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102 Minutes of Helplessness

When Mike & I think back to that fateful day of September 11, 2001 the feeling that is remembered among the tragedy is a deep and shattering helplessness.  We remember, as most of America does, sitting in front of the TV for days watching the same cycle of media footage over and over again.  Horrified at what was happening as our Twin Towers crumbled to the earth from two of our US-based jetliners purposefully flown into those iconic buildings at the seat of our nation’s financial district.  They were moments in time that will last a lifetime.

What shocked then, and to this day, was how rapidly the attacks unfolded, the coordination with which they were carried out, and how America and the world changed in less time than it takes to watch a movie.

Early that morning 19 hijackers took control of four commercial flights from the East Coast headed to the West Coast which were chosen because of their large capacity to hold fast burning and explosive fuel.  At 8:46am the first plane, American Airlines Flight Number 11 hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center (WTC) and at 9:03am the South Tower was flown into by United Airlines Flight 175.  The South Tower burned for 56 minutes before it collapsed at 9:59am and then the North tower collapsed at 10:28am after burning 102 minutes. 

With the images of The Towers collapsing came the images of a wall of thick black concrete clouds rushing down New York City streets as people literally ran for their lives in panic, fear, and on pure adrenaline trying to find safety as the City exploded around them.  We could, in real time news footage, see the expressions on their faces, hear their screams, and hear their business shoes hit the hard NYC concrete streets as they were trapped by skyscrapers all around them.  And as people were running from the collapse of the twin towers, we also witnessed those who ran full throttle towards utter destruction and chaos.  We saw first responders risking, and for many about to lose, their lives, as they did what their hearts and training told them to do… run toward danger.

When we thought it couldn’t get worse, it did!  And it just kept going.  We learned that American Airlines Flight 77 flew into the Pentagon at 9:37am, and then of United Airlines Flight 93 going down in a Pennsylvania field at 10:03am, and later that the passengers saved it from likely flying into either the Capitol Building or The White House.  We learned in the news coverage and from phone calls to the media from spouses and loved ones of those who died heroes on Flight 93 that they had knowledge of the other three planes that went down before them.  Listening to those who lost loved ones that day on the newscasts filling the airwaves throughout the following days wrenched at our hearts.

In the days to follow, our hearts were also torn by the sight of the first responders as they settled into the ruined WTC complex where they set about digging, first for survivors and then for remains.

In the span of 102 minutes we watched 2,996 people die which included the 19 hijackers, 246 passengers and crew of the four planes, 2,606 in the WTC buildings and on the ground, and 125 in the Pentagon.  Also included in the NYC death tolls were 411 first responders, including 341 firefighters, 2 paramedics, 23 from NYPD officers, 37 Port Authority police officers, and 8 EMTs.  Never before had so many died on US soil from a hostile and vindictive attack upon our civilians, and it happened in real time, right before our eyes.  Pearl Harbor resulted in 2,117 deaths in a single surprise attack on US soil but, as in most prior wartime experienced by Americans, it was military against military.  This was no abstraction on the evening news.  This was real.  It was “right now.”  And noncombatants were the target.  These were new rules of engagement that both stunned and united our nation in just 102 minutes.

As Mike & I watched the news coverage that day and the days that followed, a feeling of helplessness settled over us.  We are both first responders in our own right.  I am trained in Critical Stress Management & Debriefings, plus my early career centered on triage work.  I was often the first response after the paramedics or police had stabilized a situation and brought someone into an Emergency Room.  Mike, as a first responder and graduate level social worker, knew he too had a lot of skills to offer.  Our hearts kept pulling us towards NYC.  We wanted to jump in our car and “just go” and drive to a scene of destruction to lend a hand.  But we also knew we were needed at home, at our jobs, to serve our own communities that were feeling every bit as helpless, not to mention terrified, of what this new world meant for them and their country. 

You remember the days, weeks, and months following 9/11; how emotional equilibrium was off for so many people, how anxiety translated into increased (and increasingly peculiar) calls for service, and even how peoples’ appreciation of law enforcement went up.  Things changed.  How we understood the world, America’s role in it, and our perceived security, as a nation and as individuals, all changed. 

It took just 102 minutes – less time than it takes to watch most feature films, really – to shatter the worlds of the families and friends of 2,977 innocent people, to undermine the sense of safety of a great city and a great nation, and to rewrite the longstanding rules we’d all been living under.  It took just 102 minutes to transform the political, economic, and social landscape of our country and the world.

Helplessness eventually gave way to renewed purpose.  Shock fell away to anger, and then focus.  Fear yielded to faith.  Service is what we do, and it was all we could do in the face of those 102 minutes.