The story of my day on 11 September 2001 contains no personal tragedy. No physical injury. No heroism. No one I knew personally was killed in the terrorist attacks. With the three-hour time difference between the east and west coasts, we were still asleep when Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower at 466 miles per hour.
Our phone rang before 6a pacific. It was Brother Billy, calling from his home in California. He was awake, getting ready for work and was watching the events unfold on television. I groggily answered the phone. Billy asked, “How’s Lisa?” Billy rarely phones us and the fact he called before sunrise asking about Lisa sent my heart beat from 60 to 160 in three seconds. “What?” I questioned.
Billy’s response: Turn on the television.
And we did, horribly just in time to watch the second plane, United 175, crash into the South Tower at 590 miles per hour. All the time DT and I were watching the terrible scenes in New York – like a special-effects movie – I would try to phone Lisa at her apartment in Washington, DC, where she had just started her junior year at The George Washington University. The phone lines were always jammed; the recorded voice repeating, ALL CIRCUITS ARE BUSY. I really wasn’t too alarmed for Lisa’s safety, because the carnage was happening in New York City. Not the sharpest crayon in the box, it was still obvious to me that two huge jetliners did not accidentally crash into the World Trade Center twenty minutes apart.
But all the time we were watching the horrid events unfold on television, hijacked American Airlines 77 (DC to Los Angeles) was circling and circling over Washington, DC. Circling and circling. At 6:37 pacific, Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon – across the river from Lisa’s apartment. Thirty minutes later the South Tower collapsed and United Airlines 93, now thought to be headed for the US Capitol, crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. Thirty minutes later the North Tower collapsed. The world seemed to virtually ending and we could not reach our only child in DC.
I realize my fear seems petty and has no place in comparison to parents trying to reach a daughter who worked in the World Trade Center. The plane did not crash into our daughter’s apartment building. It crashed into a building across the river. But my fear was still real. Lisa lived just a few blocks from the White House, Capitol Building and all the monuments. Which was the next target? Where was Lisa? It was Tuesday. She had classes. Where did I put her class schedule? Why didn’t she call us?
Meanwhile, President Bush was on his plane, headed to an underground bunker in Nebraska, and the Leader of The Free World did not take my daughter with him.
Our girl was awakened by a friend banging on her door. Let me in! Turn on the TV!After the events started to sink-in, Lisa trying to phone us on her land line and her cell phone. ALL CIRCUITS ARE BUSY. Lisa was scared. Her 9th floor apartment terrace looked out to the street and she had a view of the Lincoln Memorial and could see smoke from The Pentagon across the river. Suddenly, there was no traffic and instead of a traffic cop, a huge Army tank was parked in the intersection in front of her apartment building. It would remain there for eight days.
Her apartment complex was large and many of her friends, classmates and sorority sisters lived in the building. From her corner apartment, Lisa had the best view of the events unfolding and a large group of girls gathered in Lisa’s apartment, crying, watching the smoke and watching the news on television. No one could get a line out to phone their parents. No one even thought of going to class. (The George Washington University dismissed classes and did not open again for days.) A few girls had cars. Should we try to drive home to North Carolina, New York?
Hours later, Lisa was able to get through to us via her land line! Things had calmed just a bit and it seemed every plane in the sky had been accounted for and grounded. Lisa was shaken, yet she took control of the situation to comfort her friends and she put me in charge of the strangest phone tree I have ever climbed.
We have several phone lines in our house, so one by one, Lisa put her girlfriends on her phone and I used our fax line to call their parents and tell them “your daughter is fine”. Grown men I had never met were crying in my ear upon hearing these words. The parents, most living in New York City, were desperate to hear from their girls, sick with fear and worry. It is a terrible dread to know your child is terrified and you cannot protect or comfort her. The fretful parents did not care that the happy words were coming from an unknown woman in Oregon. The country was under attack. What was happening? I had no way of patching the phone lines through directly, so had to talk back and forth between parent and child. Every family I phoned lived on the east coast. A few had instructions – one girl was supposed to go to the office of a family friend in DC; another’s Dad was already on his way to DC in his car to fetch her. And so it continued, until every girl had contacted her family. Lisa did not hang-up. We kept the line open for hours.
I phoned DT’s company office in DC and asked to speak with our friend, Brad. As soon as I said, “Brad, this is Terry…”, he cut me off and told me he was on his way home (Brad lived in the outskirts of DC) and told me to have Lisa on the corner of Virginia Avenue & G Street in thirty minutes and he would take her home with him. Brad has two daughters; I never had to ask for the favor. Lisa stayed with Brad and his family for two nights and then things seemed to calm down a bit and she returned to her apartment. Dave and I have been extremely grateful to Brad and Joyce since that day and forever on… It is impossible to repay that kindness, and I pray we never have to reciprocate.
A week after the terrorist hijackings, the anthrax attacks began in Washington, DC. Five people were killed, scores taken ill. Lisa did not receive mail for 40 days. After the skies opened to commercial traffic again, Lisa flew home for a few days – with an armed Air Marshall on board every flight. The Winter Break (four long weeks) couldn’t come fast enough. Lisa had a lot of thinking to do. Maybe living a few blocks from The White House really wasn’t so exciting. Certainly she could get a good education at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon?
In the end, Lisa did not let evil dictate her choice. She returned to DC and graduated on time.
Now ten years have gone since that horrible day. Ten years that thousands of people will never know. Nearly 4000 days that children have grown up without parents. Ten years of parents suffering the burden of a child lost to nothing but maniacal hatred. Ten years of trying to understand how a mind could be so filled with ugliness. Ten years of emptiness. Loss. Love. Pain. Regret. Guilt. Compassion. Prayers. Tears.
So that is what we were doing on 11 September 2001, or as best as I can now recall. As I wrote in the first paragraph – my story is of no consequence or importance to anyone. Like many of you, my day was spent in confused worry and prayer. I was just a very scared Mother.
I invite you to write what you were doing in the comment section below.
Until my next update, I remain, your reflective correspondent.