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Much about American life was permanently changed after the September 11 terror attacks. The impact of that day was so monumental that decades later, many still remember exactly what they were doing when they learned of the attack — down to the shoes they were wearing.
On that morning 20 years ago, four airplanes, hijacked by members of militant Islamist group al-Qaeda, flew into the Twin Towers in New York City, the Pentagon building in Arlington, Va. The fourth plane crashed in an open field in Pennsylvania after passengers and crew attempted to regain control from the hijackers.
Nearly 3,000 Americans were killed, including 206 victims from Massachusetts, and countless others were personally impacted by the events of that day. This Saturday, there will be a number of ceremonies memorializing the victims, survivors, and events of that day both in Boston and around the country.
Ahead of the anniversary, we asked readers to share their memories of Sept. 11 and how that day has impacted their lives since. We heard from readers who learned the news while in school, stranded in airports, and even in New York City, just miles away from the attacks. They shared their feelings of confusion, fear, and grief, as well as the lessons they took away from those moments.
Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
“I was working at Boston Children’s Hospital when a physician colleague came in and said, ‘A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.’ I actually thought she was referring to the Boston World Trade Center in the Seaport — which made sense as it was close enough to the airport for an event like that to potentially happen. I started to prepare for an influx of pediatric patients when someone said ‘turn on the news.’ Right when we turned on the TV, the second plane hit.
The day was a spectacular September day. The sky was so blue and clear that people made comments all morning on how beautiful it was out. What I remember most about that evening and for days to follow was that the silence in the sky was completely deafening. I remember the incredible emotions — an overall feeling of helplessness and an overall feeling of empathy and love for the families affected. To this day those feelings haven’t left. Every year, I pause and reset on 9/11 and take inventory on what is important.”
— Kate D., Everett
“I was at my companies offices in lower Manhattan for work. Fortunately, I had changed my hotel reservation at the last minute for this trip, because I was originally staying at the World Trade Center Marriott and would have been in my room on a conference call at the time of the first plane crash. Instead, I was with my coworkers that morning as we watched both towers crash to the ground. A sight I’ll never forget. Later that day I walked up 5th Avenue in the middle of the street to my hotel, a haze hung over the city, there was an eerie quiet with no cars on the road.
My children were in elementary school then, I traveled each week for work, so oftentimes they didn’t know where I was, my wife knew I was in New York City, but not all the details. The hardest part of the morning was trying to get a phone line out to let my wife know I was okay, so she could let the kids know. I was finally able to connect with her, and she was able to let the kids know. Sadly I found out afterward that the counselor comforting my oldest daughter lost her parents on one of the flights. I lost friends and coworkers that day. It makes you appreciate life and your family so much.”
— Jack, Hingham
“In 2002, I was in New York, waiting in the atrium of the World Financial Center for a business meeting to begin. We’d arrived a bit early. My manager said to me, ‘If we go up those stairs, you can see the site.’ I’d had no idea we were right across the street. Up we went, and I looked out. It was still pretty raw, with broken beams and pipes sticking out. I have lived in Boston for the better part of my life, but I was born in New York and lived there first. I was shaken and sombered by what I saw.”
— Bruce, Reading
“In my office, discussing a diversity, equity, and inclusion workshop with an external consultant. In horror, we watched the news, overwhelmed, sad, and concerned for our families and fellow Americans, especially Muslim Americans.”
“I was in eighth grade and happened to be in TV studio class, which meant we had multiple TVs on. I remember my teacher watching in silence following the first plane crash while we students were chatting, wondering why he wasn’t starting class and maybe glancing at the screen ourselves. We watched live as the second plane hit. I recall my teacher told us that we would always remember what we were doing on that day, much like people remember where they were and what they were doing when JFK was assassinated. I remember getting home and my parents having the news on all night. After that, patriotism pervaded everything for at least the next year. Everyone wanted to make some sort of tribute/acknowledgment, big or small, of what had happened and lives lost. And of course, traveling has never been the same since.”
— Tina, Back Bay
“[I was] at Logan Airport on board a Delta flight to Nashville waiting to take off. Doors had just closed when the airspace shut down. The pilot announced that we would not be taking off, said we could use our phones, and to ‘let us know if anyone finds out what’s going on.’ The Logan Express bus ride back to Braintree was packed-every seat taken and people standing in every spot available. A complete stranger sitting next to me gave me a ride from Braintree to my house in Holbrook. My beeper (remember those?) from my office kept going off because my staff knew I was traveling that day and my mother kept calling the office because she couldn’t remember the flight I was on, but I couldn’t get through to anyone because the landlines were jammed.”
