“Where were you when the world stopped turning?” sang country music artist Alan Jackson in the weeks after 9/11.
I was at a Chik-fil-A in North Dallas. Then, in my cubicle. Then, in a co-worker’s apartment. We didn’t have a television at the office, and the news sites were jammed.
The perpetrators that day demonstrated certain foresight. They chose planes full enough of fuel to create maximum explosions but empty enough of people to limit resistance.
Their first hit got us all watching; their second terrified in real-time. All on 911, a universal number of distress. Though the terrorists were organized, their plans didn’t fall completely into place.
In Pennsylvania, the courageous passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 scuttled its kamikaze mission. Cell phone calls provide a record:
“We’re going to rush the hijackers.”
“Are you ready? Let’s roll.”
“I have to go. They’re breaking into the cockpit. I love you.”
In New York, the hijackers knew forty-thousand people worked in the World Trade Center. Thousands more visited daily. Remarkably, less than 2,700 people perished in the structures. The Dallas Morning News’ special edition on the afternoon of 9/11 had predicted “tens of thousands” dead.
In the days after the attacks, stories flooded in. Some told of narrow escapes, others of loved ones lost.
Two public address announcements within the towers had life and death effects. One message encouraged workers to return to their offices stating the damage had been contained.
Another Titanic-esque message said the buildings were incapable of collapsing, which actually helped evacuees stay calm during their stairwell descent.
The stories of rescuers going up as regulars came down still put a pit in my stomach. One hero, “the man in the red bandanna,” was an intern at an investment bank. Welles Crowther is credited with saving at least five lives before he fell that day.
As chronicled in a new book by ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi, Crowther had plans to join FDNY. The department made him an honorary member posthumously, only the second such bestowment in its 141-year history.
On a macro level, we were fortunate to have a principled Texas cowboy riding herd at that point in our nation’s history. It was not a time for gray. We needed black and white, good and evil, us and them – we needed George W. Bush’s resolve.
“Our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution,” Bush told Congress in the days after the attacks. “Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.”
Countering Secret Service opinion, Bush pushed to get back to Washington, D.C., by nightfall on September 11th. He knew the risks, but he did not fear the enemy.
In the years that followed, tens of thousands of his fellow Americans would take on similar risks, and they would not fear the enemy. Many would encounter Crowther’s fate.
At the end of the day, any day, especially that very long and somber day a decade and a half ago, the United States of America is still a nation of givers, sacrificers. We place service over self.
After the ash settles and the Psalms are read, we still ponder an age-old question: What does it profit a man to gain the whole world yet forfeit his soul?