the last time I would ever have the twin towers and beautiful in the same thought.
Little did I know that just a few hours later, that clear view of the towers would be replaced by an impenetrable black veil, and the air would have a texture and horrible odor. America —indeed, the entire world was about to be changed forever.
The Attacks Begin
About three hours after leaving the house, I was sitting in my office at Nickelodeon (I was the publisher of Nickelodeon Magazine) and working on the 2002 projections for management). Suddenly an AOL instant message from my brother Paul popped up on my screen, “Hey Jeff, some idiot just flew a plane into one of the World Trade Center towers.”
Initially, no one thought it could be terrorism. No one would ever dare attack us. This was the United States of America/
Long before I was born, in 1945, a plane flew into the Empire State Building on a foggy day. This had to be something similar. Since 9/11/01 was beautiful outside, our original thought was that the pilot must have made a wrong turn, a horrible accident, but not because it was a cloudy day.
2001 was before one could watch TV on a computer (heck, we were still using AOL). However, one advantage of working for a cable TV network was the television hooked up to cable in my office. After thanking my brother for the news, I quickly grabbed the remote and switched on MSNBC (it was a real news network back then).
As soon as the picture cleared, the TV showed a plane flying into one of the Trade Center towers. I immediately thought they were broadcasting an instant replay of what my brother had messaged me about. Sadly that assumption was wrong— it was a live broadcast of the second tower being hit. Whether we realized it or not, the impossible was happening.
The world’s financial capital, New York City, is the strongest nation in the world, the United States was under attack, and I was sitting in a building overlooking Times Square in Manhattan, less than four miles away from the terrorist attack. Being in a tall building on the same Island, that four-mile distance seemed much shorter.
Team Nickelodeon crowded into my office to watch the continuing news. There was horror as some victims chose to jump out of a burning tower to their deaths rather than burn to death in their offices.
As the TV continued, the anchors explained the towers were constructed in a way that would help people on floors above and below the crash to survive. The folks in my office began to wonder how rescuers would get the people off higher floors. Sadly too many of them wouldn’t be getting off.
The growing crowd was watching the news a not totally trusting what they saw because it seemed so unreal, So I rushed to the south side of the building to see what I could from the window.
Was anywhere in the country safe? The terrorists attacked downtown Manhattan, near Wall Street, the epicenter of the largest economy in the world. Then they struck the Pentagon, home of the most powerful military on Earth. Only because of the bravery of passengers on a fourth plane, Flight 93, the US Capitol or the White House was saved. The brave passengers on that flight heard what was going on elsewhere and attacked the terrorists who had taken control of their airplanes. Under attack, the terrorists purposely crashed their plane killing everyone aboard.
Somewhere in the background, the anchors began to speak about the Pentagon being hit by an airplane. Looking back at that day, that attack was just as horrible. At the time, however, it didn’t seem as real because the attack on the towers could be seen from the building where we sat.
A little more than an hour after my brother’s IM alert, those in the office watched in horror as the south tower collapsed upon itself. A high floor fell upon the lower floor, seemingly making that floor collapse. It went on lik4 that until the entire building fell upon itself. How could that be? Didn’t the anchors say that couldn’t happen?
Thirty minutes later, the north tower followed suit, collapsing the same way as the first. Each collapse unleashed a rain of smoke and debris that filled Manhattan. It was reminiscent of a pyroclastic flow descending down a volcano, as seen on the Discovery Channel. The smoke and debris from the collapsed towers spread miles away from the tragedy.
The twin towers, when built, were the tallest buildings in the world that dominated the City skyline for almost three decades and helped me admire the beauty of the sky just a few hours earlier were no more.
The twin towers, when built, were the tallest buildings in the world. If dominated the City skyline for almost three decades and helped me admire the beauty of the sky just a few hours earlier were no more.
As news of the attack spread, Manhattan shut down, and all bridges and tunnels were closed, stranding commuters in office buildings. Each team member was told to stop working and go home as soon as they felt comfortable. Those who lived outside of Manhattan were trapped. It was impossible to leave. All the bridges and tunnels were locked down.
This Can’t Happen Here–It’s America
Back on the TV, the office crowd watched the story worsen. Everybody watching the horror thought, “This can’t happen—don’t those terrorists know this is the United States of America?”
America had been hit by terror before, such as the bombing of the Marine Barracks in Lebanon, the attack on the USS Cole, and even an earlier attack on the trade towers. This seemed much worse, not only deadlier, but it was live on TV (and out the window), and the attacks happened simultaneously. Seemingly surrounding the entire east coast. People worried about where would they attack next?
Escape From New York
At noon, there was an announcement that bridges and tunnels were reopened, allowing people (like me) to travel back to Long Island. I called my wife to tell her I was coming home. She begged me to stay put, fearing another attack. But there was a pit in my stomach telling me I needed to get home to my family.
Telling my wife I was leaving, I raced for the garage in the Nickelodeon headquarters, met two friends who needed rides and began a 40-mile trip home that usually took 90-minutes during the worst rush hour traffic. But on 9/11, the drive home took way over four hours.
Leaving the building, which was too close to the smoldering ruins of the towers, one could taste the air. Breathing felt strange. The air had a texture. It felt like particles of glass or sand were mixed in with the oxygen, and it tasted like burning rubber.
Manhattan always seems larger than life, but on that day, the Island felt small and vulnerable. And it wasn’t just Manhattan– suddenly, the United States of America, the most powerful nation on Earth, the shining city upon a hill, seemed vulnerable.
