Today marks 15 years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and I wanted to put my experience into text before memories start to fade and details are forgotten.
In order to explain where I was physically and mentally on September 11th, I must first explain what happened in the months prior. On May 13, 2001, I celebrated Mother’s Day with my mom and stepdad. Everyone was in a happy mood. I then went to work at Sam Goody. When I came home, my mother was infuriated over something trivial and kicked me out of the house. With no warning or preparation, I had hardly any money and no permanent shelter. I was living in my car and crashing at friends’ houses. I finished my second semester of college successfully and was then fortunate enough to end up staying with my friend Bryan for a few months until I could save up to live with roommates. Due to my circumstances, I had to drop out of school.
My job knew and was understanding of my situation and offered me a promotion as Assistant Manager, but I would have to transfer to another location. I was working in a Baltimore suburb and would begin my new position in Columbia, MD – about 45 minutes outside of DC. A friend – who was my old boss at a previous job – ended up needing a roommate in Columbia around this same time, so I moved in with him and his friend. We lived together for a few weeks before September 11th.
On the morning of September 11th, I made the short drive to work at Columbia Mall, to be there by 9am. As I parked my car at the mall, I took the adapter for my CD player out of my tape deck and the radio automatically came on. The station 99.1 WHFS was talking about a plane that had “crashed” into one of the World Trade Center buildings in New York, and they weren’t sure if it was intentional or an accident. I thought that it was odd and I hoped too many people weren’t hurt. I then turned off the radio and went to work.
September 11th was a Tuesday, which was the day of the week virtually all CDs were released back then. Jay-Z “The Blueprint,” P.O.D. “Satellite,” Ben Folds “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” Slayer “God Hates Us All,” Mariah Carey “Glitter,” and Dream Theater “Live Scenes from New York” were released that day, so my mind was on the people coming to pick up their reservations. I got the registers ready and opened the store at 10am. I was alone and no one else was scheduled to come in until the afternoon. This wasn’t unusual for a weekday during that time of year. I remember noticing that something was “off” with the customers that morning. It wasn’t a bad thing; they just seemed different. At one point, the credit card machine was not processing any transactions. A regular customer, who was normally demanding, was very somber when her credit card could not be processed. “That’s okay. There are more important things to worry about. I’ll pay cash.” The credit card machine would not be able to process any transactions for a while and no one was upset about this. I didn’t know at the time it was likely because the phone lines were tied up, since numerous people were trying to call their families.
After some time, the store phone rang. It was a coworker who was off that day. He seemed panicked and said, “Oh, thank God. I’ve been trying to reach you all morning but was unable to get through.” I asked him what was wrong and he’d asked if I heard about what happened in New York. I told him I knew about that plane that hit. He explained that another plane had hit the building beside it and a plane had hit the Pentagon. This was the information he knew at the time. It was at that moment that my heart sunk and I knew that the first plane hitting was no accident. His words were, “We are at war.” Because I was the only employee, and customers probably assumed I knew and didn’t tell me, I didn’t know what happened for hours. There was no TV playing the news at my job. There were no smartphones for the instant news access we have today. I don’t think “social media” was even a term back then. My coworker called every few minutes to give me further updates. This might sound like it would be obnoxious or stress-inducing, but I was grateful. I didn’t feel alone and I wanted to know what was happening.
But there was a lot of disinformation in the minutes and hours after the attacks. This is common in general with breaking news stories. My coworker told me that there were car bombs in and near DC. He’d also heard that some shopping centers in the DC suburbs were on fire, possibly bombed. Keep in mind that I was only 30 miles away from DC and in a shopping center myself, so this was unnerving. Thankfully, these turned out to be false and were based on inaccurate eyewitness reports, among other things. As someone who is now a skeptic, and recalling this incident and countless other big news stories, I’ve made sure to remember that facts right after a major news event might not come out until later. The information first reported might be false – usually unintentionally, but false nonetheless. My coworker was only trying to help me by warning me with what he had heard had happened, and had only the best of intentions, so I hold no ill feelings toward him for this.
During sometime in the early afternoon, a man was walking fast in the hallway of the mall and was yelling “We are closing! Close the stores!” Columbia Mall had recently given a letter to the stores of what the procedures were for early closings, and it certainly wasn’t that someone would just yell down the hallway to close. I wasn’t sure if the mall was really closed or if it was some random man playing a prank. There was no answer when I called the main office. The other stores were closing, so I figured I might as well do the same. I called the manager of Suncoast store in the same mall, as they were the same company as Sam Goody/Musicland. Since we were both working alone and couldn’t have another employee verify the register cash amounts, we signed off on each other’s paperwork, so that we were still doing the closing procedures as properly as possible. Yes, even during 9/11 I had to make sure my ass wasn’t getting fired. As I walked out of the mall, I saw paper signs taped to the entrance doors that said the mall was closed so that everyone could be with their loved ones.
