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Sept. 11, 2001: The Day It All Changed

By Sarah Jones-Smith

The 9/11 Memorial and Museum honors the 3,000 victims of the terrorist attacks nearly two decades ago.

Although it happened nearly two decades ago, 9/11 remains a day that will be remembered for shifting the entire country and the lives of everyone who lives in it.

Travelers boarded American Airlines Flight 11 in Boston on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, expecting to land in Los Angeles. Shortly after, United Airlines Flight 175, headed to the same location, took flight. Each plane held up to 100 passengers, five of which were hijackers.

By 8:46 a.m., the first plane struck floors 93 through 99 of the North Tower at the World Trade Center. Minutes later, the second plane hit the South Tower, and by 9:38 a.m., a third plane, American Airlines Flight 77, crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

The Wall of Names at the Flight 93 National Memorial (Public Domain Photo).

The terrorist attack ended shortly after 10 a.m. when the fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, crash-landed in a rural area near Pittsburgh after passengers attempted to subdue the hijackers.

The entire country helplessly watched as the tragedy unfolded, and first responders rushed to save as many lives as possible. The coordinated attack resulted in the deaths of more than 3,000 people.

As Americans commemorate the 19th anniversary of 9/11, they reflect on what their lives were like that day and the lingering impact on the United States. Here are some of their stories:

‘Every Time I Hear an Alarm Now, I Immediately Leave – No Matter What’

Carmela Davis

Carmela Davis, 45, was walking downtown on Sixth Avenue near Spring Street in Manhattan, when a cab driver pulled over and yelled that a plane had crashed.

“I literally watched the World Trade Center fall,” Davis said. “I saw the second plane go into the second building.”

Despite not having any physical effects from this tragedy, Davis now lives with the constant fear of what the sound of an alarm might bring. “Every time I hear an alarm now, I immediately leave, no matter what.”

The sounds and screams of people jumping from building resurfaces as Davis continues to live and work in New York City. Although she loves the city, Davis emphasizes that after 9/11 New York was never the same.

 Alex D. Williams

Traveling Like in the Movies

Fifteen-year-old Savannah Davis has never known anything other than the post-9/11 world. “I would watch movies and see people sit at the boarding gate with their families,” she said, laughing. “Up until a few months ago, I thought that it was something that only happened in movies.”

Like Davis, many teenagers and young adults have no recollection of that day, either because they are too young or their family members were not affected. Some also share her thoughts on travel restrictions.

South Alabama student Grace Geter flew for the first time while in college. “The TSA process was never something that I really thought about until I had to actually do it,” Geter said. “I didn’t really understand why I had to do all of this just to get through security.”

“Of course, I had heard about 9/11 during school, but you know how history can be in a public school, very little information, and not as much emphasis on the seriousness of the topic,” she added.

A’mere Bryant, 18, also wonders about certain security measures. “I travel often, but it seems like every time I visit the airport there is a new level of security, like the star on our driver’s license,” Bryant said. “Why does it matter?”

 Bria Scott

The Twin Towers at the World Trade Center burn off in the distance from the Statue of Liberty on Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo: National Park Service/Public Domain)

A Not-so-Typical Tuesday

Shelley Barrow was having a typical Tuesday on Sept. 11, 2001.

She picked up her husband, New York Giants linebacker Micheal Barrow, from Newark’s airport after his Monday night football game and returned home to rest.

She was later awakened by her phone ringing off the hook with her mother on the line crying, asking if she was safe. Barrow had been taking classes in Greenwich Village near the World Trade Center, a 15-minute train ride from her home in New Jersey.

Confused, she turned on the TV and saw a replay of the plane crash into the first tower.

She recalls her neighbors running outside to call family and friends in hopes of getting a better signal on their cell phones. In the following weeks, she would see marks on tires that signified who made it home. People started to put markings on their tires to signal to others that they were alive and well. If a car was left sitting and unmarked, everyone assumed the worst.

“After a week of search and rescue, if the cars were still there,” Barrow explained, “it was safe to say the owners died in the towers.”

Over the next three years, the Barrows participated in a celebrity benefit carnival for the children of first responders who died on 9/11. The event was put together by New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia sports teams, including the Giants, Knicks and Jets.

 Megan Western

 A Clear Understanding

John Stevens

Three-year-old John Stevens sat in the living room of his family’s home in Cypress, California, watching a large, burning building on the television. “It was scary because, on the TV, it looked like my mom’s job,” Stevens recalled. “I was like, “Is that my mom’s job burning down?’”

