Where were you on 9/11?

September 5, 2011

By Larry Downing

It’s a simple question understood by anyone alive on September 11, 2001; an unwanted reminder for those who witnessed the confusion of America’s day of crisis as uncertainty stretched beyond its borders and illustrated to the world man’s capability of reaching out and doing harm to others.

That September day started quietly as early Fall leaves gently landed on top of the morning shadows of New York, Washington D.C. and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, but turned horrible after passenger jets and skyscrapers fell out of the sky holding thousands of souls trapped inside evil fires.


(REUTERS/Sean Adair)


(Rescue workers carry mortally injured New York City Fire Department chaplain, the Rev. Mychal Judge, from the wreckage of the World Trade Center in New York City September 11, 2001. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)

Four commercial jetliners loaded with travelers and fuel were hijacked in flight and then used in a choreographed death wish by determined men who took control of the nation’s course and momentarily dictated its history. All of it captured in high definition on television and on the internet.

Another anniversary date remembered forever with pained hearts and needing nothing more than a mention of a place, a name, or a number to start a personal discussion of the events on that day. December 7th… Dallas… Bobby… Munich… Challenger… Oklahoma City… Flight 93… Flight 11… Flight 77… or Flight 175…

The tenth anniversary of 9/11 is only days away but chances are good you remember where you were on that day. Much easier than, say, recalling what two teams played in the Super Bowl earlier this year?
Mine started with a phone call at home from Reuters’ picture editor Herman Beals, who prefaced with a warning, “this isn’t a joke…but airplanes are hitting the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York…get to the White House NOW.”

Reports from the car radio said an “explosion” was heard at the Pentagon. I jumped over the fence at Arlington National Cemetery and ran up the hill that overlooked the building. Flames, smoke, and helicopters surrounded an ugly hole in the middle of the south side of the building; the point of impact when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed. Rumors were another passenger jet was heading towards the Capitol. I kept my long lens focused on the Capitol until two U.S. Air Force F-16 jets armed with missiles declared air superiority.

The next week was a long invisible blur under a dark cloud of grief; standing from dawn to dusk across from the Pentagon watching the sun rise over a stunned nation as weary rescue workers kept a patriotic stiff upper lip while still searching for signs of life inside the smoldering building. Vacant skies were eerily quiet as all commercial aircraft were grounded nationwide.

Ironically, the pilot of the doomed hijacked jet, Charles F. Burlingame III, was U.S. Navy trained and had once worked at the Pentagon during his military career. He received full Navy honors during his funeral across the boulevard from where he died, inside Arlington National Cemetery.

Air travel stopped being an easy romantic pleasure after the attacks with added security. The Department of Homeland Security (created because of 9/11) immediately initiated color-coded terrorism threat advisory levels: Red…Orange…Yellow…Blue…or Green… which served as a traveler’s barometer for the hours needed to get through long security lines stretching inside the airports.

Working as a photojournalist in America soon became more difficult. Carrying a camera on the street now makes photographers “suspect” as lightly informed security guards, nervous police officers and suspicious federal agents look at cameras as possible surveillance tools for a future crime.

Pass the word…we live in a free society and it’s not a crime to carry a camera and use it in public.

4 comments

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Very insightful and well done, Larry!

Posted by Stelio | Report as abusive

Where were you when?

I know where I was when John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. I was at a high school football practice in Brooklyn, New York. Across the playing field, the oblique Autumnal shadow of elevated subway cars raced along the stationary shadow of the nearby el. It was only a year before, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, that we had, by a narrow margin, escaped the horror of a thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union.

It must be a part of human nature to mark the defining moments of our time, of our generation, by remembering where we were, as if to fix an unthinkable horror with an everyday happenstance is to give it meaning and order. My parents’ generation would recall where they were when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor

My two oldest children, my “boys’, were both in New York City on September 11, 2001, when the horror of that day unfolded. My oldest son, Amos, 27, was bicycling across the Manhattan Bridge from the Borough of Brooklyn to Manhattan Island. He saw the pageant of destruction from the middle distance, safe, but shaken.

Eli, 26, was just emerging from the Canal Street subway station in lower Manhattan when the first airliner plowed through a tower of the World Trade Center. Although much closer, he initially saw less of the attack. This is how it is in war. As he approached the burning building on foot, he witnessed the second hijacked plane impact on the second tower.

