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A Thousand Points of Light: The Death of Fellowship

My parents, and their generation, have their moments they claim to remember as vividly as the day they happened. Be it the moon landing, the Challenger explosion, or the fall of the Berlin Wall, there are those moments that define when we lived, where we lived, and who we lived with that stand out forever. Every generation has them, the defining points in time that stay with them, the memories that stand out more than the others in a way no simple day could ever compare with in your life. 9/11 wasn’t just that day for my generation, but it is the most vivid we have as Americans and it shaped so very much of our lives.

Every couple of years this overwhelming sense of nostalgia rises up in me over the events of that day, the vivid nature of the memories overwhelming me for the day as I think back to everything that happened. It was a normal morning on a normal day at school, first period I was a page in the library and living in Streamwood meant my bus was at 6:50 am sharp to get to Bartlett. By 7:20 I was in the Library shooting the shit with Ms. Lorz and the library aide. Normal, all normal.

Plumes of smoke billow from the World Trade Center towers in Lower Manhattan, New York City, after a Boeing 767 hits each tower during the September 11 attacks. ©2001, Michael Foran

At 7:50, the other librarian came into work looking white as a ghost having just come from her car where she heard about the crash of Flight 11 into the North Tower. We ran to the resource room and flipped to CNN to watch the aftermath, wondering what could have gone wrong. Drunk pilot? Bird strike? Suicidal flight crew? It was so innocent, people could never have imagined the kind of attack that was taking place and it still wasn’t even finished. We were too innocent, maybe, and far too arrogant.

Somewhere deep in the bowels of U-46 headquarters, the administration was hard at work coming up with how to handle students and to take care of the smaller children at school. This was a national tragedy, but they couldn’t risk the elementary and middle schoolers watching the news over and over again, it had to be stopped. As the second plane hit the South Tower, they knew they needed to cut the news feeds in those schools so that they could allow the parents to interpret and explain to their children.

8:03 I was sitting in a chair in the library resource room when we watched live on the news as Flight 175 hit the South Tower and killed all souls on board. We knew it wasn’t an accident then, we knew it wasn’t a joke or a mistake but something far more sinister. The principal came onto the loudspeaker and instructed all teachers to turn off their televisions, the district had ordered a media blackout in all schools and would go so far as to unplug the cable feed to stop us from watching any more. They thought it was to protect us, to keep us from seeing the horrors of that morning but it just made us more anxious.

Next period the teachers won, they convinced the principal to turn the cable back on and to allow students to continue getting news. They also commandeered phones in classrooms, offices, and labs to allow students to call their parents at work and make sure they’re okay. I remember a number of my classmates with parents working in the federal buildings downtown and the horror when the lines were all busy, no way to reach their parents and make sure they’re alright. 8:45 we watched the aftermath of Flight 77 slamming into the Pentagon as analysts tried to piece together what they could from the shocking events mere minutes earlier.

TA view of the damage done to the Western Ring of the Pentagon Building after American Airlines Flight 77 was piloted by terrorists into the building. Public Domain, 2001.

There was disbelief, there was no way the Pentagon was attacked like that without some kind of warning or response. We had missiles and fighter jets and all the layers of protection that kept our capitol safe. But the video didn’t lie, the pictures didn’t lie, we were under attack. Disbelief led to panic, to bad news, to confused reports. The White House was hit, the President was dead, no he was reading to kids in Florida but Cheney was dead, no he was in the bunker but the Capitol was in flames. All wrong, all terribly wrong.

Third period we kept watching, we saw the people leaping to their deaths from the tower to escape the inferno inside. Firefighters on the scene like you’ve only seen in movies, trucks as far as the eye can see and filled with men and women trying to save the thousands of people trapped inside still, or in Lower Manhattan in general. The photo of The Falling Man by Richard Drew still makes me feel that intense sadness and despair of the day, the desperation of those left above the crash with nothing else to do but die.

The Falling Man, a photograph by Richard Drew for the AP.

8:45 am the planes were grounded. Every flight, every person, every parcel and package in the United States was put back on the ground where they would stay for two long, agonizing days of fear. Days of families trapped apart, travelers stranded in strange places, and a communications network that couldn’t keep up. The news showed the early precursor to FlightTracker on TV and how sadly and incredibly empty the skies were for those two days, all to make us safe.

I sat in mute terror as the South Tower collapsed near the end of third period, just before 9 am. By that time the news media were all over Lower Manhattan, watching from every conceivable angle the destruction of the building. Fourth period didn’t allow us to watch the news, and attempted to continue teaching, but we refused to learn; we were under attack and demanded to know what was happening, to understand what was being done to our country. She relented, we watched life when almost 30 minutes after the first tower fell, the North Tower joined it in rubble over the plaza and the thousands of firefighters, police, and office workers who were inside.

In that moment, in that place, we were Americans, and we were under attack. It didn’t matter who you were or where you were from, all that matter was you were here. In the time since, though, we’ve forgotten that moment, that feeling.

9/11 New York City Prayer Service at Yankee Stadium. ©2001, CSPAN

There were no Republicans or Democrats on 9/12, there were no Christians, Jews, or Muslims, or anything else for that matter. I feel it’s a point we’ve forgotten in the intervening seventeen years, a point that died and was buried deep in the past two years especially. Harsh rhetoric and angry words separate us in a way even the terrorists behind the September 11th attacks never could achieve. Where we stood united in our darkest day in two generations, today we’re more divided than we’ve ever been before.

AP, The Record (Bergen County, NJ), Thomas E. Franklin, Staff Photographer. © 2001

I’m a nobody, my opinion and my story above are entirely meaningless to anyone but myself. I don’t expect you to read my experiences and my memories and have some kind of epiphany, hell I didn’t even anyone I knew in the attacks. What I have lost is hope; hope for this country and the people who live here, the hope that we as a nation can survive anything the world throws at us. We argue how many people are in a picture and whether or not a fact is a fact, do you sincerely believe another attack like September 11th would bring us together like the last time it happened?

Sadly, my answer is no; and that is how fellowship died.