Reflecting on tragedy 13 years later.
My father has been an Air Traffic Controller for over 25 years. I have many fond memories growing up around the radar screens and the air traffic jargon. He started at New York Center on Long Island, and then transferred us all down to Washington Center where he still works today as the TMO (Traffic Management Officer). One prominent memory involves a late night shift with dad, setting up my Mickey Mouse sleeping bag under one of the controller desks and staying up way past my bed time.
I’ve always been fascinated by the radar screens & planes, watching the blips move slowly & listening to the controllers relay instructions to the pilots. The air and space museums are probably two of my favorite places. I knew immediately it was a job I’d never be able to do.
On September 11, 2001 I was in my 8th grade, 3rd period, English class. The school had been put on partial lock down, no gym classes outside and it was a beautiful day, many of us were very confused. It was towards the end of the period when Principal Bannister came over the loudspeaker to tell the students and teachers what had happened and gave the all clear for teachers to field questions from their students. Parents began trickling in one by one to take their kids home. I don’t think we fully understood the extent to what had happened.
Bell Rings – on to Spanish Class. Basically the day is shot, there will be no learning done the rest of the day and you can feel it. Everyone is talking about what’s happening with no real answers – before the smartphone era. My immediate thought was of my grandmother who was working in Washington, DC at the time. But I had visited her at work before, so I knew she wasn’t in the Pentagon. All of a sudden, my name is called over the loud speaker.
As I gather my things and make my way to the main office, I’m expecting to see my mother. Instead I am greeted by a throng of worried looking parents and no Mom in sight. I’m told she’s in the library so I head there, another swarm of anxious parents. Confused even more now, I find my neighbor’s mother. Apparently she’s here to take me and 2 other neighborhood kids home. She’s attempting to tell us what happened on the drive home, but says we should save the questions for our own parents, so we listen to the radio broadcast in silence.
As I walk into the house, the TV is on, playing and replaying the events of the morning. It’s the first time I’ve actually been able to comprehend what exactly is going on. There are messages flashing across the screen as well, talking about Washington Center’s Air Traffic Control Building. Messages saying the building has been taken over by terrorists, and then that the bomb squad is there and I realize… Dad isn’t home.
At the time I hadn’t heard of this movie, but now it seems fitting – Pushing Tin (1999), the scene in particular where John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton are the only two in the building during a bomb threat pulling planes out of the air.
Knowing my dad, a supervisor at this point, he’s sitting back at one of the radar screens with sleeves rolled up and taking charge. Over 4,500 planes across the country have to land in a few hours (the video above was produced by NASA from FAA logs of that day). We’ve heard from him once all morning just saying “I’ll be home late”. People are calling the house, asking if he’s OK, they’re seeing the messages too. Mom is beside herself, she tells me she pulled my sister and I out of school because she was afraid of what we might hear & wanted us to have the correct information straight from the source.
Finally, the garage door opens and Dad walks in. We’re all relieved and he works to dispel the rumors from the news; no there were no terrorists in the building. Yes there were SWAT team members on the roof (and for weeks to follow). Yes they brought in bomb dogs to sniff out trouble. No there was no real danger in the building. He’s just exhausted.
I couldn’t pull myself away from the TV all day, just trying to figure out why someone would do this, what was the point? But seeing the comradery of the American people in the following days, it was incredible. I realize not all families had the relief of a happy ending. In fact, many are still in mourning to this day. We were one of the lucky families.
It shouldn’t have taken something like that for us to realize that although we have different lives & beliefs, the same basic principle stands. Bullying is wrong, and we won’t stand for it.
Washington Center was closed to visitors for quite a few years after the attack. While you still can’t enter from the main road, the building has now re-opened and you can go in, sit next to a controller, and listen to their conversations with the pilots.
Below are Photos I’d taken from my summer relocation to NYC in 2009.
Visiting the Finished Memorial in 2013 was a whole different experience. If you have the opportunity to do it, I highly recommend it. But please, be respectful. This is not a “tourist” attraction. Real people lost their lives here, real mourning happens. “From the ashes we rise. In the darkness we shine brightest”
*2015 Photo Update*
No sense re-writing the same story every year, so here I’ve updated with photos from my 2015 trip.
Each year we heal just a little bit more, but we never forget.