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Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?

September 10, 2013
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September 11, 2001.

It was the morning of my second day at a new job. I was just waking up when my sister, who was living with my family at the time, banged on my bedroom door and ran into my room without waiting for an answer. Her normally unflappable manner was gone and her voice quavered with fear: “BPN, wake up, you’ve got to come see the TV, I think we’re being attacked—planes have crashed into the World Trade Center and it’s on fire, the Pentagon’s on fire, and they say another plane might be headed for the White House!”

I dashed into the living room, heedless of the fact that the curtains were open and I was in my nightgown, and watched breathlessly as history was being made in front of our eyes. Even the 18-year-old and the 15-year-old had stayed home from school to see what was happening, and they watched with us as the towers burned and the cameras continued to roll.

We couldn’t believe what our eyes were seeing. We gasped in horror as we saw people leap to their deaths from the upper floors of the World Trade Center. We saw footage of the third plane and the fiery hell that was the Pentagon, and wondered how many were dead inside. We heard the news that a fourth plane, which had apparently been aimed at Washington, had crashed in a Pennsylvania field leaving no survivors.

And then the first tower collapsed.

Unbelievably, it seemed to telescope upon itself as it crumbled to the street below. All four of us cried out “Oh, my God!” and the oldest daughter began to cry as an enormous dust cloud engulfed buildings and people alike. Nobody knew how many souls had been in that tower. Nobody knew how many had gotten out safely. All America knew was that few, if any people who were in the tower at that moment could have survived.

Meanwhile, the TV showed endless replays of the second plane crashing into the tower as bystanders below screamed and cursed. This footage was interspersed with views of the remaining tower as it burned, with people easily visible as they leaned out of the windows, frantically signaling for help that would never come.

Suddenly, another deep, sickening rumble became a roar as it, too, collapsed in much the same way its twin had. The girls screamed, and my sister and I burst into tears. It felt like the end of the world was at hand, and worse, we had no idea when, or if, there would be more attacks. The news anchors knew no more than we did—all they could do was speculate—and wild rumors spread furiously across the media: the Sears Tower had also supposedly been hit (this turned out to be untrue), there were more planes headed for DC and possible Los Angeles (also a false alarm), the President and his staff were safe but hiding in an unknown bunker (partly true).

Finally, around 11:30 (our time) it occurred to me that I really should go to work, it being only my second day and all, but when I got there the first thing I saw was an ambulance. It seemed that our Pearl Harbor survivor had suffered a heart attack while watching the TV in the dining room, and the atmosphere was almost as crazy at the nursing home as it was everywhere else across the country.

We managers tried to turn off all the TVs in the building to avoid further upset to the residents, but it seemed like every time we turned around, they were back on again and staff and residents alike were gathered around them. By the time lunch was over, we’d given up and found ourselves stopping to watch the horror as we ran around the building trying to keep everybody calm.

What I remember most clearly about that day, however, was my overwhelming desire to stop time right then and there so my family and I could huddle together and be safe forever. I wanted that so badly I could practically taste it. I couldn’t wait to get home, hug my husband and all four of my kids tight, and close the windows and doors against the terror that seemed to be waiting just outside.

A dozen years have come and gone since that warm September morning, and even though my family and I were nowhere near lower Manhattan that day, nor were any of our friends or distant family involved, 9/11 has touched us in more ways than we knew at the time. In no small part due to the events of that day, our youngest daughter’s boyfriend joined the Marines after high school graduation a couple of years later. Some time later, he was sent to Iraq, only to be killed by a sniper just outside Fallujah a few days before he was to come home on leave.

Because of him, the same daughter went on to join the Army and also went to Iraq, although her outcome was much better. And because of her, our older son joined the Army as well and went to Iraq as an infantryman; he suffers now from PTSD and depression, and sometimes my husband and I wonder if he’ll ever be OK again.

But perhaps the most poignant memory of 9/11 for me is the chorus of a song written and sung by the great country singer Alan Jackson shortly thereafter, appropriately titled “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)”—a song I play on this day every year:

I’m just a singer of simple songs, I’m not a real political man,
I watch CNN and I can’t hardly tell you the difference ‘tween Iraq and Iran,
But I know Jesus and I talk to God,
and I remember this from when I was young~
Faith, hope and love were some good things He gave us,
and the greatest is love…

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