Because you asked.. 

Last week, I wrote about my “California-versary”. I arrived in the US on 9/9/2001 and some of you made the razor-sharp observation that I arrived in the US two days prior to the 9/11 attacks on NYC. I’ve been asked many times how I experienced this time. I never wrote about it, never wanted to write much about it, because it feels like year after year, enough people share their stories about where they were and what they were doing when the attacks happened and to be completely honest, I don’t really have a story.

However, people pointed out that maybe I do have a unique perspective having been a foreigner who had just arrived here. So, here’s my story, which isn’t really one.

I remember that it was around 6 a.m. here on the West Coast when the planes hit the twin towers. I was blissfully unaware and asleep at that time, still trying to get over my jetleg and adjust to the time difference and culture shock as I had just arrived 36 hours earlier.

Also: remember, this was the time before everyone had a laptop and/or cell phone glued to their hands at all hours of the day, so I had neither, and I had rented an apartment without TV or Wifi, so I didn’t find out what had happened until hours later. There was no house line either, so it’s not like my family could have called me or anything.

I remember that I got up, wandered around town in search of some coffee (who am I kidding, I was not a coffee drinker back then, although I was about to become one) breakfast and public computer access to check my email and check in with home. I didn’t have a student account yet and couldn’t go on campus to use the computer lab and I only had a telephone card to call home from the local pay phone at the corner of my block (which was expensive). So, I did not know that my parents were desperate to hear from me at this point.

I found a public computer at a local newsstand (I wonder  – though doubt it – if they still offer public computer access these days?!) and when I saw an image of the burning towers on the news website that was pulled up first, my initial thought was “Oh man, are they making a new Hollywood movie?”. The news didn’t really compute until seconds later when I realized that this was no movie image. This was real.

I checked my emails (of course, my parents had tried to reach me trying to find out if I was ok – which, I was. After all, I was not in New York, not even on the East Coast, but on the other side of the country in a small college town. But hey, I guess the question was legitimate when your (though grown up) child is off on their first international adventure all by themselves.) I left the newsstand and looked for the nearest pay phone to call them….

… and then I don’t really remember what happened after that.

I wish I could say that I was glued to the TV (which I didn’t have) or the radio (which I didn’t have) or the computer (which I couldn’t occupy for more than 30 minutes) for the rest of the day, but I honestly don’t remember what I did afterwards. I probably went back to the apartment and waited for my other (exchange student) roommates to arrive. I vaguely remember talking with them about the horrific news, but it’s not like we were able to do anything about any of it.

I think I also was still too much in my own head, dealing with the culture shock and the new surroundings that were going to be my home for the next few months, to really understand or fully process what had just happened on a national level. All I knew was that I was 3000 miles away on the other coast and there was nothing for me to do other than feel relieved that I was safe, I guess.

Of course, I was horrified and shocked by the things that unfolded that day. I cannot imagine having been there personally when it happened (although I have seem numerous first-hand accounts replayed on TV over the years again and again). It still seems like something out of a movie, not real life.  

I just remember one thought that I kept thinking over and over: “I am so glad that I am already here”. Some of the students from my university who were in the same exchange program and hadn’t left Germany yet and who were supposed to arrive the following week, never came. They cancelled their flights after the attacks and ditched the exchange semester and while I can understand that everybody was scared and rattled by 9/11, I was strangely thankful that I arrived before it happened and that it didn’t thwart my stay abroad.

Selfish and insensitive? Maybe. But again, I didn’t really know how to respond to it and since I wasn’t an American citizen at the time, I didn’t feel like it was a personal attack on me or my country (if that makes sense). I am not sure if you can relate to the “confusion” of being a foreigner in a country that is under attack.

I feel a bit bad that I don’t have a more profound account of that fateful day. I even sometimes get a little annoyed (I am sorry) how we keep talking about it year after year after year. Gazillions of terror attacks have happened since then in all parts of the world. I don’t think they’re recounted and relived as much as this one. Don’t get me wrong, I get the whole “never forget” movement and I agree, we should never ever forget what happened that day, but does it really have to take over the complete TV schedule for the day? Do we have to see the planes hit the towers over and over again? I am not sure if it does anyone any good.

