1,000 Miles Away But Feeling Tragedy's Real Effects When the planes struck the twin towers on Sept. 11, writer Elizabeth Tannen had just begun her freshman year of college. In this piece, she describes how a born-and-bred Brooklynite experienced the event of a lifetime while far away from home.
NPR logo 1,000 Miles Away But Feeling Tragedy's Real Effects

1,000 Miles Away But Feeling Tragedy's Real Effects

The Statue of Liberty appears before Manhattan's skyline Sept. 9, 2003, in New York City. Chris Hondros/AFP/Getty hide caption

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Chris Hondros/AFP/Getty

The Statue of Liberty appears before Manhattan's skyline Sept. 9, 2003, in New York City.

Chris Hondros/AFP/Getty

Elizabeth Tannen is a former NPR production assistant. She is now a candidate for an M.F.A. in creative writing at the University of New Mexico.

I was asleep.

On the morning of Sept. 11, I was sleeping in my New York City high school T-shirt in my closet-size freshman dorm room in St. Paul, Minn. It was my neighbor — a ruddy, round-faced girl from Cedar Rapids, Iowa — who knocked on my door and told me that the World Trade Center had fallen down.

I had been in college for less than two weeks.

I propped myself up on my elbows and wiped the sleep from my eyes before climbing down the wooden stairs from my upper bunk, her words hanging shapeless in the air — as yet without meaning.

I followed her down the hall to the lounge, still in the shirt I'd slept in, where a handful of familiar-looking Midwestern girls from the floor had gathered: their gaping faces stuck to the television that hung from the ceiling.

My eyes moved there, too, and the first thing I saw on the screen was a newscaster standing on the West Side Highway. The faces turned to me as I heard the the man say that he was standing outside a high school where there was a rumored bomb threat, and, in a voice I must have only thought was inaudible, I said "I bet that's my high school," and the camera panned, and it was.

Elizabeth Tannen writes the blog Dating In The Odyssey Years. Jakob Schiller hide caption

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Jakob Schiller

Of course it was Stuyvesant: only half a mile north of the twin towers. For years afterward parents would complain about air quality, and in May of 2002, Bill Clinton would speak at graduation.

The girls stared at my shirt. All of us recognized the dissonance: me — with ties so close they were actually on television, watching this event unfold from a thousand miles away with girls who had probably only seen the place on film.

I spent the rest of that day the same way that most people around the country did, in a state of confusion and shock, heartbreak and sympathy. But I felt some anger, too: not anger toward the perpetrators — it was too soon for that — but anger that I wasn't there.

I should have felt grateful — relieved that I wasn't blocks away from the towers like the students just below me at Stuyvesant. Relieved that no one I knew had been hurt. Relieved that I didn't have to walk miles, across bridges, boroughs and neighborhoods to get home, like many I knew in the city.

It isn't rational to want to witness tragedy. But emotions rarely are. And that day it seemed to me an injustice not to be in New York. To be so far away from the people and place I loved.

I wanted to be there because it felt wrong not to be there; because, as powerless as all of us feel watching terrible things happen up close, it is terrible, too, to watch from far away.