Empty Skies and New Realisations

9.11 5
By Lauren Meryl Williamson

When you are 16, you know everything. You know how to wear your makeup just-so, you know how to drive, how to sneak out of the house, how to flirt with boys and how to ace pre-calculus exams. And you know that if a plane crashes into a New York City high rise, it can only be a pilot error, an accident. Before 7:55 a.m. Central Standard Time on 11 September 2001, I had never heard the word “terrorist”. At least I had never heard it and understood that it could have any relevance in my own life.

That morning, I had arrived at school early and was chatting with classmates in the theatre room, ahead of the 8:25  a.m. school bell. The TV was on in the background – in every room in my school they are mounted on the wall. Then we saw the image of the New York City skyline, the same skyline painted on the wall of our classroom. But something was very wrong – we could make out what looked to be a plane sticking out of Tower 2, with a dark, thick cloud of smoke billowing out.

At this point, we showed genuine interest in what the news anchors were saying. What a terrible mistake, something must have gone wrong with the plane. And aside from people affected on that one floor of the building, it looked as though everyone working in the tower would be alright. We heard they were being evacuated.

It was not until the second plane hit, at 8:03 a.m. CST, that the three of us, my teacher included, turned up the volume, and began listened intently, feeling a bit of shock and confusion. One plane can be an accident, but two? This is too bizarre to be a mistake. This was perhaps the first time in my life I had ever really listened to the news.

The 8:25 a.m. bell rang and we hurried along to classes. My first class was American history. We watched TV for a brief few minutes, until it became clear that people were jumping from the burning buildings. My teacher, Mrs. T, promptly turned the TV off. She said even 16 year-olds, mature as we were, should be saved from witnessing the worst of such an atrocity.

Mrs. T very solemnly asked us to get out paper and pens and to write journal entries. She encouraged us to write down what we thought and felt, and to keep the memoir for reflection later on. She said this event would be part of our history, part of America’s history, and would undoubtedly change everything from this point on. She told us we would remember this day as her generation remembered where they were when Kennedy was shot or when the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded.

I did not see the live footage that captured the collapse of the towers, but was told by schoolmates that the first collapse happened around 9:00 a.m. CST. But I caught the replay of the seconds-long tower collapses again and again and again. It was as though we needed to see it numerous times and burn the image into our souls to even believe what had happened.

When you witness something like that, something for which your mind has absolutely no frame of reference, you can’t help but wonder many things. I wondered if my country, which is supposed to protect us from such violence, was as strong as I thought. I wondered if the American system could collapse as rapidly as those buildings did.

Nearly 3,000 people died on 11 September – the rough equivalent of the entire population of my high school. Family members of my friends were killed. Friends of my friends were killed. There were tears and frantic phone calls in the hallways all afternoon. Just before lunchtime the mixture of panic, apprehension and sadness became intense. We should go home and be with our families, right?

The school principle came over the speaker and made an announcement: We will follow the President’s orders and continue with our day, according to a normal schedule. But we will first hold a moment of silence for the victims.

That moment was incredibly long and uncomfortably heavy. To consider that a violent attack more than 1,300 miles away from my small hometown in Texas could have such reverberations was sobering. It was perhaps the first time that, as a bit of a reckless teenager, I even contemplated my own mortality.

The introspection for the remainder of the day was deep and painful. The mood of the entire town was hushed, and I can recall only the sound of newscasts. People at home kept vigilant watch of their televisions; people driving kept the radio on to listen for updates, desperate for explanations.  Flags were flown at half mast. Churches and synagogues were filled with people for prayers.

I remember vividly how empty the sky looked. When you live a few miles from an international airport the absence of noisy airplanes whizzing overhead is noticeable. And disconcerting. It was an eerie and silent reminder of a very new realisation: that there are people in the world who hate my country, hate my fellow Americans, and hate the liberty we love. I do not think I had ever considered before that such hate actually existed in the world.

Three months later I changed my high school graduation plan, opting instead to pursue a career in journalism. 


11 September 2011


Photo Credit: AP Photo/Suzanne Plunkett