We invited Aleteia’s editorial staff and friends to reflect on how memories of 9/11 show up at unexpected times, and what the events of September 11, 2001 mean to them today:
Elizabeth Scalia, Editor at Large, Aleteia:
A friend showed me a picture of the view from his Manhattan office and my immediate thought was, “that’s what the sky looked like on 9/11“. It’s a thought that comes to me, organically and unbidden, more often than I have realized. Similarly, I cannot look up at the sky and see contrails without remembering how eerily empty, silent and blue were the heavens as, like a good Girl Scout, I packed quickly-bought provisions into my car. All air traffic had ceased; every airplane grounded. My husband was stranded in Atlanta, and I was grateful to know it.
But the sky was so quiet. The air had no hum.
Every time it happens, that old sense of helplessness skims over me, like a mental clutch, and I find myself thinking of those I love. The feeling doesn’t last long, but it still makes me aware of the precariousness of life, and prompts me to offer up a prayer, “have mercy on us, and on the whole world…” It is always a moment of dull grief, and a reminder that life really can be “nasty, brutish, and short”, and that what peace and beauty we can bring into it assists grace as it may.
Zoe Romanowsky, Aleteia Lifestyle, “For Her” Editor:
I was in my Dupont Circle office in Washington, D.C., when I heard that two planes had hit the Twin Towers. As numerous White House staffers sought refuge in our office, and we heard a third plane had slammed into the Pentagon — and another one was headed for D.C. — I left. I was afraid and wanted to get home and let my loved ones know I was okay. As I walked the few miles stretch, and gazed at planes still flying above, I mostly prayed, and thought about the incredible contrast of such horror happening on such a beautiful, clear day.
A few days later, as I went to get on a crowded subway train for home — something I’d done hundreds of times before — I panicked and ran off before the doors shut. It was to be the beginning of a struggle with claustrophobia, which is still a challenge today. I know people whose friends and family lost their lives on September 11th, but even though I wasn’t directly impacted in that way, being in close proximity to where tragedy struck has had a lasting impact.
Bishop Christopher Coyne, Diocese of Burlington
I am reminded of 9/11 on certain flights into Laguardia from Burlington. Often times the pilot will come over Manhattan from the north and then turn east towards airport. My flights are mostly early in the day to make connections.
If the weather is clear, one can look right of the window on the left side of the plane as we turn right over the Empire State Building. I almost always have a shiver of existential fear as I think of the possibility of the plane suddenly diving down into one of the skyscrapers below.
The sky, the sun, the flight path, save for the altitude and intention, are the same. We are all in the hands of the pilot, yes, but in the end, in God’s hands too.
James Martin, S.J., author of Searching for God at Ground Zero
Any time I look down Sixth Avenue, which is often since our office is just a few feet away from the corner, I can see all the way down to the new World Trade Center building. That means that any time I look down Sixth Avenue, which is often, I remember looking down that same vista and seeing the inky smoke billow out of the tops of the old World Trade Center buildings. It is a daily reminder of the horror 9/11 for me, and it calls it all back: especially the smell. It’s hard to put it all together: the new vista, the old memories, the suffering and the grace I experienced when I volunteered down there for a few weeks after the attacks. I am still reflecting on the mystery of that day, and still, to be honest, angry with the terrorists who committed these murders. Sometimes it seems like it was yesterday, sometimes it seems like it was another lifetime.
What still brings 9/11 back to me?
A beautiful day with clear, blue skies and the sight of a plane silently heading into Newark Airport. I still feel a twinge (of fear? Of sadness? I’m not sure!) anytime I look up and see this.
My breviary! Sext that day was Tuesday for Week III. We sang Psalm 74 about the destruction of the temple. Now I don’t intend to compare the Twin Towers with the Temple but this is what we were singing as we could see the smoke from the top floor of the monastery and while a fighter plane flew so low over the monastery that we instinctively dunked down into our choir stalls. Every time Daytime Prayer of Week III comes around all the memories and emotions still rush in! That day it was this amazing sense that while all this evil and terror and pain was happening all around us we were in the center of the storm with God. Not detached from it all but intimately connected to it.
The town of Summit and the area towns were hard hit on that day. Many people in this area work in NY. The brother of our own Sr. Judith Miryam was in the second tower that was hit, but managed to get out with a friend. Many of his co-workers were killed.
As the years go by it is more this sense of “Did that really happen?” and one almost forgets what life in general was like before 9/11.
Tom Zampino, Blogger at Grace Pending
It could be that plane passing over Manhattan, seemingly way too low, certainly too low for my own comfort.
Maybe it’s a video of that building aflame being run over and over again on the local news.
Perhaps it’s some odd, unfamiliar burning smell.
Or maybe that incessant, blaring FDNY siren as some first responder races down Third Avenue.
Fourteen years after standing with my colleagues on the eighteenth floor of my office building, the flashbacks still come with some frequency, and always linger a bit longer than I’d expect.
Ours was an unobstructed view at the very moment United flight 175 slammed into the south tower, and later, when that massive red and black fireball – no doubt triggered by the exploding jet fuel – shredded the north tower to pieces, melted its remains, and literally vaporized all those left behind, those who never had any chance to escape.
Looking back, what remains most surreal was the oppressive, eerie silence that accompanied all of this death and destruction. We watched it all unfold knowing that hundreds if not thousands were dying as we stood helplessly by.
Some of us were in tears. All of us in were in shock.
It’s a cliché to say that these kinds of triggering events permanently change us, and help us to appreciate more fully the value of our lives and each passing day.
A cliché yes, but nonetheless true. I think back often to that day, especially when I pass the office window where we once saw the towers standing tall. And then fall.
My appreciation for life is different.
This past month was the first time that I stepped aboard a plane since before September 11, 2001, such was the depth of this psychological barrier. It went smoothly, despite about a half-hour of mild turbulence, perhaps because I have learned a bit over the years how to trust more in God’s will.
Say a prayer in confidence. Act in faith. Move on, the best I can, anyway. Such has been my growth over the past couple of years, at least since my return to the Church in 2013.
I suspect that the triggers will always remain.
But, thank God, my arsenal in response continues to grow.
Tom Wehner, Managing Editor, National Catholic Register
I replay that day a couple times a year. What always strikes me about that day was the collision of objective beauty and the diabolical.
I vividly remember reveling in God’s creation on my hourlong drive to the newsroom of the newspaper in western MA where I was an editor/page designer.
The day was brilliant, blue, not a cloud in the sky. Perfect New England day. I remember thanking God for the day, just as my then-7-year-old son would on days like this. My reverie was jolted to the extreme degrees as I listened to the tragic events unfolding on the radio: A wayward aircraft had crashed into the World Trade Center; it was changed to a jetliner. While I was on the phone with wife praying for the passengers, the report came in about the second airliner crashing into the other tower. …
It was a long, sad day in my newsroom, and we published a special EXTRA edition that I still have. When I got home that night, My wife and three children attended a hastily arranged vigil for the victims at our church. It was a packed house.