This was a phrase heard not infrequently in my life at the age of 25. I don't recall what I'd been doing the night before that had kept me up to all hours of the night. At that time it was probably an epic bout of playing Deus Ex, the original, classic PC video game. At the age of 25---girlfriend-less, working a dead-end job, suspended from BYU for a year for unacceptable academic performace---there wasn't much in my life worth doing other than playing Deus Ex until 3 a.m.
It was my mother. Yes, I was still living at home at the age of 25 while academically suspended from college.
"Something's happened in New York. An airplane crashed into the World Trade Center."
It was just before 7 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time. I immediately came to and rushed downstairs where my parents' main television was tuned in to one of the Big 3 networks, I can't remember which one. Smoke was billowing from the WTC north tower. News reports were sketchy; it seemed to be confirmed that an aircraft had struck the building, but the size and nature of the aircraft was in dispute. Initially there were thoughts that perhaps a small commuter craft had suffered from a piloting error and accidentally struck the building.
For the first three or four minutes, the situation seemed more fascinating than terrifying. A bit bizarre, perhaps, out of whack with the day-to-day of life, but I don't recall feeling any real fear. Surely it was just a mistake, a significant one, perhaps, but unintended.
And then on live TV, in front of the whole world, the second aircraft struck the WTC south tower. This was no Cessna, no twin prop joyrider out for a flight over New York on a crisp, blue-skied September morning. It was obvious on TV that this was a commercial airliner, massive turbojet props handing underneath its wings (later confirmed by the news to be a Boeing 767).
I must have stood there for a minute straight. It was unfathomable. What was I watching? This was real, right? This wasn't a TV show pilot episode, some made up drama. Over 2,100 miles away, two of the tallest buildings on earth were engulfed in flame and smoke. And even though I wasn't there, wasn't anywhere near the images unfolding on my TV screen, somehow this now mattered to me.
And then the fear hit.
We were under attack. This was not a mistake. This was not a case of pilot error. It was deliberate.
Panic clutched my chest, tightened around my throat. I couldn't breathe.
I rushed upstairs. At 7:05 a.m. the sun had not yet fully risen above the 10,500 foot peaks of Cascade Mountain to the east. Just like in New York, the sky was crystal blue and clear.
I looked up. I don't know what I expected to see. Perhaps my mind recalled visions of the old '80s movie Red Dawn, with enemy paratroopers falling from the sky. Was there going to be a nuclear attack? Were ICBMs already en route to strategic targets? Scenes from another '80s movie, WarGames, flashed into my head. Was NORAD under attack? Crystal Palace? Hill Air Force base was maybe 60 miles distant, with multiple fully-operational fighter wings. Surely that was a primary strategic target. Or what about the Tooele Army Depot, or the Dugway Proving Grounds?
For a good five minutes, the terror gripped me. Was the world I knew ending, crashing down around me?
* * * *
What was happening? What did this all mean?
* * * *
Ten minutes, thirty minutes went by, and no invasion seemed immediately forthcoming. The panic subsided ever so slightly. My youngest sister was 17 and still a senior in high school; she dutifully got herself dressed and ready for the day even as we had the sound from the TV turned up so we could hear it all throughout the house.
My usual shift at the electronics retailer didn't start until 11. I remained fixed in front of the TV, trying to absorb what was happening.
The fear subsided---but then the towers collapsed. The south tower fell first, even though it had been struck second. It happened moments before 8 a.m. Mountain time. Thirty minutes later the north tower followed suit.
And then the anger began. The earliest estimates put the death tolls over 1,500 people. Eventually it would swell to just under 3,000.
Dad had gone to work at 6:30, due to his 40-minute commute to Salt Lake. Around 10 he called the house and we chatted. I don't remember anything of what was said, other than I could hear concern in his voice, and that even at the age of 25 it was reassuring to talk to him.
The indignity of having to work a meaningless job for eight hours that day seemed particularly onerous. I knew that it was important to work because it was the only way to get paid, but I can think of few times, if any, where I've felt more hollow than walking through the doors of the store that morning.
News reports continued filtering in throughout the day.
The anger, simmering, started to boil over sometime in the middle of my shift. How could this happen? Someone was going to pay . . . .
In the supposedly righteous wrath I felt in the moment, anything that would harm the perpetrators of this terrorist attack was justified. I am deeply ashamed of my feelings for those few hours.
* * * *
What did this all mean? Of course this is the question I most came back to over the next few days. Was there some greater meaning behind what happened? Changes to foreign policy and intelligence gathering, the formation of TSA and Homeland Security, all that was coming in the next five years---but what did it mean?
I think most of us read the stories. Stories of the firefighters and policemen in New York. Stories of kids in schools, mere blocks away. Stories of the horror of the crashes, and the even greater nightmare of the buildings collapsing with hundreds, thousands of people inside.
Did I grieve with them? No, not in a real sense. We all shared some of the sadness, but I was safely insulated away from it. I wasn't there. I never saw the deaths of nearly 3,000 people up close.
* * * *
Seven years later I started my first year as a graduate student and graduate instructor at Utah State University. I was teaching English composition to freshman and sophomore students.
Prior to our first classes we attended a two-week long teacher training seminar. One of our first lesson plans involved having the students read a poem, a free-verse poem detailing a vision of 9/11.
It detailed the plight of the jumpers---people forced to jump from the burning tops of the World Trade Center towers.
It was the first time I'd heard such a thing, but of course it made sense. What was the alternative? Remain trapped in the top of a burning deathtrap? Wait slowly to die from smoke inhalation, asphyxiation, or even worse, immolation?
The teacher presenting the lesson, Russ, was a comic book fan. Included with the poem was an image of the famous Alex Ross re-interpretation of a famous comic book cover, where Superman and his dog, Krypto, are looking up at a billboard of 9/11 policemen, firefighters, doctors, and others.
I'll admit a part of me was moved, despite my innate cynicism.
Yet I was also struck by the incongruity. Here we were, two dozen master's students in English sitting in an overly-stuffy basement classroom, considering the concept of heroism. You know how English majors are---overly self-important, though those of us with enough self-awareness can at least see it in ourselves unironically.
Yet what was the message? What did it mean?
I think there lives inside of us a secret hope that when called upon, we will have the capacity within us to be heroes. That when faced with adversity, we will choose to take the path of greatness, the path of benevolence. We pray deep inside that we will be the ones to run toward the towering inferno of the World Trade Center South Tower.
It's why we read stories about heroes; why we read fiction at all; it's the pillar on which the entirety of science fiction and fantasy rest.
There are those who suffered real and true tragedy the day of 9/11. It is a true day of mourning for them, and we should respect and hallow that purpose. Yet for those of us not directly affected, it's a reminder that we have to keep asking the question if we will be a hero when called upon.
Because sometimes it's important for us to hear ourselves say the answer.