— Laura J. Aguiar, Phoenix, Ariz. (formerly Holbrook)
“I was in class at Westfield State College. It was only the second day of classes. My roommate and I barely knew anyone there yet as we were freshmen and had just moved in. When the planes hit and we got back to the dorms everyone’s doors were open. Strangers would stand by the door and we would all just watch in astonished silence. Whenever this anniversary rolls around, I think of that walk down the hallway — doors open, TVs all playing the same thing. We all knew the entire world was going to be different moving forward…”
— Steve V., Peabody
“I was home on maternity leave with my son who had just turned one month old and my daughter who was just over two years of age. We were just arriving at the playground near where we resided in Quincy when the towers were attacked. I will never forget that moment in time. I remember trying to reach my husband on the phone and all lines were busy and tied up. I remember being shocked, scared, confused and just wanting us all to be safe. At the same time, I did not want my daughter to know or sense that I was upset.
9/11 has made me appreciate our country by becoming more aware of my political views and who we appoint to lead our government. Safety is paramount in my political choices and appointed leadership. I always make it a point to vote!”
— Lisa Bishop, Hanover
“On September 10, 2001, I was in the World Trade Center for meetings. A first escape as the attack was one day later. We drove back from New York City as heavy thunderstorms canceled flights. On September 11, 2001, I got on board a Delta 767 that left 15 minutes after the airplanes that were intentionally crashed and saw both towers burning from 37,000 feet. I was spared, a second time, only by the fact that our airplane was headed to Atlanta, not the west coast, and therefore had less fuel.
9/11 arguably tanked the company I was working for, caused me to pursue professional employment that responded to the attacks, and every year at this time causes me emotions I was never raised to handle.”
— Doug, Metro West Boston
“I was in my sophomore year at the University of Maine at Farmington. The cafeteria had a TV, and I was eating breakfast and waiting for my next class. Someone remarked ‘Oh, a plane hit the Twin Towers,’ and I assumed it was a small, light plane. I turned towards the television and saw the smoke from the first crash, and right then the second tower was hit. Everyone watching the TV (and even the reporter live on camera), started screaming and yelling. I remember grabbing someone by their shirt and saying out loud ‘I think we’re at war!’ and having no idea who would be attacking us.
This was the pre-smartphone era, so all we knew was rumors. Phone lines were down or getting busy signals, we heard rumors there was martial law in New York City. People thought it was Russia or China. Kids at college who were from New York were crying and screaming on the sidewalk because they couldn’t get a hold of family. I remember my roommate and I holding hands that night and watching TV and crying. I also clearly remember how the tone shifted from shock to grief to anger, and kids in the dorms ran into the street wrapped in American flags and were chanting to bomb whoever did it.
Everyone says post-9/11 was very caring and loving, and it was for about 24 hours. After that there was rampant patriotic zealotry, I even heard the phrase ‘love it or leave it’ come back like we were experiencing Vietnam. Students who looked foreign or were immigrants were bullied and harassed, when we started the attacks on Iraq it was basically a free pass to be as obnoxiously nationalistic as possible. You couldn’t criticize cops or firefighters or the military. They were treated like gods for about 10 years afterward. America came together for a single day and then turned into the worst versions of ourselves for years afterward. I cringe remembering how even veterans against the war in Iraq were treated. People didn’t want solutions or to find the ones culpable — they were angry and hurt and just wanted to hurt anyone they could.”— Leanne, Allston
“I was in my American History class in my sophomore year at Bellingham High School. When I walked into my classroom, I remember seeing my teacher, Mr. Suffoletto, watching the TV when one of the hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center. It was a very traumatic, heartbreaking moment. I couldn’t believe it happened. My teacher, classmates, and I tried our best to make it a normal day. But deep down, it was not a normal day. I can understand why our teachers tried to make it a day that was normal.
Truthfully, it would’ve been helpful for us to talk about what happened, to express our anger and sadness, and realize we witnessed a day we’d never forget. It was terrible how some of my classmates were bullied in the days after 9/11. That day and the subsequent anniversaries of 9/11 instilled the values I hold dear in trying to be a kind, compassionate person; and to cherish those I love, those who serve for us and make selfless sacrifices and, in a time today when division is sadly prevalent, a moment in time when we all banded together as one.”
— Rob Tiongson, Austin, Texas (formerly Bellingham)
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