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Larry Peterson - Straight Shots

Taking time to reflect on the pain of 9/11, and unity that spread organically

The situation at the World Trade Center North Tower in New York City shortly after the first airliner crash on Sept. 11, 2001. The restaurant was on the top floor of the building, just above impact. More than 100 people were attending a conference in the restaurant that morning.
The situation at the World Trade Center North Tower in New York City shortly after the first airliner crash on Sept. 11, 2001. The restaurant was on the top floor of the building, just above impact. More than 100 people were attending a conference in the restaurant that morning.

With this column scheduled on the third Thursday of each month, I probably should have submitted this one in August, before the 9/11 observance. But, there was another anniversary of an iconic national event that month (Woodstock turned 50), so I’m late. (And, I appreciate what Regina Smith wrote last week on the subject. It was a great message.)

Regardless of when we talk about it, to me there’s the same reverence for Sept. 11 every year as for holidays like Veterans Day and Memorial Day. I always watch shows on the History Channel and National Geographic channel of footage and interviews from that day, because it takes me back to the unsettled feeling we all had that morning. What might happen next?

We should never forget, and we should make sure it’s always more than just a footnote in the history books for young people who have no direct memory.

Witnesses with military service backgrounds recalled the sounds, smells and screams were like a combat zone. The most chilling sound was the thud of another body hitting the sidewalk from above, as people made the unfathomable decision to control their own fate rather than slowly burning to death or choking on smoke. Can you imagine that moment?

Another resonant sound from that day as reported by eyewitnesses — the bang of each floor of the towers collapsing on top of the others, like a giant accordion, until the roar and shaking of it turned to eerie silence as the suffocating debris cloud chased fleeing citizens running down Broadway. The force of the cloud hurled bodies into buildings and parked cars.

In just 13 seconds, 110 one-acre floors came down into a 16-acre pile that became known as Ground Zero, only 101 minutes after the first tower was struck. How many firefighters climbed those stairs alongside people running to the ground floor? As they climbed, they likely realized their fate. American heroes just like the soldiers of any war.

By 9:28 a.m. (Central time) both towers were down, and the Pentagon was burning from American Airlines Flight 77 hurtling into the building at 532 mph at 8:34 a.m. Nineteen minutes later United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a Pennsylvania field, and the carnage had come to a halt.

Heroic action

Passengers stormed the Flight 93 cockpit to take on the hijackers — Todd Beemer’s phrase “Let’s roll!” now haunts us — because in a technological breakdown, the text message sent by FAA to all pilots in the air took four minutes to reach some, such as the Flight 93 crew. In that time the hijackers got onto the cockpit that could have been locked.

Some of our greatest American heroes were on that plane, deciding to take action to ward off another disaster that could affect hundreds or thousands of victims.

As we huddled in the CNA newsroom watching the tiny black and white TV that was then connected to a rooftop antenna, we saw President Bush act like a true leader of a free nation that day. That evening he addressed Americans and assured us justice would be served. (I understand there was discord in ensuing years about military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, but on that one day he provided what was needed.)

At Ground Zero, a recovery worker shouted “We can’t hear you!” to President Bush as he spoke to them through a megaphone. Off the cuff, with no teleprompter to rely on, his reply was spot on.

“I can year you!” Bush shouted. “The rest of the world can hear you, and the people who did this will hear from all of us soon.”

The crowd of workers broke out into a rousing “USA! USA! USA!” cheer.

We were all on the same team that fall. Americans.

It is in such stark contrast to what we experience today as we attack each other on social media and at rallies where hate enters the room with them. How many videos of Americans fighting each other are popular on social media?

We’ve lost the collective spirit we had those weeks in the wake of the tragedy. That’s another reason I watch the shows. To regain some of that spirit, the tolerance for individual differences.

Creston memory

In a monumental undertaking, the FAA grounded 74,000 flights in American skies that day, except for Air Force One headed to Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, which was seen by Creston/O-M football players outside for practice that afternoon. What an eerie sight that was, knowing who was likely on that aircraft, and what those aboard were wrestling with on behalf of a concerned nation.

The lasting lesson is simple. Life is precious. Cherish every moment and every person close to you, because you never know when it will be the last time you see someone.

Like Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, we should pause on Sept. 11 on the anniversary of one of the two biggest attacks on our nation. Take a moment to remember the bravery of the first responders of that day and the soldiers who willingly stood to fight evil in the ensuing years.

On that day, 246 people boarded those fateful flights with plans upon arrival; 2,606 people went to work thinking they would come home that afternoon; 343 firefighters prepared for the morning shift; 60 police officers embarked on morning patrol; eight paramedics reported for duty. None of them made it past 10:30 a.m. that day.

If anyone had lit a match in those dark stairwells where jet fuel was pouring down, more would have died on the way to evacuating.

I wish we had done a better job of remembering what was said that month by Sandy Dahl, wife of Flight 93 pilot Jason Dahl.

“If we learn nothing else from this tragedy, we learn that life is short and there is no time for hate.”


Contact the writer:

Twitter: @larrypeterson


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