Half a continent away from New York City, Washington, D.C. and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, September 11 was a sunny, warm fall day in Lincoln, Nebraska. A coworker and I were preparing to leave for a day in Omaha to check in on several child care centers. It was shortly before 9 a.m. that the word of the first attack was making its way through our office building. Soon, the television sets in the conference rooms throughout the building were turned on and people were gathering to watch history unfold before their eyes. I caught just a glimpse of the news footage of the airplane turning into a fiery ball as it forced its way through the tower.
We had our day planned and went ahead with our trip to Omaha. We immediately turned on the car radio to listen to the news as it happened. As soon as the news reports stated that the second tower had been hit, I felt sick to my stomach. I knew immediately that the world as I knew it had just changed forever. At that time of the morning, news reports were estimating that as many as 10,000 people may have been at work in the World Trade Center.
With each mile that we traveled along the interstate highway, the horror of the events became more and more surreal. How could this be happening in our country? We heard that airplanes were being grounded across the United States and travelers were being diverted.
Hitting close to home . . .
About halfway between Lincoln and Omaha, we made our routine visit at a truck stop for something to drink. Several small screen television sets were turned on. It was at this time that we saw the footage of the planes slamming into those buildings so far away from us. Before we reached Omaha, we heard that another plane had crashed into the Pentagon. Now the news was hitting home because our boss was in Washington, D. C. for a meeting that week. It wasn't until later in the day that we heard that she had checked in with our office and reported she was okay.
As we made our visits to the child care centers, televisions were tuned into the news reports at every location we visited. I was glad to note that the volume was turned down and while the caregivers were trying to keep up with the news reports, they also seemed to be trying to protect the toddlers from really comprehending what was going on. I couldn't imagine how parents would approach the task of explaining this to curious children too young to really understand.
It was getting closer to noon as we went about our visits to the day care centers. We made our next visit and the owner and one child were just arriving at the small house. As we visited with the director, one of the teenage boys from the neighborhood came running into the house yelling, "We're at war! We're at war!" His reaction was a little extreme and I was concerned about how his alarm might be impacting the younger child. But the young child just went about coloring a picture.
The President was just a few miles from us . . .
I don't remember how many day care centers we visited that day - so much of that part of the day is a blur. But I was thankful that we had a few minutes of routine normalcy doing our job during the day. Then we'd get back in the car to hear the latest news reports that were coming out. News that the President was in Florida; he was in Air Force One and on his way to an unknown location. As we heard that the President was at an air base in Louisiana, I immediately said, "He's coming to Offutt." Offutt being Offutt Air Force Base, south of Omaha, near Bellevue, home of the Strategic Air Command.
It was mid afternoon before we took a break for lunch. As the national news was reporting that Bush was in an "undisclosed location," the televisions in the restaurant were broadcasting local Omaha news footage clearly showing Air Force One taking off from Offutt Air Force Base, about 10 miles from where we sitting. Later in the day, it was confirmed that the President had been at Offutt before returning to Washington, D. C. that evening.
Once I was back home that evening, I turned on the television to see the pictures of what we had been hearing about on the radio all day long. I was in a total fog, not really comprehending the impact of this terrorist attack, hurting for all of the people who died and for the families they left behind. As the New Yorkers were shown holding photographs of their loved ones who were not yet accounted for, it struck me how beautiful all of these souls were - every one of the photos showed happy, smiling, vibrant beautiful people. And their lives were snuffed out in an instant.
In a way I was relieved that our visits to the day care centers kept us occupied that day, because I don't think I could have been in our office environment throughout the day as the events occurred. I admit that over the next several weeks I became obsessed with watching television news footage of this never ending story from the moment I got home from work until I fell asleep at night. I became emotionally attached to what was happening half a country away from me. I could not not watch.
When I finally left the house for something other than to go to work, it was the following Saturday and I went to pick up a few groceries. That was a very eerie experience. I felt like people were walking around like zombies, still stunned from what had happened. No one was speaking. No one was smiling. Everyone was somber and stunned. Even doing something as routine as shopping for groceries had changed. It would be a long, long time before the shock of this event and this black cloud left my life.
Looking back a few decades . . .
I was about 11 or 12 years old when I decided I wanted to be a journalist; I wanted to write and I wanted to report the news. And I completed my journalism degree at the University of Nebraska. But even while I was still working toward that degree, I found myself backing away from "real world" journalism because of tragic events in the world - the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the 1968 riots in Chicago during the Democratic national convention, the killing of the four students at Kent State University in Ohio. I don't think it was a conscious decision during my college years, but as my senior year approached, I found myself shifting my emphasis to coursework in public relations, advertising and marketing - to expand my training beyond news reporting.
As I look back over the past forty years, it's clear to me that my subconscious was guiding me because these type of tragic events have a tremendous emotional impact on me. I connect with and have such empathy for the people in these situations. In more recent times, the Tsunami, Katrina . . . the immediate loss of lives really absorbs my emotions. I could not have been a reporter in these types of situations. At least now I recognize my vulnerability to these world events. And after watching news coverage of September 11 for about four straight months in 2001, I've learned that I have to do what I can to try to detach from these events.
Words of wisdom . . .
One of my all time favorite films is The Way We Were. There's a scene in the film that occurs right after the death of President Franklin Roosevelt. Robert Redford as Hubbell says to Katie (Barbra Streisand), who was mourning FDR's death, "Everything that happens in the world does not happen to you personally." I always have to remind myself of that when these tragic events happen.
About two or three weeks after September 11, I was visiting a day care in central Nebraska. It was still something that was very much a part of my everyday thoughts. I asked my client how the events of September 11 were perceived in her community and she responded, "Oh, that. That's just something that happened in New York. It had no impact here."
Wow. How different a perspective from my own. And I know that things that happen in the world will always continue to have some kind of impact on me on a personal level. And that's okay with me. Because if the day would come when I don't become emotionally connected to a world event, it would mean I've stopped caring about people.
And what does this have to do with genealogy?
I suppose that my emotional connection to people I don't know carries over to my genealogy research. As I read news stories about the lives of my ancestors and the tragedies in their lives, I feel a similar connection to those people who walked the earth so many years before I was born. I don't think I could do genealogy without that attachment and desire to learn about how they lived - and died.
If you're still reading at this point, I'm rather surprised. This is the first time that I've ever written about the events of September 11 and I'd guess that by now I've probably seen those planes fly into those buildings 1,000 times. Probably the same number of times I've watched the Zapruder film. Why? Because I'm always trying to understand Why. Why do things happen the way they do? I doubt I'll ever know.
In memory of all of the 9/11 victims. Rest in Peace.