As an American living in Germany, I often get questions about my political beliefs. Discussions of American politics seem to circle back to two topics: Iraq and Sept. 11.
One question I often get is, “Where were you on Sept. 11?” It is a memory that will always be with me.
In September 2001 I was graduate student at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. I was 24 years old and living alone in an off-campus apartment for the first time in my life, and I loved every minute of it. My morning ritual involved making coffee in my very own coffee pot and watching “The Today Show.” Because I was a poor graduate student, all I had was an antenna, five channels and a small television. However, I always splurged on the good coffee and creamer. A girl has her priorities you know. On mornings when I felt especially ambitious, I would get up and go to the gym on campus and then head to my little “office” (actually a broom closet with a window) and work. Life was good.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was not feeling very ambitious. I got up a little later than I expected and groaned. As a teaching assistant, I was expected to fulfill my office hours that morning and I had an oral presentation in my religion and politics class. I secretly hoped that no one would show up to my office hours so that I could finish preparing for my presentation. The gym would have to wait until the afternoon. I showered and grabbed my biggest mug of coffee and sat down in my bathrobe to catch the morning news.
I don’t remember if the “Today Show” was the first to cover the story. I do remember that it took about 5 to 10 minutes before all of the morning shows were covering it. The first tower had just been hit and they were broadcasting pictures of cascading smoke coming out of the World Trade Center. I will never forget how blue and perfect the New York sky looked on that morning.
There was some confusion about what had happened. Most stations were reporting that it was a small plane that had crashed; the kind that carry only 2 or 3 people. Someone called into the TV station to report that they had heard it. The plane was definitely bigger; a commercial plane perhaps. The moderators did not believe them. Neither did I for that matter. “What kind of idiot does not see a 100 story building in front of him on a clear day?” I thought as I slurped my coffee.
Suddenly another plane came into the picture. It hit the second tower. Live on my morning news show. I was shocked. This was no accident. Over the next hour I did not move from my chair, paralyzed with fear about what would happen next. I remember looking at the towers as they burned. They looked a little tilted. I turned to the empty sofa next to me and said to no one, “Those buildings are going to fall down.” When they did I covered my mouth, but I did not cry. It was all too unbelievable.
After the second tower fell, I looked at my clock and felt panic. I needed to get to campus. I needed to tell people what I had seen. Because I lived alone and my street was so quiet, I felt like I was the only person in the world who had just witnessed what had happened. I got dressed and drove to the library.
I sat in the library like a complete idiot for all of ten minutes. It was instantly clear that I was not the only person who had spent the entire morning in front of their TV and no one really cared about my office hours. So I decided to walk over to the student union, which has four large TVs. It was packed with students. I quickly found some students from my department and walked over. By this time there were rumors circling the room. There were three more planes hijacked. One plane was headed for the White House. Scared students sat on cell phones desperately trying to get through to family in New York and DC.
After an hour, an announcement was made that classes were cancelled for the day and that mass would be held on the main quad. I would not have to make my presentation after all. I was supposed to make the presentation with another grad student. We went to mass instead. The entire campus was there including staff, professors, students and every retired priest in the area. It was even bigger than a football pep rally.
During mass I looked to the sky. It was blue and perfect; just like New York. It was also very quiet. Notre Dame is not far from the airport, and there were always planes overhead or clouds of smoke crisscrossing the sky. But on that day there was nothing.
I went home to my empty apartment and turned on the TV. I called with my mother and chatted with some friends. Fortunately I did not have any friends or family anywhere near where the four planes came down. However I did go to bed early that night. I never knew that I could get so tired from just watching television.
Sept. 11 changed my life in a way. I began to think about those things that are really important in life. Over the next few months, I began to patch up my rocky relationship with my father. And in 2004 I would trade in my academic life for a family life. That day taught me that life is too short to walk around with regrets. I tell my German friends that ask about my political views, that Sept. 11 did not teach me anything about politics, but it did teach me about being human.