As my car slowly inched its way across the thirteen blocks toward the 59th Street Bridge, The roads looked like a scene from one of those bad “Godzilla” movies released in the 1960s—crowds of shocked people walking across the bridge on foot, trying to get off the now tiny feeling island of Manhattan as soon as possible. But this was not “Chiller Theater” hosted by the cool but creepy Zacherley, who hosted the old horror movies on Channel 11 every Saturday Night. This was horribly real.
After about an hour, we reached the bridge and began to creep across the East River. Looking south out the car window toward downtown Manhattan, the beautiful skyline and cloudless sky at 6am was replaced by a seemingly impenetrable curtain of black over the East River. The aroma of the invigorating morning autumn air was replaced by a noxious burning smell seeping into my car through the air vents.
Millions of people in the Big Apple were trying to use their cell phones simultaneously, leading to overwhelmed cell towers and non-existent phone service. Three hours into the drive, I finally reached my now frantic wife to tell her I was out of Manhattan into the borough of Queens and perfectly safe.
Eventually, my car made it through Queens and into Nassau County. The Long Island Expressway (LIE) is sometimes known as the world’s largest parking lot. During rush hour, the driving inches along. But the LIE wasn’t parking the afternoon of September 11th. Traffic wasn’t just light; it was eerily non-existent (especially on the westbound lanes leading back into the city). I was going eastbound. On the other side, westbound exit ramps had a Nassau County police car blocking the way. The message the police cars were sending was clear, people were free to leave New York City, but no one was getting back into Manhattan until the authorities were sure this attack on the continental US was over.
Finally, reaching home, the rest of the day was spent watching the first reports of heroism and the initial serendipitous reports of people who were delayed from being at their offices in the towers on time—saving their lives.
At 7:45 pm, it was time to leave the house again and go to Synagogue for the evening minyan. Evening minyans were usually attended by a group of 15-20 people, but 9/11 was different. People felt the need to pray to their creator. The Synagogue’s sanctuary began to slowly fill up. Congregants whose Synagogue appearances were usually limited to Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur showed up on 9/11/01. Everyone had a dull shocked face as they slowly walked into the sanctuary. Our usual minyan crowd of less than two dozen expanded to more than three hundred people. They were making a desperate appeal to God for the safety of their friends and family whose fates were still unknown and for the success of their country in the war they knew would follow. This scene was duplicated in houses of God for many faiths from ‘sea to shining sea.”
The September 11th attacks came after years of worldwide appeasement of terror in other areas. Instead of heeding terror attacks as warnings, the Western world’s actions toward terrorists such as Yasser Arafat and Osama Bin Laden were to appease them with concessions. Radical Islamists were taught that terrorism was a legitimate form of political expression.
Only after 9/11/01 did this country realize that there was a worldwide network of people willing to kill themselves to bring down our way of life. Only after 9/11/01 did we stop searching for “criminals” and begin a war against Islamist terrorists.
Sadly some didn’t want to recognize our battle. They claimed that using the term radical Islamists meant all Muslims. It meant the exact opposite. The term meant not all Muslims but only the terrorist zealots.
Despite what some called it, we were fighting a war against Islamists who use terrorism in their efforts to destroy the West— our freedoms and lifestyle. They were radical Muslims who used violence in their quest to establish a worldwide Islamic caliphate.
Theirs is a very patient ideology. They are willing to wait for centuries, if necessary, to kill the evil “great Satan,” also known as the United States. Their patience is their advantage over the West. America has a culture that demands immediate gratification and instant victory. This creates a generational struggle. The Islamist zealots who wanted to destroy the West knew if they waited long enough, America would give up the fight
Twenty-one years after the 2001 attacks, we gave up the fight in the most embarrassing way possible. America forgot why 9/11/01 happened. We pulled out of Afghanistan clumsily, without the input of the allies who joined America in the battle at our request or our own military. We allowed the Taliban, the terrorists that protected Bin Laden and al Qaeda, to take over Afghanistan, where 9/11 was planned. They will use that same location to plan and execute new attacks upon the United States,
Sadly far too many people have forgotten the taste of the air, the curtain of black smoke, the scenes of horror, acts of bravery–everything associated with September 11th, 2001. Twenty-one years after that horrendous Tuesday morning, far too many answer Darryl Worley’s epic song, “Have You Forgotten?” with “yes” (the song is embedded at the bottom of this post).
Pray For America
Whatever your faith is, please pray for the victims of 9/11 and their bereaved families, the hero first responders, and the United States of America on this twenty-first anniversary of 9/11/01 and every day. This year, please remember to add your prayers for the families and souls of those who died on that horrible day. All the brave American heroes who lost their lives in the war on terror, people and people who died in subsequent attacks.
Please pray for the future of America Twenty-one years after September 11th, 2001, America has returned to a “September 10th mentality.” America needs your prayers that our leaders wise up.
Lord who grants salvation to kings and dominion to rulers, Whose kingdom is a kingdom spanning the entire universe and all eternities; Who places a road in the sea and a path in the mighty waters – may you bless the President, the Vice President, and all the constituted officers of government of this land. May they execute their responsibilities with intelligence, honor, compassion and love for the constitution wonderfully crafted by our founding fathers. May you grant them the understanding that the threat of terrorism still exists, and the knowledge of how to eradicate it from the world you created. May you always bless these United States and provide our leaders with the comprehension of your role in making this republic the land of the free and the home of the brave.