America's New Holiday
"Holidays." The word brings happy images to most people. Holidays include Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Chinese New Year, and so many more. But in the USA, September 11, also called 9/11, is a sad holiday, now called "Patriot Day."
Even older Americans--those born in the early 1930's and earlier--remember where they were when they heard of the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Also, most Americans born before the early 1990's remember where they were on the morning of September 11, 2001, when they heard of the news of the terrible terrorist attacks.
I remember that day well. After a hot Virginia summer, that Tuesday morning was suddenly cool and comfortable, with a beautiful clear, blue sky. I rode my bike that morning like normal to my job teaching 9th grade high school history, and the ride was refreshing and pleasant.
That year my planning period was first period in the morning, so as the 11th grade history teacher was lecturing in the classroom, I went back to our department office so I could do some lesson planning. The phone rang, and it was the wife of the 11th grade teacher.
"Is Dave there?" she asked.
"Yes, but he's teaching next door right now-- can I take a message?" I asked.
She responded: "Yes, tell him I just heard the news that a plane crashed into a building in New York City just now." As I remember, I think she also suggested we turn on the TV to watch the news ourselves.
I told her I would pass the news on to him and hung up. Hearing that news, I imagined such a crash as being an accident; I could not fathom someone actually flying a plane into a building to kill people!
I went into the classroom and apologized for interrupting, but told the teacher his wife had just called and wanted me to tell him about the plane crash. As I remember, the teacher asked the class for a moment of silence, then we turned on the TV. The crash had occured at 8:46 a.m. Eastern Time, (Virginia, Washington D.C. and New York are in the same time zone), so we all sat in stunned, silent disbelief to see smoke pouring from the side of the North Tower of the World Trade Center in downtown New York. At that point, I was still thinking, "this must have been some terrible accident." I even remember thinking: "The sky is a clear blue up there in New York, just like here in Roanoke. How could a plane fly into a building? The visibility is excellent!"
There are two English idioms, "right out of the blue" or "a bolt from the blue," that both refer to a total shock, the same way a person would never expect to see a bolt of lightning come from a clear, blue sky. That is how we all felt that morning: the attack was truly "right out of the blue," a surprise plane crash on a clear day with excellent visibility.
Then at 9:03, as we all stared at the TV, we saw a second jet crash into the South Tower, setting off a tremendous fireball! The TV news reporters started yammering in shock, as surprised as the rest of us. That was when we all knew this was no "accident" -- we were under a deliberate attack! Even more shocked, we all sat, glued to the TV.
Then, the news broke in: a jet had crashed at the Pentagon! Soon we saw a split screen on the TV: one side showed smoke pouring out from both World Trade Center (WTC) towers, and the other side showed smoke billowing from the Pentagon! The terrorists had not only hit the US, they had also hit our state of Virginia!
(In the years since, when discussing the events of 9/11, I often ask my students, "What places were hit on 9/11?" Everyone knows that New York was a target, but many others also answer "Washington D.C." But that is wrong. The Pentagon is in Virginia. Since it is the main building for the Defense Department, a major part of the US government, most people associate it with Washington. However, the Pentagon is on the south side of the Potomac River, right across from the famous Jefferson Memorial, so it is actually on Virginia soil.)
Later, as we all sat in shocked disbelief, other rumors began to spread. "Planes hit Washington D.C.!" "Planes are falling down in other places too!" By late morning we heard that a jet plane had crashed somewhere in Pennsylvania.
At some point during the day, the school superintendent sent out the order: ALL TV's in all the schools must be turned off. All of us, students and teachers alike, were upset, because we wanted to know what was happening, plus we thought we NEEDED to know. Also, we knew history was happening that day. Yet, we needed to obey the orders, so the TV's went off. (It may sound crazy to young people who grew up in a world where wifi is everywhere and cell phones are like "mini-computers," but as recently as 2001, the TV was still a main source of information, so when the TV went off, our main source of news in the classroom was what we could get on the radio--a technology from the 1920's!) Needless to say, all we could think about and talk about the rest of the day were the horrific attacks we had just seen.