Anyway, this is my 9/11 story, small and insignificant as it might be. I didn’t personally know anyone in NYC at the time, the sense of shock and grief I felt for people who lost their lives or whose lives were severely impacted seemed anonymous and somewhat abstract, but of course, it’s still a day that I will never forget and to be honest, flying has never really been quite the same for me.

Phew. This got a little longer than expected. Thanks for reading. What is your story?

  1. I was a junior in college when 9/11 happened. I remember coming downstairs to have breakfast and a friend told me what happened. We were glued to the TV for the rest of the day. I remember feeling helpless and the only thing that a friend and I could think to do was go and donate blood. So we did that together.

    I can understand your comment about how this terror attack gets revisited year after year, but it was such a major attack and attacks of this magnitude haven’t happened in the U.S. before so I think it makes sense that we keep revisiting it over and over again, especially on big anniversaries like 15 years. I wouldn’t expect other countries in the world to revisit the attack because it’s not personal to them. I watch network TV so infrequently these days that I didn’t see any of the 9/11 coverage this year so I was sort of oblivious to any replaying of the plane crashes, etc, and I mostly saw what others were posting on social media. I guess 9/11 is our generations equivalent of Pearl Harbor, which is a day that still get recognized and honored all these years later. I suppose the fact that large-scale attacks on U.S. soil are so infrequent that they warrant such attention is a testament to how lucky we are to live where we do as there are other parts of the world where terrorist activity is more prominent and part of life. So if those other countries tried to recognize every major terrorist attack, they’d be doing it far more often than we do.

  2. I may be one of the few that doesn’t mind others sharing their ‘where were you when 9/11 happened’ stories. Similar to you, I have a somewhat special connection to the events on that day since I had also just started my foreign exchange year as well and had only been in the US for a little over a month.

    I can’t quite recall what I felt that day but I remember exactly where I was that morning and how the day unfolded for me. I first heard about the news on the radio right as they happened when my host dad took my host sister and I to ‘seminary’ (a Mormon bible study that takes place every day before school). At that time, the news reported that an airplane had hit the World Trade Center–that it must have been an unfortunate accident. Nobody could fathom that it would turn out to be a terrorist attack. Seminary ended and we headed to school. In every classroom the TVs were turned on to the news. I think it was during my first period when we watched the second tower collapse live. It was horrific! We continued to watch the news during each period that day and at home. It wasn’t just on CNN but every single channel!

    One of the most significant memories, that completely took me by surprise as I hadn’t experienced anything like it in Germany ever, was the overwhelming amount of patriotism that unfolded after the events. That’s when I fell in love with the US and my love for this country hasn’t changed since.

  3. Unfortunately, I was on the East Coast and I knew several people who died. not super well, but well enough that I know how their families suffered.
    Also, Jack had just retired as an Airline Captain and when I thought of what had happened to the flight crews and their passengers, it took my breath from my body.
    I imagine the memorials will continue each year. You see, the survivors, the people whose loved ones will never come home, do this so that their family member is never forgotten, or how they died.
    I understand this. Each year on June 13th I memorialize my daughter on my blog, who was killed by a stoned driver. It doesn’t mean anything to anyone else, but to me my daughter was amazing, and I don’t want her to ever be forgotten. She did not ask to die that day, she was an innocent killed by a maniac driving a large truck, while stoned on drugs.
    Loss, on a small magnitude or a grand one, such as 9/11, brings people to their knees.

  4. I was a freshman in college when the planes hit. My mom called me and my roommate and I immediately went over to the student union and spent the day in there glued to the TV. Most of the classes were cancelled and everyone watched the news all day. I’m in Oklahoma and in 1995 we had a domestic terrorist attack on our capital building. Two men parked a van in front of it and blew it up. I didn’t know anyone, but I remember watching it all day long. There is now a memorial race every year. Several of the survivors run it and also some of the people who lost loved ones come to it. It’s where I did my first half marathon. It’s a very emotional experience at the start and finish line! It is interesting to hear your perspective of it. I don’t know how I would feel if I was in another country that was under attack, because you’re right. I know it would be sad, but I don’t think I would as invested in it as I am in my own country….I hope that makes sense!

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