11 September 2016


In 2001, I was teaching at Wichita State University in Kansas. That Fall semester I had a Tuesday-Thursday class that started at 9:30. No big deal. Business as usual.

Wichita State University and Wichita skyline
On September 11, a Tuesday, I sat in my office preparing for that first class of the day. With my office door open, I happened to hear two of my colleagues talking out in the hallway. One said, with no apparent emotion, that a plane had crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. I did not give it much thought at that moment other than a "Wow" that something like that could happen. I did not consider it might have been a large commercial airliner, thinking more likely it was a small airplane, possible taking tourists on a sightseeing flight.

A little while later, I got up and headed to my class, choosing to swing by the Student Center and pick up some file folders at the bookstore on the way to the classroom. For some reason, my English Composition class had been put in a spare classroom in a science building on the opposite end of the campus from my office in the English department's building. As I entered the Student Center and walked toward the bookstore at one end of the building, I noticed the TVs on the walls in the common area were showing the so-called Twin Towers and a small group of students and staff were gathered below the TV to watch the live broadcast.

Black smoke was trailing away from the building that had been hit by the crashing aircraft. By that time, the TV broadcaster was announcing it was a commercial airliner. It was shocking to imagine the lives aboard such an aircraft. And then, as my eyes were glued to the image on the TV screen, a second aircraft flew into the picture, striking the second tower. Just like that--on live TV. It almost seemed like some insect had flown in front of the camera lens. But there was the crash, the flames, the billowing black clouds, right there on TV. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. 

I remember the big fellow standing in front of me who cried out "Oooo, cool!" at the sight of the second plane striking the tower, as though he thought he was watching a movie or a video game full of violence. But none of us really understood what we were seeing at that moment. One plane could be an accident; two planes had to be deliberate. Who was doing that? And why? Later we learned of another plane crashing into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and still another where the passengers fought back but which resulted in a crash in Pennsylvania before the plane could be used as a bomb.

I got the folders in the bookstore, but my mind was racing, my nerves rattled. I went to the classroom and a few students were there. They asked if we were having class. They said classes were being cancelled as the news spread. Not knowing what was happening, it seemed the best decision to not meet from some lesson on writing essays. We needed to focus on the events of the day. I returned to my office. I didn't have a computer in my office so I got no more news. 

Later, I picked up my daughter from preschool and met my wife at home. We watched further news, mindful of protecting our child from terrible images and being ready for anything. 

As it turned out, when the FAA put out the order for all planes to land, Wichita was in a unique position. Being centrally located, a lot of transcontinental flights landed here. Not only is there a commercial airport and an Air Force base but also the General Aviation industry has miles and miles of runway space. I heard about all the passengers from those many planes being put up in hotels and treated to restaurant meals. There were tours of the local attractions to help them pass the time. Eventually they got on their airplanes and flew on to their destinations.

Now it's fifteen years since that day. It is difficult to say if anything has really changed. Is the world better now? Or worse? Or the same but in different ways? 

I got my first cell phone after that day, so I would always be able to call the people I needed to contact. That was one change I made. In the weeks and months and years that have followed that day, I expected the problems which caused those attacks would be solved. I expected we would return to the relative peace we believed in before that day. I hoped we would be able to remain innocent to the kind of evil that some people can do against other people. And yet every day takes us further from that peace and innocence, it seems, and we adapt to a new normal, which is not anything anyone really wants.

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