The Day The World Changed

VIDEO: NBC’s coverage of the first plane that crashed into the World Trade Center

Editor’s Note: This report is a first hand experience of 9/11 and is the first in a series of stories evaluating the United States 10 years after the attacks of that day.

It couldn’t have been a more beautiful September morning. Summer was over, but you wouldn’t have known it. I was just a few weeks into my freshman year at Michigan State University on September 11th 2001, and finally began to adjust to college life.

I woke up that morning just as I always did, except I made the poor decision to skip a decent breakfast and walk half way across campus to my economics course.  Everything was normal…until I made it back to Case Hall where I lived and took classes.

I was just about to go after that long-awaited breakfast meal when I noticed a horrific sight on the television monitors mounted on top of the cafeteria entrance.  There was a gaping hole in one of the World Trade Center towers with fire and smoke billowing out.  The breaking news caption said something to the effect of “plane crashes into World Trade Center.”

Thinking it was an awful aviation accident, I went in to get a meal and sit down with a group of friends watching the news coverage on a nearby TV set.  Within that time the second plane hit.  Now, there was no doubt in anyone’s minds that the events occurring we’re much more serious than an aviation accident.  This was intentional.

VIDEO: ABC’s footage of the second plane hitting the World Trade center

I can remember the fear amongst my friend and myself. One of them began to cry.  She had family in New York City and near the WTC complex.  She and several others started making cell phone calls.  I continued to watch the coverage, and talk about it amongst my group.  I can’t remember eating much at all.

Despite the frightening images happening in real-time, I went to my second class for the day. It was a liberal arts writing class at James Madison College.  I had a feeling everything would be different.  Plus, I needed to talk some of my feelings out and thought this would be the perfect place to do so, since we usually expressed ourselves in our writing.  I recall getting their a bit early.   I won’t forget the looks on everyone’s faces.

As we began class, Professor Ron Dorr began by saying something like “I don’t have to tell you what all of this means.”  One by one, we started sharing our thoughts on everything taking place.  Then came news that a plane hit the Pentagon.

No one knew what would happen next or where it would happen.  In other words, no one knew if there were other targets.  The media started reporting of highly populated areas across the country being evacuated, including college campuses.  Was Michigan State next?  No one knew.

VIDEO: CNN’s coverage of the Pentagon being hit and the South WTC tower collapsing

Towards the end of class, I remember a student coming in saying one of the towers had fallen.  Not long after, the second tower collapsed.

From that point I left to go back to watching the news in my dorm room.  It seemed like hours had passed, but I was glued to the television.  Footage of the planes crashing and the buildings collapsing replayed over and over, and that was just on the news.  That trend continued for several weeks in my mind.  I lost sleep.  I know I wasn’t alone.

I remember calling my mom late that morning, heading into the noon hour.  I couldn’t hold back the tears anymore.  Thankfully we didn’t know any of the victims, but that hardly stopped me from feeling a deep sense of loss for what would become nearly 3,000 souls.

VIDEO: NBC Nightly News recaps the horrific events on the evening of 9/11/2001

Darkness Sets In
I remember the muted, subdued feeling that set in across campus that evening.  It seemed the same across the country.  I evaluated it between breaks from watching the news, and started thinking about the sun that came in on what was thought to be a beautiful day, giving way to dusk.

In one sense, the darkness was completely normal.  The day was almost over.  Yet, it became rather symbolic at the same time.  It was a dark day in America.  It represented a slide into the unknown, and recognition of a great void and vulnerability.  Families were in shock, coping with the instant loss of their loved ones.  For others, that sense of security in the greatest nation on the planet was gone completely.

The worst attack on American soil meant immense grief, and considerable fear since no one knew if it was all over.  A stunned silence came with the darkness, as we ventured into a new world with what would become a new enemy.  We were not at war with a country or a nation’s military.  We would soon begin battle with the largest terrorist network the world had ever seen.

VIDEO: President Bush addresses the nation on 9/11

Throughout the evening I remember watching the statements from President George W. Bush, and top members of Congress.  I’ll never forget the words I heard from former Virginia Sen. John Warner during a press conference with then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

“This is indeed the most tragic hour in America’s history, and yet I think it can be its finest hour,” Warner said.

Those words stayed with me through the years.  It was one of the many signs of strength and unity, following the massive tragedy that unfolded several hours before.  Those responsible would soon witness the full wrath of the United States Armed Forces.  Justice would be done.

VIDEO: Members of Congress sing “God Bless America” on Capitol Hill

There is something else that stands out from that night.  Nearly all members of Congress gathered on the Capitol Steps that evening and sang an inspiring rendition of “God Bless America.”  It was incredible to think just the day before, Congressional Republicans and Democrats were arguing over tax cuts, social security and the typical issues that create often bitter partisan divides.

24 hours later our elected leaders were united.  I’ll never forget how that unity translated across the country with American flags popping up everywhere you looked.

In just a few days we will mark the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  Can we reclaim that unity as a nation? I sure hope so.  Throughout the previous anniversaries, I would come across signs with the phrase “Never Forget”.  I always believed that was impossible.

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