Sharing Stories: 9/11/01 – Remember Twenty Years Ago, Imagine Doing Better

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sharing stories from community voices – that’s what the Pioneer is all about, and especially on “significant” days. It’s been 20 years since 9/11 became stamped in permanent ink as “one of those days.” We all can recall “where you were when the planes hit and the buildings fell?” Vividly I remember standing in our living room in Beaverton staring in disbelief at the news, then watching it live and in horror as a second plane hit the other tower. Surreal at best and as many have said “like a movie” but really happening. As the day played out and then the following weeks, what I remember most was the silence in the skies as all air traffic – accept for military planes – were grounded. Many are saying to remember how we were as a nation on 9/12/01, but it really was how we came together over the next few weeks and the realization that we – Americans – were just as vulnerable as other countries to terrorist attack. Our mindsets were forever changed … as we continue to come to grips with yet another historic time, let us all remember, to learn and do better. Thanks to Robyn Herrick for sharing her story here about her 9/11/01.

By Robyn Herrick

Let’s talk about human life for a sec. Our world is suffering so much loss right now, and there is so much hate directed specifically at the value placed on human life, so this story seemed relevant today.
It seems that every generation has its own defining historic events. I imagine the pandemic will be one for my children’s generation. I can think of a few that define mine. The Challenger and Columbia shuttle explosions, the Thurston and Columbine school shootings, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the attacks on the World Trade Center Towers.

I think it’s common for folks to reminisce about where they were and what they were doing when those sorts of events occur. I remember my parents talking about Elvis dying, Watergate, etc. I remember distinctly where I was when I learned about the attacks on the World Trade Center. I was in my apartment during my last year of undergrad. The internet wasn’t what it is now, and wasn’t where we got most of our information at that time. I remember waking up and logging into my computer (on our DSL connection) and seeing the stills of the explosions on the Yahoo! homepage. I remember my immediate reaction was that it was some kind of advertisement for an upcoming movie, and that it wasn’t real. Over the next few minutes, more and more “Breaking News” began coming across the screen and I decided to turn on the TV because if it was real, it would be on the news. Like most of us who were old enough to remember, those images are forever seared into my mind. There are simply some things that cannot be unseen. The people choosing to jump from the towers instead of waiting for the fires, the billowing plumes of black smoke looming behind facades of broken glass, every person and object on the ground covered in gray ash, as if all of the color had suddenly been sucked out of the world in that moment.
Over the next few hours, calls started coming in (on our land line because cell phones were not ubiquitous appendages then).
“Did you see the news?”
“Can you believe it?”
“I was literally in New York a month ago on vacation and we saw the twin towers…”
I keep wanting to say I was feeling heartbroken, but honestly I think I was just in shock. It was a lot of information to process.
There are many moments I remember vividly about that day, and the days and weeks that followed. But I want to share this particular moment, because it’s the one that is most closely tied to that date for me.
I was working as a respite provider for a man (an absolutely amazing, wonderful, man who became a mentor to me and a dear friend, and who left this world far too soon) who fostered boys. These boys (many of whom he ended up adopting) often had serious behavioral concerns, special needs, and had been in multiple placements, and whose caseworkers were often not nice about their own struggles to place them (PSA to caseworkers: please don’t be the caseworker who says “you take all the kids no one else wants” in front of kids…actually, just don’t say that ever.). There were 5 boys in his home at the time and I loved them all.
I was scheduled to work for him that afternoon while he went to a meeting with one of the boys. He was from New York originally, and it was immediately apparent when I arrived that he was deeply affected by that morning’s events. We hugged. We both cried. It was really awful.
The boys were naturally curious about a lot of it, and were asking questions throughout the day. I was doing my best to field them as best my 20 year old self had capacity to respond. We spent the majority of the afternoon doing activities to distract from the news, kept the TV off, etc.
When my friend returned home with one of the boys, he took me aside and let me know that it had been an especially difficult meeting; that the boy’s father had become aggressive in the office with the caseworker and that he had witnessed all of it.
We got the kids all settled with a snack (green apples and peanut butter…isn’t it weird the details we remember?) and my friend went into the other room to check the news. He had a lot of people in NYC and he was worried. We could hear the TV from the dining room, and the boy who had been out that morning (he was about 7 or 8, I think) looked at me and asked, “but…don’t they (the terrorists) know there were moms and dads in those buildings?”
I am welling up as I write this now, 20 years later. This boy, this sweet little boy, who had witnessed very little more than violence and sadness for most of his life, who had watched his own father physically assault someone hours earlier, whose experience with “moms and dads” had been questionable at best, wanted to know how someone could blow up a building that had moms and dads inside.
This conversation is about where my vivid memories of that day end. As is the case with traumatic memories, the rest of that day and the following days is a blur. But I always go back to that conversation.
Of course they weren’t thinking about the individual people that would be affected. That was not the purpose. But even at 7 or 8, he understood the value of human life, and that all of this was in blatant disregard to human life.
I can’t help but think about the last 20 years, and all of the events that have transpired, and wonder what it would take to remind the world of the value of life. And I think about how many more terrible things like this have to happen before we stop turning on each other. I mean, at the risk of sounding like a Beatles song, imagine if we put as much energy into helping each other, helping the helpers, seeing the value in one another as we do in hating each other and being angry? Lordy. Wouldn’t that be something?
I know I am only saying things that so many others are saying much more eloquently than I, but talking about it is important. We have to remember these events. We have to honor the people who died, the people who lost loved ones, the people who rushed into that horrific chaos to help. We have to remember all of the details. The green apples and peanut butter. The haunting eyes of a little boy who understood life far beyond his years. Because if we forget, then we, too, are disregarding the value of life. And at the end of the day, nothing else really matters.