Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Where I was when the world stopped turning

It began, as unspeakable tragedies are wont to do, like any other gloriously beautiful fall day. I was a graduate student in Food Science at the University of Maryland, College Park and working full time as a lab technician. That beautiful Tuesday was one of my long days, classes from 9:00 am to 12:15 pm then back to Baltimore to work until 8. For some reason, I felt compelled to bring my old Sony Walkman with me that day, learning perhaps that I needed a way to while away the time between classes. After my first class, we were gathered in the classroom waiting for our professor to reappear with the promised handouts that complemented the day's lesson. We waited...and waited...and waited.  We had just appointed someone to go find him when he appeared and in an apparent state of disbelief uttered the words that changed everything forever: "A plane just hit the World Trade Center."

Clamor arose and I dug furiously through my backpack for my Walkman and tried to remember the Washington area news radio station. CNN or WTOP, I don't remember now but finally picked up a tinny, static-filled transmission. I was relaying the updates to my classmates when the second tower was hit. Then the first tower fell. My feet wandered aimlessly around the campus, seeing young, laughing college students who had no idea what had happened. I ended up in front of a pay telephone; I had no cell phone and the only thing I could think was: Was my mother okay as by then the Pentagon had been hit and hysterical reports were surfacing regarding the FBI building. My mother worked in DC, my brother in law was an FBI analyst based at headquarters. My husband's aunt was also an FBI agent. My aunt had an office in the World Trade Center, the North tower I believe, or had at one point. When she flew to California for work, she would always take that United flight. Was she traveling this day or safe at the home office?

I dug out my calling card and somehow was able to connect with my father at home, before the circuits became too overloaded. All he could tell me was that my mom was fine and that she had been in contact with my aunt. Almost sobbing from relief, I called Dylan. Or I tried to. I don't remember now if I ever got through to him during the day that I was okay but I have to believe that I made contact. Not knowing how close the campus was to the points of attacks, not knowing if a university would have been a target. But we were fine. All of us. And I could breathe again.

News would leak out slowly across the campus and I watched, almost disassociated from myself, as the knowledge that this seeming tragedy was deliberate. I struggled with the decision but ultimately went to my next class where the students were buzzing and arguing if class should or would be cancelled. It wasn't and Biometrics went on as usual.

Crossing campus to my car and making the drive back up I-95 to Baltimore, I was struck by how eerily empty the highway was and watched the deceptively clear blue skies with trepidation. As I walked into the office, my friends essentially jumped me in their worry, knowing that I was in College Park, not knowing if anything had occurred there, hoping I was alive and unscathed. It hadn't even occurred to me to call the lab, to let them know.

That night at home, Dylan and I watched the coverage. I saw for the first time what I only heard described over the radio transmissions and it was ever worse than I could have imagined. I watched in silence, completely numb and empty inside, unanswerable questions ping-ponging around in my mind. How? How can anyone hold that much hatred to do that? What religion would ever advocate for such an action?

For me, these questions remain to this day. Though it's mostly associated with the holiday season, this seems to be just as fitting as we remember the tragedy of 9/11 and honor those who fell and those who helped as best they could: Peace on earth, goodwill towards men.

God bless us, every one.

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