NPR logo When The Distant Tragedy Of Sept. 11 Became Personal

Reflecting On Sept. 11, 2001

When The Distant Tragedy Of Sept. 11 Became Personal

The empty skies above Chicago served as a painful reminder on 9/11 of the tragedy playing out in New York, Washington, DC and rural Pennsylvania. hide caption

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The empty skies above Chicago served as a painful reminder on 9/11 of the tragedy playing out in New York, Washington, DC and rural Pennsylvania.

There's no question that Sept. 11 changed America. In what way and to what extent depends largely on where you were that day.

In New York City, the terror attacks — and the changes they wrought — were immediate, inescapable and profound.

As David Carr put it in New York magazine

Everyone who comes after will never understand. Not a new brand of New York provincialism but a cold fact. This is the place where the world seemed to end in a single morning. That day, as it was experienced here, was not televised.

The "Ground Zero" label served as physical reality as well as psychological metaphor.

The television was my primary link to Sept. 11 as it happened. In Chicago, as in most other places, the tragedy flowed in measured doses through images of horror and heroism on network and cable news.

As the images of mangled planes, buildings and bodies slowly faded from the news coverage and the adrenaline of the day dissipated, I remember looking up. Chicago's O'Hare International Airport is one of the busiest in the world. Midway Airport sits just a few miles away. I'd never seen a Chicago sky without airplanes and contrails.

I could feign distance from the pictures on TV that felt both overwhelming and incredibly removed. But the concrete reality — and enormous silence — of that empty sky broke through the facade.

Nobody was left untouched that day, no matter how far removed. At some point, the distant tragedy became personal.

For Mark Tillman, who piloted Air Force One on Sept. 11, that moment came around 6:30 p.m. He ferried President George W. Bush from air base to air base, dodging rumors of possible attacks for hours. Then, he flew over the still-smoldering Pentagon on his way to Edwards Air Force Base.

"Heading by the Pentagon kind of brought it all home to me," Tillman told USA Today. "I could see now the destruction."

Hundreds of miles away at a small newspaper in the Midwest at the time of the attacks, a woman named Julie remembers in the Los Angeles Times:

Confusion and chaos seemed to reign. Then the pictures started coming over the Associated Press wire. One by one, they showed the massive destruction, the fear and the bravery of those dealing with this unbelievable tragedy. Everyone in the newsroom crowded around my desk and there was absolute silence as the pictures scrolled by, and later a few tears were shed.

In the coming days we will be inundated with stories about 9/11 and its aftermath. "To the extent that these can be avoided by not watching 9/11-themed television programs, there is no shame in doing so," Nancy DeWolf Smith advised in the Wall Street Journal.

Still, our shared stories are reminders that we carry on.

"Survivor stories always end the same way: still here, not there, not dead." David Carr wrote in New York.

"The life-affirmingness of that narrative is matched by its singularity: "This is something that happened to me." A woman in midtown found herself in step with a stranger in a business suit. Apropos of nothing — and everything — he turned to her and said, "I was in the building." She stopped, reached out automatically to touch his arm. "What floor?" Everyone has a story and everyone needs to tell it. Over and over.

No matter if that story took place in New York, Washington, Chicago or San Diego.

Like so many descriptions of the moments before the attack, I remember clearly the weather — bright, warm, sunny blue skies. Just like New York, and Washington and Shanksville, Pa.

"History has bound us together," Nancy DeWolf Smith declared in the Wall Street Journal, "even as it made us unique: We are the sole witnesses to events that future generations will only watch and read about through the haze of time."