ike most of us that still read newspapers, this week will, obviously, be an emotional week. A week that reminded us when we thought the world was literally falling down around us. A week that brought us all together with resolve and purpose. A week that immediately ended an age of innocence.
Unless you were in New York or Washington 20 years ago, my story is probably similar to yours. I didn’t know anyone personally impacted by the events of 9/11. I didn’t know anyone on the planes or in the buildings. I spent the weeks that followed glued to the television where there was non-stop coverage on every network 24/7. At some point, the feeling of anxiety began to lessen, even just a little bit. We got focused on news about OJ Simpson or Michael Jackson or baseball or movies.
But this week is about the moment where we all grew up. It was the moment that I, a 29- year-old help desk technician who had spent a lot of his evenings going out and drinking with his friends and who had just been married a couple of years had his 20s end and the rest of his life begin.
The morning, for me, started early. I like to get into the office around 7 or 7:30 because the lawyers usually slept in and my phone didn’t start ringing until 9 or so. The calls that I took were pretty basic. These were the beginning days of computers and the questions were about what you figured. “My CD-ROM tray won’t open.” “My computer locked up.” “My email won’t open.” The morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 began the same way. The future was yet to be written, but fragments of the future showed up. The week before we had just gotten these text-pagers to help us with on-call questions or after-hours. This is so we wouldn’t have to append 9-1-1 after a message. “Call office-9-1-1.” We spent Monday playing with the new toys. We subscribed to a news service that would give us headlines off of CNN. When the beepers began to go off around 8 a.m. KC time, it was still a very new sound. “COMMUTER PLANE HITS BUILDING IN NEW YORK” the bulletin read. Our building, One Kansas City Place, was still very quiet. But 8-8:30 was when we got our first calls. We got three in a row all about the slowness of the Internet.
This was not uncommon. It was 2001 and our company occupied about 25 of the 42 floors of the high rise in Kansas City. This was well before fiberoptics, so the Internet was just… slow. More calls came in, and we quickly figured it was people who were curious about the high rise fire in New York. “Give it a few minutes, and try to stay off the Internet as much as possible,” we would tell people. It might be the last time anyone was told to “stay off the Internet” in the last 20 years.
You can guarantee that IT people will advise you to do one thing, but then turn around and do the opposite. So we would pull up CNN.com and NBC.com ourselves to gawk at the gash on the side of the North Tower. There was no live video at the time and we didn’t have a television, but we were as connected as anyone.
Then the beepers went off again. “SECOND PLANE HITS WORLD TRADE CENTER IN NEW YORK AMERICA UNDER ATTACK.” In our small second floor office segmented by cubicle walls, we could hear gasping, weeping, and cursing. Our phones went nuts. The Internet went completely down. I was heading to my 9:30 staff meeting where I was a junior member of the team. It was on the 42nd floor of the building. Right before I left the office, the beeper went off again. “SEARS TOWER IN CHICAGO POSSIBLE TARGET.” And there I am, heading up to the tallest floor in Kansas City. The tallest structure for 250 miles in any direction.
But my job was to go to the meeting. Like the kid in A Christmas Story that leaves his buddy in the playground because the bell rang. I stood outside the meeting room and when I entered, it was business as usual. I then realized that they have no idea. They didn’t get the toys we got and had been in this room for over an hour. It was up to me to tell a room full of lawyers and IT people what had happened. “I’m sorry to interrupt. But two planes have hit high rise buildings in New York in a terrorist attack. There are probably things that we need to be tending to right now as they appear to be targeting high rise buildings.”
It was calmly delivered, but then I realized that my fist was clenched and I had sweated through my shirt. The announcement was met by silence, then an immediate adjournment of the meeting. I went back to the narrow building to take more calls from angry people about why the Internet was so slow. At some point after lunch, we realized that being at work was stupid so we recorded “the Internet is slow. There is nothing that can be done. Please stay off the Internet and tune to local radio” and left for the day to be with our families.
My story is probably a lot like most of yours. We easily could have been targets ourselves, but obviously weren’t – at least not physically. But all of America changed that day. We all were attacked and, in many ways, those echoes only get louder as the years go on. The moment that second plane hit, our lives changed forever.