My Personal Memory of 9/11

It’s strange how quickly a major event that affected everyone in the Western world gets relegated to history. The current generation of high school students don’t remember 9/11. To them, it’s static history. I guess the Holocaust was relegated just as fast.

9/11 happened after college for me, and since I still consider myself young, it doesn’t seem that long ago. In September 2001, I was living with my boyfriend-at-the-time. We both worked at a Nintendo game development studio; my first job out of college. I had downtime, so I was working from home on a CD-Rom game, animating SpongeBob characters in 3D, and taking classes at the local community college, which cost me $11 per unit. The classes were Screenwriting, Desktop Publishing with Quark XPress, and 3D Modeling in Maya. I was having a blast writing the original draft of my first novel, and I felt confident that I would soon become a best-selling author. I was 23 years old and adjusting to an adult lifestyle away from my family and from dorm rooms. Every so often, I would hang out with my friends from the CalArts Animation Department.

On the morning of 9/11, I was sleeping in with my boyfriend-at-the-time, because we both had the day off. My phone rang and woke me up. I think it was a Nokia flip phone, but I don’t remember exactly what sort of phone I had at the time.

The voice on the other end screamed in her nasal New Jersey accent, “ABBY, WAKE UP! WAKE UP! THE ARABS ARE ATTACKING!”

I sat up in bed, groggy. This was a childhood friend whose family came from New Jersey, and who had moved back there the year before our high school graduation. Unlike me, she tended to be religious and conservative. “What?” I wondered if she was having a delusion.

“THE ARABS!” she yelled. “TURN ON YOUR TV! TURN ON THE NEWS!”

The noise had woken up my boyfriend, and he could certainly hear her yelling as I held the phone away from my ear. We had a TV in the bedroom, and he turned it on and flipped to a news station.

That was when we saw live footage of smoke coming from one of the Twin Towers, and heard reporters talking in worried voices. An airplane had flown into one of the Towers, hijacked by terrorists. No one was sure why, but they suspected it was a terrorist organization operating out of Afghanistan, which was held by an ultra-radical Islamic group known as the Taliban.

“Oh my God,” said my boyfriend.

“I see it,” I told my childhood friend from New Jersey. I talked to her a bit more, and then hung up.

A week earlier, I had received a mass-forwarded email for a charity fundraiser to help Afghani women who suffered under the Taliban. I’d read that entire email, fascinated because I assumed it was a hoax. Yeah, right, I remember thinking. There’s an entire nation forcing women to wear blankets whenever they go outside? Not in our modern world. How can anyone believe this?

I had been so certain that it was a hoax, I’d deleted the email and not given it a second thought.

While my boyfriend sat with his eyes glued to the news, I went to my desktop computer and researched the Taliban. The fact that they were a real organization blew my mind. I could hardly believe that an entire country was taken over by such radical religious zealots. It was surreal.

“Abby,” said my boyfriend. “Oh my God. People are dying there. They’re jumping out of windows and falling to their deaths. I need to call my family.”

His father was F.B.I. and a S.W.A.T. Team leader who had taken down a white supremacist terrorist organization, and his brother was a C.I.A. agent who regularly traveled to newsworthy places and wrote speeches for Senators. When he got off the phone with them, he was shaken. His brother, the C.I.A. agent, had cancelled a business meeting in the Twin Towers that morning. He’d come down with a stomach flu. Otherwise he would have been there, trapped, and possibly one of the desperate people falling to their deaths.

My aunt lived in Manhattan at the time. She owned an off-Broadway theatre in Times Square with her business partner. My parents called from New Hampshire, and told me that she was okay, but she saw people running through the streets as if it was a zombie horror movie. She was scared.

***

We were shocked and saddened when the first of the Twin Towers collapsed. By that time, we had been watching the news for hours. I had to take a break.

For the next three days, my boyfriend did little other than watch the news on TV. I tried to go about my life as usual, but the world felt changed.

One of the weirder moments was when I went to my Quark XPress class that Thursday, and the teacher had absolutely no clue why most of the class was absent. “Where is everybody?” she said. “Is there a holiday or something that I don’t know about?”

“The Twin Towers,” I said.

She looked blank.

“You didn’t hear about it?” That was hard for me to believe, since I had been immersed in it for two entire days. “Terrorists attacked New York City and the World Trade Center collapsed. Thousands of people are dead.”

She looked stunned. “Oh my God.”

Another weird thing was the observation that the skies were quiet. We lived on the flight path to the Burbank Airport. We were used to airplanes overhead all the time. For days after 9/11, there was no air traffic at all.

***

Months later, I listened to recordings of people trying to survive in the Twin Towers during the collapse. It was heart-wrenching.

I read some of the conspiracy theories, but I figured the terrorist attack was credible enough to give up chasing other theories.

At the office, my coworkers spoke of friends and family members who had narrowly avoided being a passenger on one of the hijacked airplanes, or who narrowly avoided being inside the World Trade Center that day. They said that the airplanes were much emptier than they should have been, because a lot of people called in sick at the last minute.

***

In 2013, I met sci-fi author Hugh Howey during a dinner with fans at WorldCon San Antonio. Mr. Howey made a point of sitting with every guest for 15 minutes, and we could ask him any questions. When he sat with me, I said, “A lot of your books feature genocide. It’s really striking. That’s such a heavy topic. What inspires you to face genocide in your writing?”

He told me about his experience during 9/11. At the time, he had been a boat captain in the area of Staten Island. On that day, he ended up rescuing people. He took his boat beneath the World Trade Center and helped desperate people escape, never knowing if the burning buildings would collapse and kill them all. The terror never quite left him. He writes about survival stories and genocide, in part, to work through his lingering survivor’s guilt.

***

It’s been fifteen years since 9/11, and for some people, this event is as ancient as anything written in a history textbook. But for many people who live in this time, in 2016, the memory is as clear as if it had happened last week.