At 22, he now has a clear understanding of the events that occurred on Sept. 11. He recalls seeing his family and his neighbors in tears as they watched the news.

As he grew up and found out more information about the attacks, he discovered that his mother’s building indeed may have been impacted if the hijackers had been able to go through with their plan. In 2006, President Bush announced that one building that al-Qaida planned to fly into was the U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles.

“That building is, I would say, less than 100 yards from my mom’s building, and my mom worked on the 68th floor,” Stevens said.

Although he feels he is slightly desensitized to the events that occurred on 9/11, Stevens believes that it is important that American citizens never forget that day and continue to honor those who were injured or lost their lives.

 Sarah Jones-Smith

‘Life as We Knew It Was Over’

Leah Blanton

Leah Blanton was on a bus going through the Lincoln Tunnel into Manhattan when the first plane hit the North Tower. By the time she arrived at her job at New York University, the South Tower had been struck and the city flew into a frenzy.

“Our building shook when the towers fell,” Blanton, then 22, said. The sky outside her building had gone from blue to black in a matter of minutes.

Everyone at work was trying to figure out how to take care of the NYU students while she tried to get in contact with her son’s day care back in New Jersey. When she left work, the ferry she took back home was filled with people covered in ash.

Blanton recalls the city being papered with missing person flyers, the smell of burning plastic permeating the air two days after the attack. “Life as we knew it was over.”

 Chanel Cain

Married With Memories

Glenda and Charles Nesmith had not met and married yet, but both were living in New York on 9/11.

“I started my day like any other, but for some reason that morning felt a little different,” Glenda Nesmith said. “You know when you have that gut feeling that something could happen? That is what I felt, but I pushed past it and went on with what I had to do.”

Her future husband was boarding a plane. “I was actually headed to New York that day,” he said. “I was coming back after a week of being home for the Labor Day holiday. I booked a red-eye flight hoping to be home in time for work, but coincidentally the flight was delayed, and by the time it was ready for us to board, we had all heard the news.” After that he looked down, reflecting both the pain and gratitude he felt in the moment.

The couple worries that more people might forget the severity of 9/11 as the years go on. “The trauma of that day will never leave the mind of those of us that were old enough to remember it,” Charles Nesbith said.

Of the roughly 3,000 lives lost during on 9/11, many more suffer from either the emotional or physical effects of the attack. “I have friends that were first-responders on that day, and I see it in them and others,” Glenda Nesbith said. “There are so many that don’t, and will never, realize many of their issues stem from that day.”

“I just hope that as the years continue to add up, that 9/11 will live on in the minds of generations to come, and I hope they remember,” she added. “There will never be another pre-9/11 world, but there are steps they can take to make the post-world better.”

 Bria Scott

Through Naive Eyes

Jordan Thomas
Jordan Thomas

Jordan Thomas, vaguely remembers being picked up from kindergarten when 9/11 happened.

Similar to many members of Generation Z, Thomas has very little memory of the actual event, but can explicitly recall the many consequences of the Sept. 11 attacks.

“There was no before 9/11 for me,” said Thomas, a 23-year-old graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, “I grew up in the aftermath of fear, xenophobia and TSA.”

Thomas also expounded on the way 9/11 shaped her politics. “As a kid, I think I grew up terrified of the Middle East and the religion of Islam,” she said. Now I realize there are extremists of all religions. I understand the ways extreme patriotism and fear can quickly turn to xenophobia.”

Now in her early twenties, she remembers the significance of the lives lost 19 years ago through a far less naive lens.

 Ryan Thomas

A New Appreciation

LaQuita Jones

LaQuita Jones was a student at Cypress College in California, attempting to heal from the recent death of R&B singer Aaliyah in a Bahamas plane crash and her fear of Y2K when she watched the 9/11 attacks unfold.

Y2K, the computer programming hack that was predicted to cause issues with the way that dates after Dec. 31, 1999, were displayed on computers, made her “think that the world was going to end,” causing unnecessary anxiety about what the new millennium had in store. Naturally, hearing about the 9/11 attacks enhanced her worries.

Jones was in her college’s Extended Opportunity Programs and Services office when the staff brought out televisions so that they could watch the news..

