11 September 2006 by Published in: General musings 6 comments

Mark Grimsley posted the lyrics to “The Rising,” Bruce Springsteen’s brilliant tribute to the firefighters who died at the World Trade Center, on his blog today, with an image of a grieving firefighter sitting by the rubble of collapsed Twin Towers, being comforted by two angels. It was a simple but incredibly eloquent and moving way to remember those who gave their lives in the hope of that others might live. They don’t call New York’s firefighters “The Bravest” for no reason.

We should not–no, cannot–ever forget what happened on September 11, 2001. The world as we know it changed forever that day. And thousands of normal people who were just going about their daily routines lost their lives as a consequence.

I spent the night of September 10, 2001 in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I spoke to the Rappahannock Valley Civil War Roundtable on the Battle of Tom’s Brook that evening. I’d been on the road for a few days–I’d spoken to a Roundtable in Pinehurst, NC, and then had a few days of battlefield stompling. I was scheduled to go home on the morning of 9/11.

My plan was to take I-95 to 395, go past the Pentagon, pick up the George Washington Parkway, cut the corner, take it to the Beltway, follow the Beltway to 270, take 270 to Frederick, and then pick up I-70 at Frederick. My house sits about a mile north of I-70 here in Columbus, so it’s pretty much a straight shot on 70. If all had gone according to the original schedule, I would have passed by the Pentagon at just about the precise moment that the American Airlines plane slammed into it.

However, at that time, I was in the process of finalizing my arrangements with the dean of American Military University, who asked me to stop by the office to meet me on the morning of 9/11. So, I drove up to Manassas from Fredericksburg to meet with the dean.

I called Susan on my cell as I was driving. The first plane crashed into the World Trade Center while we were talking, and we were still on the phone when the second one also hit. She was watching it all unfold on the Today show, and she described the events to me as they occurred. AMU’s offices are right next to the Prince George’s County airport, and by the time I got out of my meeting, the Pentagon had been hit and United 93 was down. When I walked out of the meeting, there were armed guards everywhere around the entrances to the airport, wearing camouflage fatigues and toting automatic weapons. It was a chilling sight, to say the least.

I quickly realized that my original route wouldn’t be a good possibility. I also heard that due to the crash of United 93, the Pennsylvania Turnpike was closed, and that was my normal route. I had to find a new route.

I decided that the best bet was to take I-66 to its terminus in Front Royal, pick up I-81, take it north to Hagerstown, and pick up I-70 there. I would take 70 to Hancock and then get I-68, which goes through the mountains of western Maryland and West Virginia. I-68 ends in Morgantown, WV, where I would pick up I-79, take it to Washington, PA, get I-70 there, and finally make my way home. And that’s what I did.

As I was driving west on I-66, I was in the left lane at one point. I looked in the rear view mirror and saw a convoy of black Chevy Suburbans with red and blue lights coming up behind at a very high rate of speed, so I pulled over to let them go by. By then, they were already saying that Cheney had been taken to some undisclosed safe location, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether these vehicles had something to do with that (I subsequently learned where that “undisclosed location” is, and it’s not likely that they had anything to do with it). They whizzed by me like I was standing still.

I have to admit that I was glad that I took such a long and roundabout route to get home. I felt safer going through the West Virginia mountains, figuring that I would be safe out in the middle of nowhere. What was really strange was not seeing any aircraft in the sky. I was listening to NPR all day, so I knew as much as anyone did, but I hadn’t seen any of the horrifying but now familiar video. I also couldn’t reach Susan on the cell phone because the cellular telephone system was in bad shape from the combination of losing cells in New York and from its being horribly overloaded.

I finally crossed into Ohio about 5 PM. I stopped to use the bathroom at a rest stop, briefly asking the Ohio State Highway Patrol trooper how he was doing. When I came out, I looked up in the sky and saw a single large plane surrounded by multiple fighters and knew that it could only be Air Force One. Now, I am no fan of the current occupant of the White House–I think that he stole the 2000 election and took office without having being elected and my opinion of him has only gone down by leaps and bounds since then–but I have to admit that I was glad to see him that day. It gave me a small measure of comfort.

