The sun shone brightly on this September 11th morning. As I walked along the prairie, admiring the goldenrod, purple thistle, and bright yellow blossoms, it wasn’t the birdsong or the chirping crickets that interrupted my thoughts. It was the sound of airplanes flying overhead. It’s a very common part of the soundtrack of our lives here since we live near a major, international airport. It triggered an eerie memory, though, on this National Day of Remembrance, of a time when our skies overhead were silent for many days.
As I neared the park the somber strains of the bagpipe drifted through the air over the crowd of neighbors gathered on this early Sunday morning. We were there to remember and honor the victims and their families of that terrible, terrible day fifteen years ago. Patriot Day is now a very special time of remembrance every year on September 11th.
We gathered this morning to commemorate all of the brave first responders who sacrificed their lives in service to others. A local firefighter remembered how a small group of firefighters from our town immediately left for New York. They made the journey specifically to attend the funerals of the New York and Port Authority fire fighters who lost their lives on 9-11. Since the New York area firefighters were in the midst of search and rescue, firefighters from across our nation arrived to support the families and to be there for the funerals.
A local police officer shared his remembrance of that day right here in our town, over 800 miles from New York City. People were afraid, and the job of our police officers that day and long afterward was to reassure citizens that we were safe. Seeing an extra police presence on the local streets brought a sense of comfort in the weeks following 9-11.
The names of those brave 343 firefighters and 71 police officers who instantly lost their lives while trying to save others were read aloud. There was a pause at 8:46 and 9:02 a.m. for a moment of silent reflection at the exact times that the planes hit the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. A local honor guard marked the sacrifice made by police officers with a three-shot salute and a local firefighter honored the fallen firefighters by ringing a fire bell, a longstanding tradition of firefighters.
A veteran shared his memories of being called back to active duty and all of the young men and women who wanted to serve our country following the attacks. A young woman vividly and bravely shared her memories of that day and the impact it made on her life, inspiring her to become a high school counselor. We honored the memories of all those passengers on Flight 93.
This morning’s ceremony ended with the display of an artifact from the World Trade Center, recently given to our local fire department by the New York and New Jersey Port Authority. This piece of steel is a rail from the subway tracks that ran underground at the World Trade Center. On 9-11, these tracks carried survivors out to safety. Soon this special remembrance will have a permanent place of honor at one of our fire stations.
As we listened during the 90-minute ceremony, everyone’s thoughts turned to that day, fifteen years ago…
I can remember that sunny Tuesday morning, as if it were yesterday. As I drove into the school parking lot, a news report interrupted the music on the radio at 7:46 Central Time. The news of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center was an unbelievable shock. In that moment, we didn’t yet understand what was happening. I paused to breathe. Just as every morning, I quietly spoke my intention, “Thank you for bringing me here” for the new school day. It was time to rush inside for a before-school meeting. During our meeting, news reached us that a second plane hit the Twin Towers.
The school bell rang and my second grade students arrived filled with concern and questions… so many questions. For they had all seen the news reports on TV before school. They were frightened and wanted to know if they and their families were safe. Even now, just thinking about that day brings tears to my eyes. Fortunately, our class was like a family, having ‘looped’ together from first grade into second grade. We felt the bonds of trust and closeness that were so important at a time like this. I remember spending a great deal of time talking about heroes. We talked a lot about the helpers, the firefighters, policemen and women, paramedics, doctors and nurses,… all of the people who help us. I listened…and listened… and shared a few facts in age-appropriate ways. These curious, engaged children looked to me for answers every day, but sometimes there are no answers…
Mind you, I still had not seen any news reports or the horrific images that my seven-year-olds had seen. At lunchtime, I watched the news footage of the terrorist attacks for the first time. The new reality, that terrorist attacks had now reached our homeland, cut into my heart. As a traveler, I had been very aware of the attacks that had been happening in Europe over the years. Memories of arriving at the Frankfurt airport just days after an attack, seeing military with weapons on patrol, being careful not to look ‘American’ while traveling, and discovering that there were places I couldn’t go were etched in my heart. I was a frequent traveler who always dreamed of my next European adventure with dear friends. That feeling of being ‘Home Safe Home’ each time my plane landed here was gone in an instant! Everything had suddenly changed.
In the weeks and months following the attacks, we often talked about ways that we could help one another in second grade. “There are no hands too small to help the world” was a phrase we often said in our classroom. We would look at our own hands, then pick up our pencils and crayons to write ‘thank you ‘ letters to our firefighters. Our little hands stayed very busy! We wrote class letters to a deployed Army soldier (and he wrote back). We honored the veterans in our own families, and we raised money to help others. We loved to share ideas about all of the ways that we could help in our families and communities. Celebrating the helpers and being the helpers made us all feel better!
That is the part of ‘Remembrance’ that I hold dear. After the unthinkable had happened, Americans everywhere were so kind and supportive to one another. We truly showed that we cared about one another’s feelings and needs. We pulled together to help and make a difference. (Do you remember filling the firefighters’ boots with donations for the families of the NYC firefighters?) We talked together… and we listened to one another. We were one… we were Americans, at our best!
On this Day of Remembrance, if only we could remember those same feelings of kindness and caring and helping one another. Instead of the constant political squabbles over the upcoming Presidential elections, maybe we could work together, have meaningful conversations, listen to one another, and try to solve the problems that face us all. We can be our best… I know we can.
P.S. If you would like to share a memory, we would love to hear from you!