Saturday, September 11, 2010

First Person: The shared stories of 9/11

Fri Sep 10, 4:43 pm ET

"Wake up. The World Trade Center is gone."

That's how Sept. 11, 2001, started for Gwen Navarrete. And maybe for you, too.

The shared nature of the tragedy both broke and — paradoxically — strengthened the heart of a nation.

So we've asked people like you to share again, nine years later. In a collaboration between Yahoo! News and Associated Content, we've gathered reflections from people across the country about what they went through and what they learned (or didn't) from that terrible time. "Our day of infamy," contributor Melissa Danysh calls it. She's just one of the many we heard from.

And here's just a sampling of what they had to say.

An aid worker has to step back

Not all of the people affected by the Sept. 11 attacks were in New York and D.C. In Norfolk, Va., where I worked for the American Red Cross, the local schools shut down and children were sent home. Two hours after Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, I answered a call from a 12-year-old girl during my shift.

Her voice shook with fear. Sniffles came through the line and my own eyes misted. Both of her parents worked at the Pentagon. She couldn't reach them.

When the call ended, I shared her information with the volunteers answering the phones. I waited at the office for her call until I was ordered home to rest. At 5 a.m. I returned to find myself being hugged by two volunteers, as they told me the girl's mother called. She and her husband had escaped the disaster without injury.

For those brief seconds, there was joy in hell.

The bond forged during a disaster between relief workers is different from any other type of friendship. Back then, I watched and prayed for safe journeys as my friends headed out to help. When most Americans struggled to find something useful to do, we knew what was needed and we did it.

It's easy to burn out when doing volunteer work, especially in disaster services. Often, people remember to complain but forget to express their gratitude. I never burned out, but I did grow to understand that my future meant deciding between my wants and my family's needs. … [J.S. Nichols' story continues here.]

[The account above and all the others that appear here are edited excerpts.]

A Muslim high-schooler's bewilderment

I was a senior in high school. I remember my teacher immediately turned on the television. The first thing I saw was the media showing a group of Muslims celebrating the attacks. I got a sick feeling in my stomach and I began to cry.

I am an American Muslim. The terrorists who called themselves "Muslims" took responsibility for the attacks and because of that, my life has changed ever since.

I was born and raised in the small town of Kingston, Pa. There, little or nothing was known about Islam. My high-school principal did not know much about Islam -- only that he had three Muslim senior girls in the school who wore head scarves. Before 9/11, we were accepted by all in our school. Students were interested in learning about Islam and accepted our traditions and religion. However, with 9/11, I saw an extreme change.

It started with the day of the attacks. My principal gathered me and the other two Muslim girls and told us to go into the library for our own safety. I was very scared. I didn't do anything wrong and did not understand why I would be targeted. I am American, I thought, and I am affected by the attacks as well.

I used to have a bumper sticker on the back of my little white Honda Civic with the sign of Islam (a crescent and star) stating that "I Love Islam." When I got home from school on Sept. 11, my mom was waiting outside and told me to get rid of the sticker.

Since the attacks, I have experienced much harassment. While I walk down the street, I've heard people scream out their windows for me to go back to where I came from. On Memorial Day this year, I was walking my son when a man screamed those exact words from his car. I fear that my child will have to grow up with this prejudice simply because of one tragic day in America. … [M. Mahmoud's story continues here.]

A warrior's internal struggle

From the start of Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001 to the time I separated from the military in 2007, I would ultimately spend nearly three years in Iraq, Afghanistan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to help to execute the war on terror.

Like everyone else, I struggled with hate and fear as we were plunged into war. While I think I was able to ultimately turn away from those more corrosive emotions, I struggled with them for years.

When al-Qaida terrorists first attacked the World Trade Center, I was a young lieutenant serving on a base in the Middle East, preparing to go on shift at the Watch (part of the effort monitoring Iraq's compliance with the United Nations' Southern No Fly Zone). While my teammates and I ate in the dining facility, the images of smoke coming out of the first tower started broadcasting across the large-screen TVs.

The next few hours are still vivid in my memory. At once, dozens of soldiers, sailors and airmen leaped up and charged out of the facility. We jumped into our vehicle and raced to the Watch. Upon arriving, we were greeted with a human tempest as men and women surged throughout the building, desperately trying to assess the attacks. While we stood there getting our bearings, a captain called out to us: "They hit the Pentagon!" and then he disappeared into the maelstrom. I bolted to my station to join the new war. … [W.E. Linde's story continues here.]