(The next day we found out why the superintendent had ordered all TV's off-- it turns out, some teachers of kindergarten and first grade classes -- unbelievably -- had their TV's on too and were letting the small children watch those terrible images. So, to protect the younger children, all TV's were to be shut off.)
President George W. Bush
That morning, President George W. Bush had been in the US state of Florida, reading books to young children. That night on the news we saw images of him when an aide whispered to him about the attacks, and he quickly left the room. then back to his airplane, Air Force One. Read here to find out more about what President Bush did and where he went on that fateful day. Even his advisors thought the first attack might have been an accident, and it was only when the second plane hit that they realized it had been terrorism. His advisers' first concern was the president's safety and they thought him returning to Washington could put him at risk. Still, against his advisers' wishes, Bush insisted he go back to the White House House by that evening.
On the night of 9/11, President Bush spoke to the nation on TV, and in his speech he recited the 23rd Psalm from the Bible. In other words, in the early days of the 21st century, when America was reeling from a brutal shock, President Bush reached back 3,000 years to quote a Psalm from the Jewish King David. (Recently Chinese students have asked me about the role of God, Christianity and the Bible in the U.S. government. The role is huge and historic, too much to address here, but Bush quoting from the Bible that night, in America's darkest hour, shows the respected role the Bible holds in American public life.)
One of the first things Bush did after the attacks was demand that ALL non-military planes be grounded, for days. In those early hours, with plane after plane crashing, no one knew how many more hijackers were out there, so to reduce the risk, all planes landed. DreyerCoaching.com team teacher Mr. Woodson and his wife were flying from the US to Taipei, Taiwan that day, and got stuck in the US state of Michigan for four days. Even President George Bush Senior, George W. Bush's father, was flying that day and was grounded mid-trip. All across America, as flights were stopped for four days, people were scrambling to rent cars or get on buses or trains to get to their destinations.
Read Mr. Woodson's first-hand account here in his own words. (Note: In history studies, a "secondary source" comes from an author writing about an event that he or she learned about but did not observe personally. For example, books written today about Abraham Lincoln are secondary sources. In contrast, a "primary source" comes from an author writing about an event that he or she saw or experienced first-hand. Examples include diaries, letters, records, and photographs. Mr. Woodson's account below, and my personal observations in this post, are all primary sources, and these are of special value in the study of history.)
Sept. 11th, 2001 was the day we were to leave Virginia for Taiwan where I planned to work for several years as a university English teacher. My wife, 7 yr. old daughter, and I flew out of Richmond around 8:30 that morning, heading for Detroit where we were to change to our flight from the U.S. to Asia. Thankfully, the one and a half hour flight was uneventful, and we landed safely in Detroit around 10 a.m. When the plane came to a stop at the gate where we were to disembark, the pilot calmly made this short announcement, "There's been some terrorist activity; it's going to be an interesting day."
Even years later, I still remember the odd but reassuring feeling to be in my home in Roanoke, Virgina, at night, and again hear planes in the sky, after days of silence. It's funny how so many "little things" of life we actually miss, when they are gone.
United Flight 93
Most of the attention on 9/11 was on the twin towers of the WTC, with somewhat less attention on the Pentagon. After all, most of the dead were in New York. Of all four crashes, the least attention had been placed on the last, mainly because that plane crashed into an empty field. All on board were killed, but at least none on the ground were. Why? In the days and weeks after the attacks, we began to learn more.
On 9/11, there were 19 hijackers-- but the original terrorist plot had called for 20. As it turned out, US intelligence had flagged one hijacker as dangerous and he was not allowed on the plane. (Many have since asked, why were the other 19 allowed to board? How can we make the US more secure against future attacks?) As it turned out, the one hijacker kept off a flight was kept off of Flight 93. So, of the four planes, that one only had four hijackers on-board, not five. Plus, since Flight 93 was the last one to be hijacked, the passengers had already heard of the previous three crashes. (In all the years before 9/11, the conventional wisdom about hijackers was: Be calm, and do what they say. The idea was, people hijack planes to make some statement or get some political goal, so just be calm and you'll eventually be released. This is why, on the first three hijacked flights, we do not know of anybody trying to fight back. Plus, with five terrorists aboard armed with knives, box cutters, and pepper spray or mace, the passengers were probably too petrified to move, let alone try to fight back.) 9/11 was the first time the world was introduced to SUICIDAL hijackers who wanted to die!) Imagine the horror those passengers experienced when they got cell phone calls and messages about planes being taken over then flown into the WTC and Pentagon. Then, imagine THEIR horror when THEIR plane was hijacked over Ohio and it started flying back east!