When I arrived at my apartment, my roommates weren’t there. I turned on the TV and the footage of the attacks was playing. This was maybe about 2pm or 3pm in the afternoon, hours after most Americans had already seen it, but I was viewing it for the first time. The way I had pictured it was much different from what it actually looked like. My heart sunk again. It was like I was re-learning about this. It makes me wonder about other events in history that weren’t recorded by a camera and how much more devastating we’d think they were if we could see that, versus how we visualize the events in our minds.
My roommate had arrived home a bit later. It was so comforting to see him and actually talk about what happened with someone in person. That evening, I remember going online on Yahoo Groups for local Maryland bands, to make sure everyone was OK. After a while, I wanted a small escape from what had happened, so I turned on MTV, but even they were playing footage of the attacks. I became exhausted just from the mental and emotional effects that the events had caused, but then I felt guilty. The victims’ families couldn’t just turn off the TV. This was their lives now.
The next day at work, everyone was talking about what happened and it felt good to see each other and share our thoughts. Some customers had shown up in patriotic attire. I went across the hall to Claire’s to buy some red, white, and blue bangle bracelets. It may seem silly, and I’m not normally an overtly patriotic person, but it felt good to wear the colors and to see others do the same. We had all felt so helpless and powerless and this was a small way of relieving that, and we felt united. Corporate sent us a memo saying that we had to take the Dream Theater album “Live Scenes From New York” off the shelves and had to immediately send it back to headquarters. We were not to sell it to any customers. The cover art depicted New York City on fire. This was a coincidence, but I understand why the band decided to change the cover art.
Back in 2001, Baltimore and DC had fantastic local music scenes. (I’m not saying they don’t now, but I know they did in 2001 because I was a part of it.) I went to local shows at least twice a week in those days and was performing as a solo artist. There were shows scheduled for the Friday and Saturday after 9/11 that were expected to have a large attendance, and I had planned to attend. When the end of the week rolled around, some of the band members posted in Yahoo Groups that they weren’t sure if they should still play. They felt silly putting on a show when so much more important stuff was happening in the world and other people were suffering. Many people had something similar to survivor guilt. But we expressed that we needed them to still perform because – as trite as it sounds now – we didn’t want the terrorists to win. If events were canceled and we changed our way of life, then they would have won. We also found great comfort in music and needed to see our friends. The band members agreed and later said their sets were almost therapeutic for them to play.
The Monday after 9/11, I performed a solo set in Baltimore and that was a great outlet for me. And I’m grateful that I had these shows and the music community, as well as my roommates and coworkers. During this whole time, I was not on speaking terms with my mother. I didn’t have a cell phone back then. She didn’t know that I’d been transferred to a different work location. This was the first very emotional thing I had to endure without my family. But I was lucky to have wonderful people around me and I knew that I could have support and a connection with people who weren’t related to me. While I felt scared after 9/11, I also felt reassured that I’d be okay on my own.
As the weeks went on, I started thinking about how easy it is to die. I kept it to myself at first until my friends started expressing they felt this way. I was glad I wasn’t the only one. We started talking about how you could just trip the wrong way or have an accident in the bathtub and die. A driver could be careless and kill you by accident. Life seemed much more fragile right after 9/11. This eventually faded but I didn’t know it would at the time.
I lived somewhat close to BWI Airport, so my roommates and I could hear planes taking off and getting ready to land. It was such a common occurrence that we hardly noticed it before the terrorist attacks. When the airports were open for the first time after 9/11, I couldn’t get a good night’s sleep. Every time a plane took off or landed, I would wake up. This never happened before. I wasn’t trying to wake up; my body automatically did it. It would be weeks before I could sleep the whole night through.
As time went on, the fears faded and life went back to normal – sort of. Since then, our rights and our privacy have diminished. Conspiracy theorists have spread their misinformation that the September 11th attacks were an “inside job” of the US government. We’ve fought some unnecessary wars. On the plus side, other things changed for the better and I’m on great terms with my mother. Our relationship is the strongest it’s ever been. It took some time, but I was eventually able to go back to college.
When I was in high school, my classmates and I thought that future generations would ask us where we were on New Year’s Eve 1999 into 2000. We had no idea back then that it will probably be more likely that we’ll be asked about September 11th, 2001. I remember the details of that day much more than NYE 1999.