For a pilot's family, 'a strange sort of guilt'

As the reports unfolded, my husband, a pilot for American Airlines since 1991, and I tried to sift through the jumble of facts and theories pouring from various networks. There was a sense of disbelief in the house, and our dog paced between us in an effort to offer comfort. As information became clearer, we were sickened by the knowledge of the loss of an American Airline airplane in this tragedy, stunned to hear of another hitting the Pentagon. Added to our agony was the loss of United Airlines' two jets; the death of so many crew members and passengers in such a short period of time was beyond comprehension. What was happening to our world?

In the past few years, our has life returned to normal -- or, rather, the "new" normal. Gone are the days when aviation travel was considered an adventure, replaced by long lines at the more vigilant and intrusive security check-points and passengers looking at fellow travelers with distrust. Once my husband's passion, flying is now a grueling and difficult job filled with tension and added layers of security and responsibility.

Despite the financial and work difficulties, the hardest thing to face has been our feeling of guilt. Why wasn't Mark in the cockpit? Could he have changed anything? Probably not, but the question still lingers as my husband and I share a form of survivor's guilt with other airline employees and their families. It is a strange sort of guilt. … [Susan Ranstead's story continues here.]

30 miles from Afghanistan

My sister was not in Michigan with me. She was not in Chicago with her friends. She was not in Tennessee with our mom. She was 30 miles from the Afghanistan border. I was terrified. I didn't care if the world was coming to an end; I could handle that. I just wanted my sister home with me.

My sister works for international aid organizations and travels the world to help after natural disasters. On Sept. 11, she was working in Turkmenistan, just north of Afghanistan, helping to distribute food to TB patients. She had no idea what had happened. News is not exactly instantaneous there.

I don't think it was real for her because she was so far away. TVs are few and far between, so it wasn't until much later in the evening that she was able to go to another expat's home and see the horror for herself on CNN.

The aid organization she was working for at the time was concerned, but it did not feel the need to remove their workers. The area was very remote and the likelihood of that particular small group being attacked was slim. They were, however, to stay on alert and be ready to move if the situation worsened. It was sheer agony for me.

People who know my sister are always amazed she does this for a living. One friend says my sister is living the life she always wanted. I thought it was a kind of cool, too. Until Sept. 11. … [Lisa Pratto's story continues here.]

A hard-won unity that has faded again

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I sat stunned in my Baltimore hotel room as I watched the first World Trade Center tower collapse.

We reported to the airport for our flight back with no idea if we would be allowed to fly. The Baltimore airport had the longest lines of would-be travelers queued up that I have ever seen in any airport anywhere. Behind me was Rep. James Leach (R-Iowa).

I ran through several of the ways to help that I had considered during my sleepless night. I asked for Rep. Leach's reaction to my list. "You're way ahead of me," he laughed.

My partner, Chris, who had heard my idea of holding a "Celebrate Citizenship" sing-along fundraiser to collect money for the families of the victims of the WTC bombing, said, "You should ask Jim Leach if he would speak."

I literally ran the length of a long airport corridor and extracted his bemused promise that, yes, he would speak at such an event.

So we set about making the "Celebrate Citizenship" idea into a reality, mounting a fundraiser to collect scholarship money for the children orphaned by the WTC bombing. Our corporate parent company had promised to match any money raised.

We selected Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2001, exactly two months from the date of the tragedy. Many from the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois pitched in to help. The best junior high band in the state of Illinois (Glenview Jr. High of East Moline) played. All three nearby TV networks sent speakers. The (Moline, Ill.) Daily Dispatch pitched in with free flyer distribution, and columnist John Marx spoke.

Rep. Leach drove 120 miles from Iowa City after giving four other speeches to serve as our keynote speaker. Happy Joe Whitty of the local Happy Joe's pizza franchise talked about tolerance; his son-in-law is a Muslim. We sold red, white and blue popcorn, Krispy Kreme donuts, ice cream, patriotic items and accepted donations.

"Celebrate Citizenship" on Nov. 11 was a time of unity and one of the last times that it appeared that we were all pulling together to bring our country together. … [Connie Wilson's story continues here.]

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