“I was unsure of what would happen next, but I was afraid that Osama Bin Laden was going to execute a plan to destroy the United States,” she recollects. Jones believes that the 9/11 attacks not only caused an increase in homeland security protocol, but also in patriotism.

“I believe that watching other American citizens put their lives at risk to save those who were impacted allowed others to appreciate firefighters, officers, airport security and the United States of America in general,” she said.

 Sarah Jones-Smith

Fear of Faith: Treatment of Muslims Post 9/11

The attacks that occurred on 9/11 will forever be a part of the fabric of this country.  Conversations about pain, community and healing occupied the streets. However, in the days following the attack, the conversation shifted as the seeds of Islamophobia were slowly being planted in the nation’s soil.

Michelle Daniel, a life-long resident of Brooklyn, New York, recalls witnessing the gradual and hostile shift in attitude towards Muslim Americans in the following weeks.

“If they came into a store, if they walked by, everybody was watching,” she said. “If they wore a hijab, you watched them.”

Although she was dismayed by the mistreatment of Muslims, she admits that she harbored the same prejudices at one point. “I still found myself being nervous if a Muslim person got on a crowded train with me.”

“It’s shameful to think that way now,” Daniels said, “but with the way the radio and TV talked about them and their countries just helped increase how nervous I already was.”

Public attention focused more on Muslims while mass media pushed the narrative that Islam promotes extremism and violence. The public had accepted a distorted and inaccurate image of Islam and used that to justify discriminating and targeting Muslims.

Anti-Muslim sentiments still remain deeply rooted in society. Hate crimes against Muslims rose exponentially in 2001 and are still rising.

As the world remember this day each year, Daniels and others are focusing on honoring the victims and their families, not on placing the blame on Muslims. They shared this loss as a nation. They grieved as a nation. And they are encouraging everyone to learn to dismantle biases to grow and heal as a nation.

 Saja Elhoweris

Fear of Being Next

Kenitha Grooms-Williams had just walked into the office, when her boss motioned for her to watch what was being shown on the television.

“It was played over and over,” Grooms-Williams said, as news programs showed the planes fly and crash into the buildings in New York.

Grooms-Williams was extremely nervous that the former World Trade Center in New Orleans right across from her building might be the next target.

“I was grateful that my boss sent us home,” she said, “so that I could run home and be with my daughters.”

 Alex D. Williams

Fear of Unknown Ancestry

Kalkidan Gezahegn

Tsehay Fekade, 48, remembers the harsh changes and new reality she faced from 9/11 as a recent immigrant from Ethiopia.

Tensions were high and people were full of fear and suspicion. Fekade said she faced prejudice at work and in simple day-to-day interactions.

For Kalkidan Gezahegn, 28, also a recent immigrant from Ethiopia, 2011 was her “worst year to date.”

She was enrolling in elementary school the same week as the terrorist attacks and encountered rude remarks and discrimination all year because of the ambiguity of her race.

          –  Eskedar Gezahegn

9/11 Through My Parents’ Eyes

My father, Tyrone Foster, was home with us, and my mother was working on Wards Island, a bit of a distance from Manhattan, which eased his worries. An avid TV viewer, who keeps the news channel  on all day even though the news repeats itself, he heard about the attack as soon as it went live.

“I was in shock when I watched the news,” he said, not completely sure if anyone was safe or if the attacks were done.

My mother, Shirley, said that everyone at her job panicked after seeing the attacks on TV. “It was scary,” she recalled. “No one knew what was going on. We were worried about family and friends.”

Living in New York, she was affected more so after the attack. She worried for her safety as she traveled by public transportation and feared being closer if another attack took place.

While she is still grateful that we were all safe during such a scary time, she holds a heavy heart for those who lost lives and loved ones. So does my father. Hearing all the names, seeing all the photos and listening to all the stories really takes a toll on him every year.

 Tanyia Foster

‘Those Buildings Were Beautiful’

Gail Braxton

Gail Braxton overslept for her job at a law firm in Atlanta on Sept. 11, 2001. She woke up from a vivid nightmare where she was high up in a building that was on fire. She explicitly remembers thinking that she would never want to die by fire as she went back to sleep.

Around 8 a.m., she got up and began her morning routine with the TV playing in the background. The news was on, and what she saw stopped her in her tracks. Al Roker reported that one plane had just hit the northern Twin Tower and then the other one. She clearly remembers Roker saying, “Now you know that’s not an accident.”

