September 11, 2001 had a profound effect on my life.
No, none of my family members were on board any of the flights that departed Logan International Airport. And no, I had no friends or no acquaintances who worked on the 87th floor of the World Trade Center. But still, the events of September 11, 2001, humbled me. Memories from that morning will always be ingrained in my soul, and have helped shape the man I am today.
It was a Tuesday. I woke up in my dorm room in Coddington Hall at the University of Rhode Island and put my feet on the floor. I was dreading the morning, because even though I was just five days into my college career, I had already grown to dread my daily routine. I was reluctant to hop out of the school-issued twin bed on this morning in particular, as my high school sweetheart was beside me, having visited for the night from her college in Western Mass. But alas, It was far too early in the semester for me to skip classes, so I put my full weight onto the cold floor, and walked over to turn on the small television in the corner of the room. That's the moment it all changed.
It was about 8:55 AM when the picture came into frame. I had switched to NBC to watch the Today Show as I put myself together for the day. As soon as the volume kicked in, it was clear something was amiss. The camera had honed in on a New York skyscraper billowing smoke. It was the North Tower of the World Trade Center, and it was, at the time, believed that an aviation mishap had directed a large passenger jet into the top third of the building's North side. These aviation accidents had occurred in the past in New York. I even could recall the story of a B-52 Bomber whose pilots had become disoriented by fog and slammed into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building in 1945. So, I -- along with much of the television media -- chalked this up to a horrific accident.
Fewer than ten minutes later, it was clear that there was no mishap. As I watched the North Tower burning on live television, a dark image came into the shot, rapidly approaching the adjacent structure. I witnessed the second plane,
United Airlines Flight 175, slam into the South Tower in real-time. We were under attack. I -- a college freshman in his first week as an adult -- and the world was exploding around me. I had never felt so vulnerable.
It soon became clear that this was no small event, and was not isolated to Manhattan. 30 minutes later, word came from Washington that a plane from Dulles International Airport had crashed into the Pentagon. 30 minutes after that, another plane, United Airlines Flight 93, had departed Newark and crashed in rural Pennsylvania.
Was that it? Were more planes coming? Who was next?
Panic tore through campus, and the world. URI cancelled the remainder of its classes, and the FAA had grounded all US flights. Rumors spread quickly that college campuses were on the "hit list." But there we stood -- not sat -- stood. We were speechless, with our eyes glued to a 13-inch screen, and flipped through every station to find more information. We were isolated. Estranged from our families, from our friends, from the rest of the world. But, on this day, nothing else mattered.
Suddenly, I became very selfish.
"Why is this happening to me?"
"How will this affect my daily life?"
I was contemplating what inconveniences this would bring to me. I recognized that this was a catastrophe of epic proportion, and that thousands of families had just lost a loved one -- fathers, mothers, children, friends, coworkers: gone. But still, I was concerned about how this event would change me. I was thinking like a lone wolf, and not as a member of a pack. I became lost in my own worries and thoughts, and had temporarily relinquished my sense of community.
Then -- perhaps out of stir-craziness or saturation -- I ventured from room B301C to explore the immediate area. As I walked about the building, I experienced mostly silence drizzled with muffled television audio of the same reports I had just grown sick from. I had been feeling sorry for myself, and felt the stirrings of a panic attack climbing my diaphragm. I sat down in a common area in my dorm hallway, and just stared out of the window.
Then it happened.
A fellow freshman girl, whom I had never before had the pleasure of meeting, came into the hallway. She was clearly in distress, visibly disheveled with eyeliner running down the ridge of her nose. She must have noticed my trepidation, and sat beside me for a moment. She didn't say much, but she looked at me with a genuine kindness, and said :
"I know it's tough, I haven't been able to get in touch with my family either."
She continued to sit there for a moment, but was quickly interrupted by her friend who came out to ask "any word?"
She clenched her jaw, shook her head left to right, and tears welled up on the surface of her eyes. She stood up. I wanted to hug her, but I didn't. I just continued to sit there stoically, now realizing how selfish I was in my thoughts. While I was wallowing in self-pity, loathing about how this terrorist attack would impact my daily life, I was surrounded by people who were truly victimized on a personal level. My "whoa was me" attitude was drawing compassion from peers who themselves were dealing with a reality far more grim than I.
I don't know this girl's name. I don't know much about her. But I do know that three days later, she was packing up her dorm room to move back home. I had asked around a little -- trying not to pry -- and according to the story, her father was aboard United Flight 93. And this fellow student, before waking up, had received a text message of "I love u," with no context. I don't know if that is a true story, but I also don't think that even matters.
I wish I had acted differently that morning 14 years ago. I wish that it was me that acted as the compassionate neighbor, and not selfishly wallow in my own self-pity.
I don't think about that encounter just once per year, but nearly every day of the last 14 years. But it was at that unfortunate moment that I was able to shed the lone wolf mentality, and realize that I am a member of a pack. The same pack that you belong to, and the same pack that makes us compassionate, makes us affectionate, makes us human.
I will never forget that girl in the hallway of Coddington Hall, and I will never forget that Tuesday in September.
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