September 11 was a lifetime ago for me. It happened during the years that I was working in finance at Bank One’s world headquarters, located in the Chicago loop.
I was part of a healthcare banking team, and flying was a regular part of the job. On the morning of September 11, several of our bankers—Jeanne and Stefan–were traveling by plane.
I didn’t know anything was amiss until my boss, Vince, came out of his office and told us a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Was it a terrible accident, we wondered, or was it a terrorist attack? Vince and I spent a moment looking at CNN on my computer. “It looks really bad,” he commented.
People stopped working, and tried to learn more about what happened. I went down one floor to another banking group, where more of my colleagues were gathered around a tv, watching live coverage.
There were audible gasps and moans as we all watched in real time when the second plane hit the second tower.
This was no accident. America was under attack, and everything had changed.
I went back up to my floor, where Vince and another banker, Jason, were talking. Vince was trying to reach Jeanne and Stefan on their cell phones. My desk phone rang, and it was Jeanne, who was still at O’Hare and trying to learn something about what was going on.
“Get out of there,” Vince told her seriously.
Then a plane crashed into the Pentagon in DC. There was a rising sense of anxiety as we realized that this was a planned, multi-city attack.
We were in one of Chicago’s biggest banks, in one of America’s biggest cities.
Within minutes, thousands of people were evacuating the Loop. “Be safe,” Jason told me. “Go home.” We all made a quick decision to leave and await further news. The streets were choked with people leaving downtown.
I finally managed to get on a bus, and several minutes into the ride, a man looked up from his computer and said, “A fourth plane just crashed.” Nauseous, I had to get off the bus. I felt like there wasn’t enough air to breathe.
I walked three miles from downtown to my Lakeview condo, calling my many loved ones and friends in New York and DC. “I can see the smoke from my window,” my dear friend Karen, who had been the maid of honor at my wedding, told me quietly.
As the next five days unfolded, the sense of grief and shock in our country was palpable. Our banking colleagues were accounted for, thank God.
I remember watching images of children in the Mideast celebrating in the streets as they learned about what happened in America, and I wept.
I wept for those young children, being raised to hate. I wept for the victims, who were just decent people living their lives when violence visited them in the most horrific way. I wept for the many innocent Muslim Americans who were now being viewed with fear and distrust. I wept for us all.
Amidst the terror and the ugliness and the death, there were pictures of beauty. There were people who came together to search for the remains of those who perished. There were people who ventured out to eat at Muslim restaurants, showing solidarity with their fellow countrymen.
I remember standing on a street corner in Evanston, participating in a supportive rally. When the City of Evanston fire trucks drove by, everyone roared with pride and grief, and above all, gratitude. Gratitude for the first responders in New York who laid down their lives in the service of saving others.
The skies were silent. For weeks after September 11, the mere sight of an airplane from the bank windows caused me to hold my breath. I read the stories of the victims, and I thought about their families constantly.
We received a memo at the bank informing us that a handful of zip codes in New York had been permanently retired. They were the zip codes from the World Trade Centers. Later that day, I stood at the bottom of the massive John Hancock building and looked up. It seemed as if the top of the building were swaying with the clouds. I tried to picture the building burning to the ground. After a long time, I turned and walked away.
As the months and years passed, more victims of September 11th emerged. My dear friend Gretchen Kennedy lost her only brother in the war on terror. On March 20, 2003, Marine Cpl. Brian Matthew Kennedy was one of the first to die in Kuwait when his helicopter crashed. Her grief was awful to witness.
On this day, let us all remember the victims of the initial attacks, as well as the thousands who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past ten years. Our thoughts are with your loved ones today. May time continue to bring comfort in the long process of grieving.
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