Two years ago, at a 9/11 commemoration on our campus, a student asked me why we recognized this day. He had no memory of this event. I told him that cultures always have “markers” that define a particular moment in history and provide shared meaning to a community. Whether he knew it or not, 9/11 reframed the world he lives in.
On Sept. 11, 2001, I was serving as George Fox’s provost and preparing for a long day of accreditation meetings at Patrick Henry College, located just outside Washington, D.C. I took an early-morning run, ate breakfast, and then headed to the college to get started. The air was already a little cool and crisp, and the sun felt good as it rose. Every aspect of the day seemed normal.
We were meeting with students when one of the administrators interrupted and, with a shaking voice, called us to go to the student dining hall. Something had happened. The space was crowded but silent. Two large screens played CNN News. We watched live footage of the World Trade Center, known by most as the Twin Towers, in New York City.
At 8:45 a.m. an American Airlines plane had flown into the north tower. The tower was on fire, and reporters could only speculate on what had happened. As we watched, and just 18 minutes after the first plane hit the north tower, another plane flew into the south tower near the 60th floor. The explosion threw debris everywhere. An hour later, another plane crashed into the west side of the Pentagon. Both of the Twin Towers collapsed. America was under attack.
We speculated on how many such attacks there might be. Was the military called to alert? What else did we know? I do not remember much about the rest of the day. We tried to call family, but cell lines were overwhelmed. We were thirsty for information, but little was forthcoming. There was an ominous feeling that colored every conversation and a genuine sense of helplessness.
We later learned that 19 militants associated with the Islamic extremist group al Qaeda hijacked four airplanes and carried out suicide attacks against targets in the United States. Over 3,000 people died on that day. I remember news coverage of phone calls of individuals trapped in the towers to their loved ones saying goodbye.
It was heartbreaking. For most Americans who were alive at that time, they remember it as a day that redefined their experience. Shawn Daley, our chief strategy officer, remembers trying to reach his father and best friend, who both worked in downtown Manhattan. His friend occasionally worked in those same towers. While fortunately they were both spared, more than 40 alumni of his high school, including two of his classmates, perished that day. He is reminded of that loss every year when his school honors their memory.
President George W. Bush’s presidency became defined by his response on that day, and much of the work of the federal government thereafter focused on combating terrorism. Travel, international and domestic, would never be the same.
It was also a day of great heroism. We watched firefighters and police running toward the towers as others fled for safety. Those images are engraved in my mind. Everyday citizens risked their lives for those they did not know. Some sacrificed all so that others might live. While it was one of the worst events in American history, it also brought out the best in some Americans.
We ended the accreditation evaluation that day. (Interesting side note: Two current faculty members at George Fox were undergraduate students at Patrick Henry during my visit.) However, we could not go home because all the airlines were grounded. Americans were stranded all over the globe. I spent seven days in hotels in the Washington area wondering if Dulles International Airport would reopen. Some of my colleagues, most of whom lived in the Midwest, found cars and drove home across the country.
When Dulles finally opened, it had an eerie feeling. Airports are often places of hustle and bustle. People are angry about standing in lines and vent their frustration on airport staff. On this day, there was nothing but silence and politeness. It took me more than four hours in a security line before I was able to go to my gate. No one spoke. There were tears. Many just stared into the distance.
When I made it home I hugged my family harder than I ever had before. It should not take a tragedy for us to realize what is really important in life – but sometimes that’s what it takes.
In the days after 9/11, American flags were placed along the street in downtown Newberg. They were symbols of our resolve and commitment to each other. There was an overwhelming sense of unity in our community and country. That sense of unity is something we could use again today.
So today, we stop, reflect and remember – the lives that were lost, the heroes that emerged, and the care that reemerged for our loved ones and those around us.