Alex Wong/Getty Images
Visitors browse newspaper front pages with the story of the 9/11 terror attacks at the 9/11 Gallery of the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
For some people, time stopped on Sept. 11, 2001. For others the day remains a blur. But most people have a story about where they were, what they were doing and what ensued as they learned about the terrorist attacks in New York, at the Pentagon and on a plane that crashed in Pennsylvania.
The events of 9/11 have become part of our American story, a touchstone prompting recollections in the same way the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 or the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986 do for those old enough to remember them. Whether people were on the ground in New York City on 9/11, across the country or in the rural heartland, the day was a collective experience for Americans.
In some cases, the events people saw and experienced on 9/11 spurred them to make life-changing decisions or veer off their planned paths. On this 20th anniversary, we asked seven people who learned of the attacks from afar to share their memories of that fateful Tuesday morning and its impact on their lives.
Victor LaGroon, 51, Washington, D.C.
Days like that, you don’t forget. At the time I was working for a residential treatment center in Rochester, New York. One of my staff said, “Hey, there was an airplane accident in New York City.” I turned on the news and said to myself, “It’s really odd that a plane could hit the World Trade Center.” Planes don’t come in that way.
I was watching the live news feed when I saw the second plane slam into the second tower. At that moment, I said to myself, “Things are getting ready to change forever.” I knew something serious was going on.
For me, 9/11 was one of those pivotal moments in life. In 2003, I enlisted in the Army. It wasn’t from the perspective of: I want to go be some hero. It was more from the perspective of: It’s my turn. My grandfather served in World War II, my dad served in the ‘60s, my youngest cousin was a Gulf War vet. I’m probably the seventh or eighth person in my family to serve in the military. The day before my 35th birthday, I signed my contract.
I came into the military as an intelligence analyst. I served with the 10th Mountain Division in the U.S. Army. One part of our division went to Iraq. My brigade went to Afghanistan. We had great missions, we worked with international forces, we supported special operations and combat operations. My career was cut short because I had several injuries. My options were to get a different job and go to a different unit, or to medically retire. I chose to medically retire.
Like many who have worn a uniform, I’m extremely proud of the opportunity to have served with the people I served with. I think it’s the greatest thing I have ever done. It came with a price, but I view my country differently because of the opportunity to serve.
The world stopped
Linda Strader, 65, Green Valley, Arizona
In June 2001, I lost the job where I’d worked since 1998. I sent out résumés to every potential Tucson, Arizona, employer in my field. On Sept. 11 I had three interviews scheduled. My husband was away on a work assignment that week, which was normal. I rose early, went for my morning swim and came inside to get dressed. I’d barely dried off when the phone rang.
“I think you need to turn on the TV,” my dad said. I did, and watched dramatic footage of the twin towers in flames. After 10 minutes, I glanced at the clock. I had my first interview in an hour and a half. Should I go? I decided I had to. It wouldn’t look good to be a no-show.
When I hit the interstate, I couldn’t help but notice I was about the only person on the road. Something felt very, very wrong. My first stop was in downtown Tucson. The subsequent interview was more about the tragic events unfolding that day than my qualifications.
The next interview was a lunch meeting. Again, the interview had little to do with the job. My potential employer filled me in on the events I’d missed since I’d left my house. After the final interview at 2 p.m. I headed home, feeling as though the world had stopped and would never start again.
Scared, uncertain and afraid to be alone, I called my husband as soon as I walked in the door and asked him to come home early. For weeks, even months, I wondered if life would ever be the same, if the country would ever be safe again.
I didn’t land any of those positions, but in November I did finally find a job.
Watching from overseas
Colin Clarke, 40, Pittsburgh
I was studying abroad at the University of Galway in Ireland. I had been studying history and political science and was interested in international politics; I think our first day of class was Sept. 11.
I remember being called into a classroom with other American students and thinking it was more paperwork. They told us that a plane had hit the World Trade Center and to go back to our rooms and put on the BBC. When I left the university building, I was still under the impression that it was an accident, not a deliberate terrorist attack.
[After the nature of the attacks became clear], I became obsessed with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Salafi jihadist terrorism. I became a voracious reader of anything I could get my hands on related to jihadism, al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden.
I went to grad school in 2004 and then went on for a PhD studying international security policy. I’ve since testified before Congress multiple times, I’ve worked in the intelligence community, I’ve written three books now on the topic of terrorism, mostly focusing on al-Qaida and the Islamic State.
I feel like the career chose me. There’s no way I would have ended up getting a PhD or becoming an academic [had 9/11 not happened]. I’m from a military family: Both my grandfathers were in the military, as well as uncles, cousins and close friends. If you asked me, Do you have any regrets? Not serving in the military is up there. But I feel like the work that I do is my way of contributing and giving back to national security.