Todd Beamer was a 32-year-old from Michigan, flying on Flight 93 that day. When he got the awful news of the other attacks, and the terrorists had taken over his plane, he tried to call his wife and tell her he loved her, but because it was so early, he could not reach her. (In fact, since the four planes were all flying early in the morning from the East Coast to the West Coast, it was about 6 a.m. on the West Coast, so many passengers tried to call home in their last moments but only got to leave messages on their answering machines!) When Beamer, a white male, could not reach his wife, he spoke with the phone operator, Lisa Jefferson, a black woman. Beamer and Jefferson, who did not know each other, prayed the Lord's Prayer together. Both were Christians and Americans, which shows that their belief in Jesus and identity as Americans is greater than gender or skin color. You can read Jefferson's inspirational story here.
After they prayed together, Todd Beamer famously said "Let's Roll" as a few other courageous passengers and crew members and he rose up and fought the hijackers. Stewardess Sandy Bradshaw filled pitchers with boiling water to use in the counter-attack. Had there been the full five terrorists on-board, the killers would have had the advantage, but with only four, that gave the passengers a fighting chance. The plane weaved in the sky as both sides fought for control. Sadly, the passengers lost because, unlike the terrorists, they had no weapons. But, by going after the cockpit, the passengers forced the terrorists to ditch the plane over an empty field, thus saving their desired target-- most likely the U.S Capitol building. As AWFUL as 9/11 was-- and it was awful-- it would have been FAR WORSE if the fourth plane had hit the U.S. Capitol, home to the U.S. Congress! That building, with its huge dome on an exposed hill in Washington, D.C, was a sitting duck. The U.S. Capitol dome, which was half-completed when Abraham Lincoln became president in 1861, is one of America's most beloved and iconic structures.
It is interesting and ironic. With all the first responders going in to help and the massive US military response after 9/11, the first counter-attack against terrorism on 9/11 was NOT done by the police, the army, the air force, or any armed force. It was not organized by any general or police chief. The FIRST counter-attack was done by brave, unarmed, "normal" people who happened to be traveling on Flight 93 that day! An important part of the traditional "American mindset" is "taking action" and "doing what you need to do." Those people on Flight 93 were heroes who gave their lives by fighting back, and saving the U.S. Capitol and hundreds if not thousands of other lives on the ground. (See the Flight 93 flight map here.)
The terrorists, though they had twisted thinking, had clear symbolism with their targets. The twin towers of the WTC, near Wall Street and the US stock market, represent America's economy and free market. The Pentagon, main office of the Defense Deparement, represents America's military and ability to defend freedom. Lastly, the Capitol, home to the U.S. Congress (the House of Representatives and Senate), represents our free and democratic way of government. The terrorists were also diabolical in their choice of flights to take over. All four began on the East Coast and were to fly to California; so, all four were full of the maximum amount of jet fuel which would make the biggest and most deadly fireballs possible.
Today there is a Flight 93 Memorial, a National Park unit, in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. President Trump spoke there on 9-11-2018. Watch the full speech here. President Trump in his speech referred to "radical Islamic terrorism" as being the force behind the attacks, which of course is the case. In contrast, President Obama would never utter those words together.
For another account of that fateful September 11, read this blog.
This post is written and dedicated to the 9/11 victims and their families. Reflect and Remember.
A licensed teacher in the US state of Virginia since 1987, Scott Dreyer has been helping Chinese speakers improve their English since 1989. Dreyer lived in Taiwan from 1989-1999 where he learned Mandarin, met his wife, started his family, and realized he loved working with Chinese students. He became an award-winning author and started teaching ESL online in 2008. Dreyer and his wife and their four adult children make their home in the beautiful Roanoke Valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.dreyercoaching.com/en/about/scott-dreyer