Reporter's Notebook

Your Memories of 9/11
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To mark the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, readers and staffers are sharing their stories: where they were, what they remember, and how the events of that day changed their lives and their countries.

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At the Center of the Devastation

Gary Hershorn / Reuters

Everyone seems have their own story of the 9/11 attacks, and I recently asked readers to share theirs to mark the 15th anniversary. I got responses from people who on that day were all over the world: in New York and nearby, in DC, elsewhere in the U.S., and in other countries. This first set of responses comes from people who were near the geographic epicenter of 9/11’s most devastating strike, on the World Trade Center.

One reader had an office on the 14th floor of the World Trade Center, but he happened not to be in the office that day:

Our firm had a telephone system which allowed people to call your office number and have it immediately connected to any number you desired. This allowed most of the staff to work remotely, whether from home or on the road. So, this particular day, none of the senior staff members were in the office, whether at home or traveling.

September 11 was the first day of school for some schools in the area. Our office manager was taking her daughter to school that morning, so she was not in the office that morning either.

While we suffered no casualties in the attack on the WTC, I have friends who died in the attack.

On September 11, 2001, I was 7 years old, and my second-grade teacher called a class meeting to explain that two airplanes had hit the twin towers in New York City, about 25 miles from where we were in northern New Jersey. I remember raising my hand and asking how there could be a plane crash on such a sunny day. The pilots just not seeing the towers, an honest mistake, was the only explanation I could fathom. I don’t think I knew what terrorism was then, but now I wonder if it’s something today’s American 7-year-olds know too well.  

Many parents in my hometown of Ridgewood, including my dad, were among the thousands of people who commuted into New York each day. In 2001, my dad was working for Merrill Lynch in downtown Manhattan: His office stood opposite the World Trade Center. I am extremely lucky that, when my mom took me home from school that day, he was waiting there, unhurt.  Since he is very reserved by nature, it wasn’t until this week, 15 years later, that I finally got his account of what happened. A condensed transcript of that conversation follows.

Emily Goldberg: How did you find out about the planes hitting the towers? Did you hear it or see it?

Ken Goldberg: I was in at work well before anything happened. I remember noticing, before anything happened, that it was a really nice day. When it first was announced, people were talking about a small plane hitting one of the towers. So that was the initial story, which seemed strange at the time because it was a perfectly nice day. The first plane, I found out about it on our newswire about the markets. After that, no one really knew anything and no one was overly focused on it. Then, when the second one hit, people knew it was an attack. When the second plane hit, people were running towards my office to say that they either saw it or felt it. Then everyone started walking down the stairs. We were on the 19th floor.

Evan Vucci / AP

“People remember the Twin Towers,” writes Stephen, a reader in Illinois. “But I remember the Pentagon.” Update from Stephen: “I lived in Pentagon City between September, 1967, and November, 1968. On September 11, 2001, our daughter was back at the University of Arizona, having just completed her internship at MSNBC near the Capitol Building. [After the attacks, we] quickly returned to D.C., together, and went back to Pentagon City to visit the memorials”:

I took my college-age daughter, at night, to visit the shrines that had been erected by ordinary people in the traffic turnarounds and witnessed the enormous canvas shroud that was hung over the west wall to hide the devastation as clean-up and recovery proceeded. It disgusted me that our country had been so ill-prepared despite ample warnings. And that there was no accountability for failure to protect our nation’s commercial and political capital cities.

In our own small industrial marketing business, we did not put a single check through our company’s checking account for 90 days. Customers stopped paying, in panic over uncertainty gripping businesses like ours. When business came back, it was down 40 percent. That is my memory of September 11—personal and professional disaster.  And loss of faith in our government and its leaders.

A reader in California, Beth Anderson, was watching news coverage of the attacks on September 11, 2001, and thought of her father, who had died the previous week. She was glad he wasn’t there to see what was happening.

My Dad had been a pacifist. During the time of the Vietnam Nam war, my older brother was draft age. He didn’t believe in the war, he was a conscientious objector. He had received his draft notice. My Dad supported him in his beliefs. But, my Mom ... well, her father and both brothers had served during World War II; she had worked as a riveter making aircraft for the war effort. There was a tense rift in the family.  What I saw the morning of September 11, in a moment, brought all that back, and I immediately thought of all the drama, strife, turmoil and eventual loss that the unfolding events on TV would mean for countless American families.

Fifteen years later, I don’t think that much has been accomplished.  The whole world seems worse off than ever before. I didn’t ever agree with George W. Bush and I think darker and more effective manipulators at the time didn't serve any of us well, nor the world. I applaud the ongoing efforts of Barack Obama who has strenuously attempted to correct that wrong course, but it certainly has come to feel pretty hopeless.

I felt bad that early morning.  I feel even worse now.

An elderly Bulgarian man in Sofia on September 12, 2001, looks at the local newspapers. Reuters

One reader, Teresa Poppelwell, was working with the UN in Herat, in western Afghanistan, on September 11, 2001, specifically “in a meeting with the Taliban discussing how the UN could assist drought-affected IDPs [internally displaced persons] from Ghor province.” And then:

We returned to our guest house and watched CNN coverage of the plane that had flown into the first tower just minutes before. There were approximately 10 of us in the room. No one spoke. The sun was setting over the garden walls when the second plane hit. Shortly thereafter we were escorted to our UN offices to grab essential items like hard drives from our computers. We spent the night with Taliban guarding our guesthouse (sitting in the roof with AK47s) who then escorted us to the airport around 10 am the next morning. We waited for the UN plane to arrive.

We grieved with the poor souls in New York. We worried for the Afghans we were leaving behind. We knew things would never be the same.

Another reader was a student in Lebanon at the time of the attacks, dreaming of escaping to the West from a region that felt like “a big prison”:

I, like thousands of Western-educated young people, had no other choice but to leave in order to live. 9/11 crashed our plans and hopes and future.

Men look outside through a broken window at the site of a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan on October 5, 2016. Mohammad Ismail / Reuters

Mohammad Sayed Madadi is currently getting a master’s degree at Stanford. But he spent part of his childhood under the Taliban, and he remembers the American intervention after the 9/11 attacks—which started 15 years ago today and ultimately toppled that government—as seeming to herald a new era for him. It did, but not exactly in the way he hoped. Sayed got an education that would never have been possible under the Taliban, and saw his sisters do the same. He has also witnessed continuing bloodshed in his country, and was himself injured in an ISIS bombing in Kabul this summer that killed some 80 people. “Afghanistan is a much better country than it was in 2001,” he writes. “Is that enough?”

When the Taliban were overthrown, it was as if the city I lived in was newer, brighter, more crowded; as if those American bombs that fell after September 11 really brought voice and light to a place that had been quiet and dark.