The events of 9/11 changed everything. There were all of the lives lost on that day, which we should never forget. There were also dramatic effects of that loss on everyone who was still around who lost a loved one, a friend, a co-worker, a schoolmate. For those who lived or used to live in New York, New Jersey and even Connecticut, if you didn’t have a direct connection to the event, you knew someone who did.
Sharon’s already talked about where we were that day and what we were doing. That will no doubt forever be the most surreal experience of my lifetime. However, it was shortly after that when I realized how much everything about everyday life, and travel, had forever changed.
While the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic are different, the global shutdown reminded me of how I felt after 9/11. At the time, I wrote how the two events were going to be different, and unfortunately, my gut feelings ended up being mostly right. In 20 years, I guess I’ll be looking back at how it was to live through what we’re in right now the same way I now look at 2001.
There comes a time after a tragedy where you take personal inventory and try to create some normalcy amongst the chaos. When the horrifying events of 9/11 happened, I began to think about our upcoming plans. Sharon and I had a trip to visit a group of friends from the NJ/NY area that we’d been planning for months. Almost all of the people present would be a part of our wedding which, at the time, was only a few months away. I’d also have time to visit my parents, who I’d missed greatly. It was only eight months since I’d made the big move to Florida.
Our flight from Tampa to Newark was scheduled for September 30, 2001. Fortunately, air space had reopened on September 13th, with most flight schedules getting back to normal by the 15th. Still, the question we were asking ourselves was, “Should we still go?”
The attacks had happened less than three weeks before. The pile was still on fire, with smoke billowing up from Lower Manhattan. There were so many reasons we could have canceled the trip. We didn’t feel safe about flying, particularly into Newark. We knew things would be tense, as everyone at the place we were going to would still be in shock. Finally, we didn’t know if we were ready to go back to New York.
We eventually decided that since we had all the plans in place, getting to see our good friends and my family was reason enough to put all of those other things aside. We also figured that if there were ever a “safest” time to fly, that would be it.
There are some things about that trip that are stuck in my mind forever.
There’s only one word I can use to describe what it was like to fly at the end of September 2001.
Everyone was on edge, passengers and employees alike. No one could be trusted. I don’t remember much about the airport but I distinctly remember a moment on the plane. Let me say that the plane ride to Newark was the quietest trip ever. Everyone seemed to be sitting up straight, listening to the cabin crew’s announcements and most of all, watching. They were watching their fellow passengers.
Then it happened, around 30 minutes into the flight, someone got up and started to walk towards the front of the plane. They needed to use the restroom. But there was a second or two where you could sense every passenger, including myself, getting ready to jump from their seat and fight for their lives.
When they sat back down, everyone relaxed, until the next person and then the next. After three of four passengers went to the bathroom without incident, everyone started to calm down a bit. We were all still safe, even if fellow passengers needed to get up to pee mid-flight.
If you’re ever flown into Newark before, you know that on approach for landing you’re often treated to an aerial view of New York.
The same was true for this flight but something was wrong. If it wasn’t for the smoke, it might have taken longer to realize the missing puzzle pieces. It was like looking at one of those games where you need to circle the different things between the two pictures. Living in New Jersey for almost my entire life, the New York skyline, as I knew it, was etched into my brain. Now it was different, empty.
This time I didn’t notice the reactions of the other passengers. I was too busy trying to pull myself back together. While I had seen pictures and hours of television, this was real. I saw it with my own eyes and part of me still couldn’t believe it was true.
Our meeting with friends went off as planned. I remember us all being glad to see one another. Not in the “It’s been a while” type of gladness but almost in the “I’m glad we’re all still here” kind of togetherness. There was a sense of being happy about just being alive and needing to value the fact that despite what just happened, we still had each other.
Getting to see my parents was also terrific and just what I needed. Looking back, the one thing I’m most thankful for is that on this trip, I took one of my favorite pictures of my late mother. It captures so much of her personality and when I’m missing being able to talk with her, this is often the image that pops into my head.
Everything that happens eventually becomes personal. The event itself and your experiences connected to it become intertwined. Everyone alive on 9/11 (and it’s hard for me to believe some people can vote who weren’t born when it happened) will tell a different tale. People will always have different reactions when thinking about 9/11, which is the reason it took me so long to visit the September 11 Memorial & Museum and why Sharon still doesn’t want to visit it.
For me, the events around this trip are forever jumbled up with my memories of 9/11. I can’t think about one and not the other. While the trip was tense, heartbreaking and emotionally exhausting, it also was a reminder to cherish what you have, enjoy the life you’re living and always take pictures.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary