Above: At the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York City, roses are placed on the names of survivors on their birthdays every year.
On Sept. 11, 2001, four coordinated terrorist attacks were carried out by Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda. Terrorists hijacked four commercial airplanes, crashing two into the World Trade Center in New York City. Another crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and the fourth airplane (after flight passengers learned of the other attacks and fought back) crashed into an empty field in western Pennsylvania. In total, the attacks killed 2,977 people, according to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum.
As we reflect back on the tragic events of 20 years ago, we asked BRAVA readers: Where were you on 9/11 when you learned what had happened? Here’s what they had to say.
I was working with a couple students at the Waisman Early Childhood Center [in Madison]. Staff, teachers and parents were arriving and talking in hushed conversations; some were quietly crying. I didn’t ask, as it seemed like private conversations. A couple hours later I left to go to another center, and when I got in my car Tom Brokaw was on the radio, no music. By now it was 10 a.m., 11 a.m. eastern time, and the first tower had fallen, so I’m trying to figure out what is going on after so much had already happened.
“There is black smoke and thick dust everywhere!” “Debris is falling all around us!” “People are jumping out of the windows to their death!” There was so much panic and horror on the radio and I couldn’t figure out what was happening! I called my husband on my basic cell phone — he was at home with the flu and was still asleep; he had no idea. I went back to my office and my co-teachers had a small TV set in the break room. It all became unbelievably clear.
I was 13 and my mom, two younger sisters and I were headed to Disney World. She had a physician’s assistant conference, and it was a family vacation opportunity. First time any of us (besides my mom) had flown on a plane. Left Madison at 7 a.m. CST and had a layover in Cleveland.
We were mid-air when the first plane hit, my mom remembers the attendant being on the phone up front for a very long time. Landed and were told to evacuate the airport immediately — everything was completely empty when we finally did arrive since they had had time to evacuate prior to us. We were escorted (with other passengers) via police and they told my mom and other adults that one of the towers had been struck by an airplane. SWAT teams [were] on the roof of the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and had intentionally grounded a plane out of caution.
We later found out that Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania had been in their airspace and that’s when their air traffic controllers knew something horrific was happening. No cellphone, but another passenger who had been coming home from visiting family in Madison let my mom use her husband’s phone and she got through to my dad to let him know we were safe. This family took us in overnight, helped us with a rental car and get going so we could return back to Baraboo, Wis., safely. They fed us and made sure we were updated on news too. It wasn’t until we had gotten back to their home in Cleveland that we heard about the second tower, Pentagon and the [airplane in the] field in Pennsylvania. Two days and an 11-hour drive home, fully refunded Disney trip and a week to wait for luggage to arrive. Grateful for the kindness of strangers.
Corrina & Patrick (@mindfluencers_)
In school (economics class) then we went out for lunch and got the new Mariah Carey CD. Afterwards, when really understanding the situation, my mom let me come home to be with my sister and brother, who also came home.
I was in the middle of giving a training to the Whole Body team at Whole Foods Baltimore. I ended up driving my rental car back to Chicago as I couldn’t fly. Two longest days I never want to repeat.
I was in 5th grade sitting in class when my teacher got the news and shared it with us and tried to explain what was going on. I was pretty young but couldn’t really understand what this all meant. But, today, I fully understand the pain, suffering, fright and sadness that was felt on that day. Forever in my heart.
Art history class at UW. Everyone’s cell phones started going off.
My 5th grade third period math class. The principal announced over the loudspeaker to turn on the TV in each classroom and we all watched the towers fall in stunned, uncomprehending silence. School was canceled for the rest of the day.
In 7th grade homeroom, in the cafeteria, in Oregon Wis. Had no idea what was happening, but I remember the teachers being really upset.
I had been working for the American Red Cross for 6 months and I was in my boss’s office watching on this small TV in disbelief. A few hours later we had a line around the building of people wanting to give blood because in a time of feeling so helpless, that was one thing people thought they could do to help.
I was in my college public relations class. Hopped on computer to prepare for current events quiz, and could not believe my eyes — I didn’t think it was real. My professor canceled class.
I was in second grade at the time and I remember teachers bringing old box TVs in on rolling carts so we could watch the news. School was locked down and parents were advised to come pick us up. I still remember what I was wearing that day and I was only seven years old.
I remember it was a school day, because I was up early. It must have been somewhere in the ballpark of 7 or 7:30 in the morning (Pacific Coast time), and when I came downstairs, my mom was sitting in the living room watching the news in her pajamas. Maybe I actually saw it, or maybe my memory has transposed the image, but I remember seeing the towers smoking on the TV. I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew it was bad by the look on my mom’s face. At the time, I was in third grade. I remember that year the best, probably because my teacher, Mrs. Purvis, had a boa constrictor in her classroom. But also because the Sept. 11 attacks became a permanent fixture within the classroom. The day it happened, we watched the news in class, and when her son went to fight overseas, we wrote letters to him and other men in his unit. I don’t remember having a lot of conversations about what happened, but I wasn’t sheltered from it either. I don’t think the horror of it really set in until much later, though. When I see images or hear stories about it now, I am so heart-stricken. But then, I don’t know, I was so young that it just felt like a thing that happened.
I had just come back to my apartment after a morning class at UW-Madison and I remember turning on the “The Today Show” on TV and seeing black smoke billowing out of one of the World Trade Center towers. Katie Couric’s tone was grave as she and Matt Lauer struggled to explain what was happening minute by minute (which was surely terrifying for them, being located in New York City). My older brother also attended UW-Madison and he called, asking if he could come over so he could watch the news with me. I remember sitting with him in stunned silence.
In 2018, my mom and I visited the 9/11 Museum & Memorial in New York City. If you’re ever out there, I recommend a visit. It gives a full rundown of what happened on 9/11, plus, what led up to the attacks and how they were coordinated. It’s tough to walk through — one particular area still gives me chills and tears reflecting back on it. You step into a darkened room with pictures and audio recordings are played in a loop of those who called loved ones from the hijacked planes. The palpable sense of terror in their voices and the “It’s OK, I’ll be fine and I love you” type of messages are absolutely heartbreaking. But, the museum and memorial is a beautiful, haunting homage to the people who perished on that day.