By Jacquelyn Henderson, Economic Officer
I will never forget September 11, 2001. It changed my life, and the way I see the world and my role in the world forever.
September 11 has always been a day of delight for me. Since I was a small child, I would wake up on that day each year with a smile. It marks the one-week countdown until my birthday, September 18. Since good things happen on my birthday, I think an early rise with a bright outlook that morning was something of a Pavlovian response.
My little black kitten Isabelle was purring at 5:40am in Bloomington, IN, where I was a young and single graduate student, just starting my first year at Indiana University. I turned on the TV to catch the news and latest headlines. The 6am news cast said today would be a bright, sunny, cloudless day. I picked out a nice flowery summer dress to wear to my first class, which started at about 9:30am. I remember standing in front of the television in my tiny apartment with the sun rays just beginning to peak through the balcony sliding glass door. I was ironing my dress, watching the weather forecast, and humming.
It was going to be a perfect day, and I was super excited. I did a few routine things then. I laid out my freshly ironed clothes. I got some juice and toast. I brushed my teeth. I took a shower. Suddenly I looked at the clock.
Just after 7… still over 2 hours to class time. Yes, my birthday is coming, and I’m happy. But it’s going to be a long day, and so an extra half hour or so of rest will do me some good.
I decided to go back to bed for a nap. Unfortunately for me, I overslept a bit. It was 8:55. Class was less than 10 minutes away by bus, but I had to get to the stop by 9:15, or I would be late. I remember the thought as I slipped on my dress.
No need to turn on the television. They promised warm sun today.
I threw on a bit of make-up, and ran out the door. The bus was a couple of minutes behind schedule, but I jumped on and noticed it was rather empty for this time. Being the last bus to get to campus prior to the 9:30 bell, usually it’s full… even packed. There were 6 or 8 people on there. I took note that this was odd, but proceeded on not really giving it much thought.
I was still humming. I thought about how beautiful the day was as we drove towards campus. It was such an inviting blue sky.
A shame we have to go to class on a day like this.
I remember the driver was listening to talk radio. The outspoken radio host was talking about U.S. security vulnerabilities and terrorism. He was impassioned, and those calling in were rather engaged. I remember thinking it was a heavy topic for this time of morning. But I was actually in my own world. The bus engine was humming, the cabin rocked and bumped along, and my mind was on the good things in life.
We passed a gas station, which had a long line to the pump. I’d never seen a line like that before. This was oddity number 2. I brushed it off as well, since this was a college town. There is always a logical explanation, after all.
Probably a group caravanning for a field trip. Hopefully to some location outdoors. Maybe the Butler Winery. That would be awesome.
I got to school. There were an average number of students on the sidewalks, in the halls, some running around. It’s 9:29. I was still relatively new here. This was maybe my third week in school. I did not have a group of friends to meet with and chat before class. I didn’t have a well-established routine. So though I was feeling… odd, … I couldn’t put my finger on anything in particular that was wrong.
I sat down in my seat for Dr. Barry Rubin’s 9:30 class. Though there should have been at least a dozen others there. I noted there was no bell. There was no Dr. Rubin. There was no class. I was there alone. This was oddity number 3. I saw a couple of students shuffle past hurriedly in the hall.
This is Tuesday, right? Maybe it’s Monday? Am I mixed up? What is going on here? I’m missing something.
I walked into the hallway and looked around. Everything was in place. Students. Teachers. Cars whizzing by on the street. Sun and blue sky. Greenery. I couldn’t find anything out of place. But I had this eerie feeling. A small panic began to set in. I still could not figure out if I was crazy, or had just stumbled into my own personal Twilight Zone. The little hairs on my neck were standing up, and my ears were tuned. I began doubting myself, and I felt the approach, the creeping in of an unfamiliar feeling.
I began looking, really looking, at the students. Several of them were scurrying by at a fast pace. Some were running. Some… crying?
Student (sobbing): The line is jammed! I can’t get through! I can’t reach her!
I walked slowly towards the stairwell, and saw Dr. Richard Rubin having a conversation with someone in an adjacent classroom.
I tried to be delicate. I’m sure I came off as rude, because I interrupted whatever conversation they were having. This unfamiliar feeling that had come over me was growing. But though I felt my oneness with reality slipping, I didn’t want to be perceived as crazy. So I tried to phrase the question as neutrally as I could.
Me: Dr. Rubin, what’s going on? Dr. Barry Rubin isn’t in the classroom. I was waiting several minutes. We do have 9:30 classes, right?
My reading from his literal jump back in the chair was that he was quite taken aback by my question.
Me (with a small nervous chuckle): “Well it’s not Monday. Is there a school function happening or something?”
Maybe I missed Daylight Savings Time?