Braxton listened to the radio while driving to work, where she gathered with her co-workers around the TV as they watched both buildings collapse to the ground. She recalls the entire country being on alert and being told the firm had to evacuate the building.

At one point, Braxton worked for the U.S. attorney’s office in lower Manhattan, which made her nostalgic about the World Trade Center.

“Those towers were like a landmark, and those buildings were beautiful, something permanent and consistent that made me feel secure,” said Braxton, now 75. “So, for them to be taken away so quickly, so instantaneously it was a bizarre feeling.”

 Ryan Thomas

‘We Didn’t Have the Same Freedom’

Linda Johnson, a native New Yorker, was on her way to work when the first plane hit. She did not know anything had happened until she arrived and saw the staff watching the news. She witnessed the second plane hit while huddled around the television with her coworkers.

“The first two to three weeks after the attack were surreal,” Johnson said. “We didn’t have the same freedom as before. They were patrolling everywhere, especially the trains.”

The New York government handled the situation very well, she said. At that time, Johnson said gained respect for Rudy Giuliani, because he was out on the streets of New York and did not just handle the crisis from the comfort of his home.

 Brittney De Zwaan

‘It Taught Me to Appreciate Life’

James Blanton
James Blanton in 2001

James Blanton was a junior at Howard during the 9/11 attacks. He saw the news that the North Tower had been hit while getting ready for his first class of the day. The South Tower was hit while on his way from Cook Hall to the School of Education.

After classes were cancelled, Blanton recalls sitting on the Yard with his friends, one of whom was trying to get in contact with her mother who worked at the World Trade Center. It turned out that she was OK.

After the attack, security increased both around Howard and in D.C.

“This is gonna turn into something much bigger,” Blanton thought at the time.“ It taught me to appreciate life.”

 Chanel Cain

Embracing Security Changes

When Tara Fortune heard on the radio that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, she didn’t believe it. Then, she turned on the news and saw the scene unfolding in New York.

Fortune was 34 at the time and working as an after-school worker at Vienna Elementary School in Falls Church, Virginia, about 20 minutes away from the Pentagon.

“We were shocked,” she said. “The kids were let out early and kept until they were released by their parents.”

Many students had parents who worked in the Pentagon. Though all whom Fortune knew were unscathed, she recalls the difficulty of getting in touch with parents who, in turn, were unable to communicate with their children or family members.

“The kids were confused, because they were really young and didn’t understand what was happening,” Fortune said.

Immediately following the attacks, security intensified around the school and around the country with an increase in measures such as ID checks, bag searches and barriers at the entrances to public spaces.

Fortune hadn’t worried much about security before 9/11, but the security changes made her feel safer, especially during travel. “Flying became scary, because you never know if your plane was going to be next,” Fortune said.

The attacks of Sept. 11 seemingly exposed a hidden danger to Americans. With the tragedy on their minds, Fortune and many other citizens have embraced the security changes, which have become the norm in efforts to prevent tragedies like 9/11.

 Courtney Williams

The western wing of the Pentagon after terrorists crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the building. (Photo: Bob Houlihan/Public Domain)

‘We’re Under Siege’

Rose Spikes, 57, a widowed mother of one, described 9/11 “like something you only see in the movies.”

Spikes and her best friend, Victoria Munkres, 55, were sharing a home in Petaluma, California. Being three hours ahead of the East Coast, Spikes vividly remembers waking up to Munkres’ shrieks and crying at 6:30 a.m. on 9/11. “We’re under siege!” Munkres exclaimed between cries.

Both Spikes and Munkres say they suffer a little PTSD from the terrorist attack. Spikes experiences anxiety when flying, and Munkres developed a fear of bridges, flying and driving at night after the attacks.

“Even walking through the airport with the new guidelines being implemented to make me feel safe, it puts me on edge more because it is all I can think about,” Spikes explained.

Spikes is especially passionate about remembering that day and all the lives that were lost.

“9/11 will always be a hard day for me,” she said. “That was the first day I genuinely realized my destiny is not up to me.”

 Shanell Hall

Worried About Daughter

Carmen Nwanji worried about her daughter in New York after she saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center.

“I was terrified because I didn’t know where she was,” said Nwanji, who was at work in Atlanta. “She could’ve been anywhere in that big city.” It turned out that her daughter was OK.

Nwanji also discussed how 9/11 changed daily life such as, how people travel and how they trust others. “It was as if people became less trustworthy.”

 Brittney De Zwaan