We lost a lot on that day. We’ve lost even more since then. Nearly three thousand Americans died that day. Nearly three thousand Americans have since died in deserts prosecuting the war on terror. Countless men, women, and children in two foreign countries have lost their lives, their limbs, and everything they own. Today, I will mourn that.
Forgive me. I’m being dramatic.
As I believe you know, I was there when this happened. As fate would have it, I had left my hometown of Gallup, New Mexico after their newspaper decided they didn’t need my skills. I ended up in New York. Three years later, I saw print in The Gallup Independent with a piece I wrote from my perspective of these events, which have reshaped the world.
September 11, 2001
Before I moved to New York from Gallup, New Mexico, in 1998, a friend warned me that I was seeking my fortune in a terrorist hotbed.
“Washington is the capital of the United States,” he said, “but New York is the capital of the world.” I hate it when he’s right.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I’d arrived at work a block away from the World Trade Center a few minutes early, and my biggest concern was beating my envelope-stuffing record of 484. My watch sat with my other personal belongings near the window, so I had no idea what time it was when the building shook. It didn’t matter, because I thought it was only thunder – particularly loud thunder for such a clear day. Our building was much too close to see anything, anyway. Without a phone or the Internet in my office, I decided to sit tight and start stuffing envelopes.
It didn’t take long for someone to tell me a plane had hit one of the towers. Accidents happen, and I’d help out in any way I could, but my commute was officially ruined. While waiting for further instructions from building management, word reached us that a plane had hit each tower. My stomach tightened and the rational side of my mind reassured me it was just a rumor. This couldn’t happen.
I called my girlfriend, Andrea, to let her know I was safe and would call her back as soon as I could figure out what was going on. Then they evacuated our building. On the way down fourteen stories of emergency stairwell, I idly wondered if the terrorists were herding us for something worse. Once outside, however, the thought left my mind the instant I looked up.
The background monoliths—as much a part of life as the hogback hills on the eastern side of Gallup during my youth, or the grain silos just outside of town during my young adulthood in Hastings, Nebraska—burned. This couldn’t happen.
After realizing my escape route would lead me near a cemetery, I kept my eyes to the ground. Unfortunately, this meant shuffling through growing mounds of ash, tattered insulation and unreadable memos. Finally, seeing a charred leather cell-phone case made me look up again. Paper which had been on desks or in filing cabinets fluttered out of twin clouds of smoke and onto the streets. This did happen.
Focusing all of my attention to my legs, I closed my eyes and moved my left foot in front of the right, then the right foot in front of the left. I couldn’t afford to think.
A few blocks north I ran into a fellow temp named Joe. I asked him what he knew, but used a lot of swear words to do it. He chose to stick around, and I chose to find Andrea. I still don’t know if he ever left. Somehow I made it several more blocks north, where, incredibly, a subway station accepted passengers. While I escaped underground, reading words in a book I can’t remember, the towers fell.
When I found out about the Pentagon attack, it was right after an event that shocked me even more. A man at a phone booth had just apologized for taking a long time to make his call. In New York, that was about as common as finding parking at a Wal-Mart on payday. But in reality, that’s how we do things in New York. Sure, we all got our own problems, but when handed something of this enormity, they don’t matter.
During the first part of the day, the only way out of Manhattan was on foot. After pedestrians crossed the bridges, they found chairs and bottled water being handed out by concerned shop clerks. By mid-afternoon, hospitals were turning away blood donors and volunteer workers.
The Twin Towers were an important symbol of New York and the United States, but we are not those buildings. We’re human. Nobody can take that away from us.
On September 11, 1906, Mahatma Gandhi instituted his nonviolent resistance to the British occupation of his beloved country. Today, I am going to celebrate that.