I don’t talk about this in my high school government classes, to this extent, but I had flown into New York City’s La Guardia airport on the morning of September 11, 2001. This was long before I would decide to change careers and become a government teacher, a lifelong passion.
But that day, Tuesday, September 11, I was getting out of a taxicab in lower Manhattan with my luggage for a business trip when the driver and I witnessed the second of two planes hitting the World Trade Center towers about 12 blocks away.
I was mortified. I had never seen a plane crash (thank goodness) in my entire life. The flames were intense and the fires from the first plane hitting the north tower were still burning. We were facing south (north of the towers) on Hudson Street and could see people in the street by the hundreds if not the thousands to witness this tragedy and feel as helpless as I did as to what we could and could not do. But I remember how quiet it was. Even with all those people, the streets were silent.
The people were watching because they were in shock. They could not believe what had just happened. We were far enough away that it wasn’t imminently dangerous just yet, but we did begin to see people and cars head north on Hudson and rescue crews would use Hudson Street to get victims to St. Vincent’s triage center a couple of miles north of where we were. Unfortunately though, there weren’t many ambulances carrying people. In fact, I don’t remember that many sirens blaring at all.
It took many months before I could sleep through the night after the horrors that I saw that day. I had always looked in awe at those buildings high in the sky. I had even been in those buildings for meetings, as a tourist traveling in the elevator to the very top, and even to do some shopping in the mall areas at the concourse levels and below ground to catch the subway. I would even stay at a small hotel on Wall Street, just two short blocks away from the Twin Towers. But not on this trip.
Nothing could match the horror and the sheer loss that millions of people felt that day as I was watching it before my very eyes while millions of people at home were watching it on television. You felt so helpless. People were running everywhere. Paramedics, firefighters and police officers were everywhere and were the amazing heroes of that day, many of which gave their lives when the structures came tumbling down less than two hours later.
By that point, I was inside our office building, seeing what I could do to help fellow employees and our clients who were getting out of the Twin Towers that morning as fast as they possibly could. Luckily, all of our employees and clients escaped with only minor injuries and no one from our firm was lost in that tragic disaster. But the memories of seeing people jump from windows high up on the upper floors of the building will haunt me forever. As will the devastating horror of seeing a 110-story building crumble to the ground. It was surreal and to write it is to re-live that awful day. I hope America never has to experience a day like that again, ever.
The world has changed since that day. I think we understand now more than ever the importance of what it means to be an American in our time. We have always believed in the freedoms of our U.S. Constitution. The importance of having a government to protect its citizens is fundamental to our U.S. Constitution. But we must also remember that our Founders only granted limited powers to the government so that it does not have the power to take away those freedoms or other rights granted to its citizens.
Whether you are for or against the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq is another story. That came later and was not about this day. Governments come and go, their leaders are praised and criticized, and our ideologies change based on the context of the circumstances we face in the world. It definitely shaped our views that day.
But one vivid memory I have from that day, was the feeling on the streets of New York City, as I walked with my luggage more than 50 blocks to another hotel that, more than anything, we were all Americans. When I approached a man who appeared to be injured on the street, with minor cuts on his arms and face, he was friendly and thankful for my asking. But he was on his way to St. Vincent’s up the street. A police car would later pick him up and take him there on Hudson Street, the northbound street that was coming directly from Ground Zero that day.
We weren’t Democrats or Republicans, progressives or conservatives, liberals or radicals, we were Americans, first and foremost. That’s what makes this country so great. It’s why I teach American Government and have the passion for it that I do. It’s who we are. It defines us as a people and the country we stand for. It shows our resiliency as Americans.
So as you remember September 11 today as I do, please think about the brave men and women who fought against time that day. They are our true heroes. They fought for our freedom and the freedom to be who we are, as we are, in the United States of America.