Dr. Rubin (bordering on yelling): Where have you been? Don’t you watch the news? Terrorist have taken over planes and are ramming them into buildings. We are at war, Miss Henderson. America is under attack!
I remember my reaction. After a slight pause to absorb the news that hit me like a slap in the face, I laughed. I laughed aloud. This was completely and utterly outside the realm of possibility. I actually took a step back, an unconscious rejection of the incomprehensible news he laid on me.
Me: No…! (Pause.) No.
My smile was faded, but still hanging on. I was trying to compute what he was saying.
This is the United States of America! We are immune from “attack!” Who’s going to attack us? The Canadians? Hardly! They don’t believe in war. What… Mexico, maybe? Our issues ain’t that serious. No one else has the position to strike us in our own home. Rubin is joking!
I noted in the ensuing silence that his facial expression was steady… and earnest. He wasn’t joking. He pointed towards the break room.
Dr. Rubin: Get to a television set, Miss Henderson.
The room was packed. There were about 30 students looking up at the suspended screen watching the events unfold before them. I walked in just in time to see what turned out to be a replay of a plane hitting tower 2. I remember the announcer said there were reports of maybe a bombing or fire on the National Mall and there was a fire at the Pentagon. They had several planes still in the air, and believed one was heading for the White House.
They played that footage of the plane hitting the tower again and again. Looking up, and taking it all in, I felt the blood drain from my face. They showed the buildings on fire. People were leaping out to escape the flames and smoke and falling dozens of stories to their deaths. I wondered why the military wasn’t helping.
Don’t we have a Coast Guard for stuff like this? Where’s the Air Force? Doesn’t New York City have helicopters to rescue folks on those floors and on the roof? Can’t somebody do something? !? Somebody!!! Anybody!!!
That is the moment when I came face to face with that creature known as Terrorism. Before that, He was a phantom. A Boogie Man. I read about Him in newspapers, think-pieces in magazines, documentaries about far-away lands. He lived in faraway places that couldn’t touch us. He didn’t reside in the States… until that moment.
After several minutes He struck again, as we watched Tower 2 fall. The collective gasp was loud. I was struck how it fell straight to the ground as if it had folded in on itself. Visually, the collapse created the effect of Tower 2 being physically erased from the skyline of New York City.
It was there. Then… it wasn’t.
The fate of Tower was pretty much written on the wall. We all were glued in place, standing there as young people, watching our world be turned on its head right before our very eyes. I couldn’t turn away as they showed desperate victims plummeting to the ground from hundreds of feet in the air. I tried to imagine the horror of having to decide which way I would meet a death whose eminent appearance was as certain as day’s end. That was Terrorism.
That was Him.
The meaning of September 11 changed for me forever that day. I changed forever. If I hadn’t met Him personally that day, I’d likely be a high school guidance counselor today. Or at most, a pediatric psychologist. That’s where my aspirations were. Looking back on that day now, I better understand my ignorance, my overconfidence, and my false sense of security in those days in the American bubble.
But that bubble has its place in this world. Someone has to protect it. I decided then and there to leave it, and do my part for my country, watching out for those who choose to live inside the bubble.
In the following seven days leading up to my birthday, I must have watched those towers fall 200 times. I finally decided that as an emotional wreck, I couldn’t heal until I turned off the television and the radio, and stayed away from my computer. I closed myself off from the media for 2 days. I had barely managed to get the image out of my head of those people leaping to their deaths.
September 18 finally arrived. The skies were quiet. The streets were empty. The few restaurants I knew of were closed. I managed to befriend a handful of other grievers from my classes, and invited them to my little place for a little birthday celebration. We needed a bright spot in all the sadness. I had a fool-proof plan. We’d have a pasta dish and brownies I prepared myself.
I went to the nearby video store and rented a comedy so we could all enjoy some laughs. My choice? Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in Rush Hour.
This comedy was awesome! We laughed the whole way through, and I was glad I’d chosen this to heal our souls. I could feel a new energy in the room. Life was going to be okay. We could make it through this.
But that joy I felt was short-lived. It ended in the last 10 minutes of the film. It is burned into my brain forever, though I’ve never watched the movie since that day. Jackie and Chris chased the bad guy to the top of a skyscraper in a battle to the death. And the villain’s final misstep cost him his life, and he fell hundreds of feet from the roof of the skyscraper to his death.
He had hit me again.
I had a horrible flood of flashbacks, as the camera followed this guy fall to the ground. And I gasped. That positive energy which had only seconds before filled the room, had suddenly been sucked out, as if by a vacuum. I heard someone say, “Oh, my God!” So I ran over and stopped the tape, then whipped around to gauge everyone’s reactions.
I stood there silently with tears welling up. One of the girls present started to cry, and I lost my resolve to hold back the tears. There were 5 of us in that room. We all cried together. Sadly, that’s what I remember about my birthday in September 2001.