I have no doubt that my sons will remember where they were for the rest of their lives, while I may not recall that I was at home in Victoria. I may not remember that my friend, Paul Starita, (another fellow former New Yorker who now also calls Victoria home), telephoned to ask if I knew what was happening. “Turn on your TV.”, he said. And like millions of people around the world, I did.

It is not my purpose to comment upon what has been commented upon so eloquently by so many others. The repeated images of the fatal intersection of silvery swept-wing jets with shining skyscrapers took on the aspect of a Hollywood special effects spectacular. There was an eerie air of unreality about it all.
As one of the towers collapsed upon itself, one news announcer said, “There are no words.”

I thought about my sons in New York City. I knew that it was possible, but not too likely that they would, but only by very bad luck, have found themselves in the World Trade Center Towers that day. Yet you think about Thornton Wilder’s novel, “The Bridge Over San Luis Rey.”, the story about how a group of unrelated people in South America come together by chance at the same time on a bridge that collapses.

The phone lines to New York were tied up. I told myself that the odds were against their being in harm’s way. I knew that, sitting in safety in Victoria. I went through the mental exercises of cutting back the corners of subterranean irrational fear that tried to surface through the thin mantle of reason. I sent a simple e-mail message to Amos, “Are you and Eli all right?”

Within the hour, he replied. He had heard from his brother, Eli, by phone. They were both all right. To my surprise, I learned that Amos’ wife had worked, until a week or so before the attacks, at one of the buildings adjacent to the two towers.

It was the time of the accounting of souls and the writing in the book of life, and in the other book. We cannot say where our names are inscribed for the year that is to come. But we can be thankful for this time.

Posted by Altmulig | Report as abusive

I was at queens college, spanish class, i was an adult student, my daughter was in kindergarten at the time. someone ran into the class proclaiming the US is under attack, we thought he was nuts. we remained in class and when we emerged from the classroom, people were just walking around in circles, on cell phones, we were still not aware of what happened until i asked someone, i ran to the view of manhattan from the college near the library and witnessed the second tower crumble to the ground. i started to walk home, i didnt know what was going to happen next, but it was a relatively warm day, and as i was walking a bus came by. i got on the bus to go home, and you could hear a pin drop, dead silence. when i got to my stop, i went to my mothers house, my husband had the same idea, he told me that our daughter’s school was in lock down, so i went up to my mothers house, she had the tv on, we watched and waited, for some reason, she had the vcr on and taped the entire day. sometimes i remember what i saw but cant believe it actually happened. the stench of death permiated over my building for weeks, as i used to be able to see the towers from my window in flushing. now, all i see are the lights each year on the anniversary (not a good word to use to remember this day), it was surreal and i will never forget this day as long as i live. this day should be made an official national day of rememberence, a day off for all americans to reflect on those who lost their lives working and trying to save those who were trapped in the towers. this is my memory of this day.

Posted by GEMINIDMN | Report as abusive

I was a junior higher, 7th grader to be exact. The memory is somewhat hazy but I remember being in in one of those classrooms with wooden desks and wooden floors. I was in English class with a teacher I really disliked. It seemed like any other morning until the principal came on the loud speaker in an urgent tone asking teachers to turn on their TVs. He said nothing else.

This is the moment I remember most. My teacher ignored his call and kept teaching, and I went through the day as usual. There was an unusual air of silence that day. I couldn’t figure out why. I would hear that we had been attacked, but to what capacity I did not know. Who would attack us? I didn’t see tanks scrambling down the roads. Soldiers evacuating citizens — business went on as usual.

When I got home that afternoon I finally was able to understand the enormity of what had happened after switching on the TV. I remember the confused and dazed looks. Bizarre.

My senior year, about 5 years after that day, my high school choir took a trip to NYC for a tour. I was finally able to walk the grounds where the buildings once stood, it didn’t help that it was raining. The cleanup was still in progress and you could still see the aftereffects.

10 years after that day, as a college graduate and fresh photojournalist, its interesting to see how 9/11 has changed our society and how Americans are addressing that day in history.

On 09/11/2011, I had a day of rest, enjoying the Black Swamp Arts Festival and music, photographing lightly and taking in life while observing festival-goers around me.

I think we’re nearly ready to move on and look to the future but we are never to forget the tragic events of 9/11 and how it has affected our society and the decisions in Washington.

Posted by EnochWu | Report as abusive