A new perspective on grieving
Jodi O’Donnell-Ames, 55, Titusville, New Jersey
I was 35 years old, and six months had passed since I lost my husband, Kevin, to ALS. I was depressed and had no idea how to go on.
I took my 8-year-old daughter and 3-year-old niece to school and drove to work in Philadelphia. On the way, I was listening to NPR and heard the news. I pulled over in panic, grief and disbelief.
I just started to cry. I recognized that I was angry and I felt cheated — but when I heard what happened, I felt guilty because I had six years to say goodbye to my husband. I had six years to let him know in every way, shape and form that I loved him.
That was when I made the commitment to use my horrible experience to help others and to make a difference in the world. Creating my nonprofit [Hopes Loves Company] was a way to make sense of what happened. Hope Loves Company is the only nonprofit in the United States that provides free resources and educational and emotional support to children who have parents living with ALS or who have lost a parent [to the disease].
There is no specific answer or timeline for how long someone will grieve. The only thing we can do is try our hardest to find a way to honor the people we have lost while also finding the strength to continue.
A bigger purpose in life
Jasmit Singh, 53, Olympia, Washington
I got up around 3 in the morning; I was flying from the Bay Area to San Diego, where I used to travel for work. It was a 5 or 5:30 a.m. flight — we were in flight when things started happening on the East Coast.
We were redirected to land in Burbank, California. I was miles from where I needed to be. I came out of the airport and still didn’t know what had happened; it was not something they announced on the plane. My focus was on, How am I going to get to work?
I rushed to rent a car. When I got on the road, the first sign that there was something wrong was that the people next to me were flipping me off while I was driving. I couldn’t understand what was going on — then I turned on the radio, I spoke to my wife and understood the enormity of what had happened.
I drove down to San Diego. By the time I got there, my work had already sent out an email saying that there was no need to come in. I checked into a hotel room and started talking to my friends and to family about [discriminatory] incidents that were happening all around the United States.
Some other friends and I started thinking about what we needed to do to help the [Sikh] community. By that evening, seven or eight of us got together on a call and realized there were no resources to address the kinds of things we were hearing about: assaults, verbal abuse, people being turned away from their workplaces.
For the next six weeks, all of us were focused day and night on [creating resources for the Sikh community]. Out of that came [the advocacy group] the Sikh Coalition. It changed my life. I went from being an engineer focused on career to recognizing that our purpose in life is much, much bigger than that. Our impact has to be about our communities.
‘People wanted to be together’
Laura Geller, 71, Los Angeles
I was the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. We had a community day school at the time, a parochial school. Our executive called and said, “Turn on the television, something important is happening.”
My partner at the time, who became my husband, was sitting on an American Airlines flight on Sept. 11 that was scheduled to leave JFK after the first tower had been hit. Thankfully the plane never took off. It was pretty terrifying. You see how life can change in a second. Thankfully for us, it didn’t.
That Friday night, our synagogue was filled beyond capacity. People wanted to be together. In a sermon I gave the following year, I told the story of my cousin, who was a 16-year-old student at Stuyvesant, a high school in New York two blocks from the World Trade Center. When the planes hit, her teachers told them to evacuate the school immediately and to run north as fast as they could.
[Her story] led me to be able to talk about what [we hoped] we would have learned from 9/11 and what our commitment to core American values was.
The only way that extremism will ever be moderated is when people find ways to talk to people with whom they disagree, and to recognize that what brings us together ought to be way more powerful than what separates us.
Losing a student
Thomas Plante, 61, Menlo Park, California
I remember I was going to have a busy day at work. I had to bring my son to kindergarten and was rushing around. Then, we got a phone call from my brother-in-law, who was in New York. He talked to my wife and said, “Put on the TV,” which of course we did.
We watched in horror as the second plane hit the towers. At some point, I brought my son to school and then went to work. I’m a professor at Santa Clara University, a Catholic Jesuit university. They have a daily Mass, and I’ve never seen the mission church as packed as it was that day, with everybody squeezing in.
I found out later in the day that one of my students and academic advisees was on the plane that went down in Pennsylvania. Then it really hit home. Her name was Deora Bodley. She was a rising junior and psychology major. A delightful student and person.
In 2016, I was in New York City and visited the 9/11 memorial. They have all the names of people who died [inscribed] on the memorial. I didn’t expect to see Deora’s name because there were so many. I glanced for it, but figured, there’s no way I’m going to find it. But I found it.
You had to work hard not to just burst into tears. It was powerful.
Sarah Elizabeth Adler joined aarp.org as a writer in 2018. Her pieces on science, art and culture have appeared in The Atlantic, where she was previously an editorial fellow, California magazine and elsewhere.