I finally got home about 7:00 that evening. It had been a long and brutal day, and I finally saw the horrific videos I’d heard about all day. I just wanted to crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head.

Susan’s cousin was on the 22nd floor of the South Tower when it was hit. If she hadn’t been in a meeting there, she would have been dead, as her office was on the floor that was hit. Or there was my friend Mark’s sister, Jennifer. Jenn had just gotten off the train from New Jersey and was cutting across the plaza at the WTC to catch the subway, completely unaware of what had happened–she was underground when the plane hit–and was yanked out of the way by an alert policeman, or else Jenn would have been hit by the body of someone who jumped from one of the floors above the conflagration. To this day, nobody knows whether that nameless but nevertheless heroic policeman survived. My friend Jim Nolan–a lifelong New Yorker–saw the whole thing from his office window in mid-town Manhattan and then had to walk home to Queens. “Look what they’ve done to my city,” he thought.

Indeed. Look what they’ve done to our world. It will never be the same again. I will save my rant against the present administration for tomorrow before leaving the topic for good. Tonight, it’s not appropriate.

We can never forget the firefighters, the policemen, and the employees of the firms headquartered in the WTC. We can never forget the civilians and the soldiers and sailors of the Pentagon who gave their lives. We can never forget Kevin Levin’s cousin Alisha Levin, who died at the WTC. We can never forget the flight crews of the airliners that crashed, or the innocent passengers who filled those planes. We can never forget the heroic men and women of United 93 who saved the White House or the Capitol from a horrendous fate. And we can never forget the people who lost loved ones in these tragic events.

For a brief, shining moment, as we poured out our grief, we Americans permitted the better angels of our nature to shine through. Instead of partisan politics, for once, we united and came together. The generosity of people in this time of crisis was staggering (just as it was in the wake of Katrina). It’s really a tragedy that we need a disaster of nearly unprecedented scale to bring us together, but it seems to be the case.

We must never forget. For those who fail to learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them.

Scridb filter


  1. Mon 11th Sep 2006 at 8:41 pm

    Thanks Eric. That was very kind of you to mention my cousin.

  2. Valerie Protopapas
    Tue 12th Sep 2006 at 8:54 am

    My husband used to work in the North Tower after he had been forced into early retirement from Grumman. At that time he was working on computer problems for a financial company based there. Fortunately, he had left that job and was contracting with Pratt & Whitney in Connecticut on 9/11. My sister’s youngest was a New York City cop working in Queens. He was off that day and went into work but was not at Ground Zero.

    Fortunately for New York, the Governor, George Pataki, nationalized the State’s Guard so that it could be brought into the City to prevent any wide-spread looting that might have occurred in the midst of the chaos; however, the feared plague of lawlessness didn’t happen. Even the criminal element of New York rose to the occasion on that tragic day. Alas that the Governor of Louisiana saw fit NOT to nationalize that State’s Guard thus preventing the Feds from sending troops into New Orleans to counter the lawlessness that in fact WAS going on in THAT city during and just subsequent to Katrina.

    The quote from Santayana is most appropriate especially with this enemy. 9/11 and what is going on around the world – and not just in the Middle East – is the continuation of a war that began when the forces of Islam invaded the Christian/Jewish ‘Holy Land’ and the last battle of THAT phase of the war saw Prince Eugen turn the forces of the Ottoman Empire away from the Gates of Vienna in the 1600s. Since that time, there has been a rather lengthy hiatus in the fighting until the fairly recent upsurge in Islamofacism (as it is being called). But it’s the same war waged by the same forces with the same intention – the institution of a World Wide Islamic State (or States). Greece lived under this tyranny for 400 years before gaining its freedom and my husband’s family can testify to just what that means.

    If we do not persevere, if we are unwilling to know, recognize and resist this enemy, if we decide to try to ‘just get along’ so that it all ‘goes away’ (as if that were possible!), then I do not see a bright future for our way of life in this new millenium. I know that Westerners (including Americans) are impatient and want results NOW, but that isn’t going to happen in this struggle. Worse, still, every sign of our wavering resolution to see it through only widens the war, increases the violence and strengthens the resolve of our foe. Now is NOT the time for ‘politics as usual’ because our enemy doesn’t understand the freedoms that we take for granted. They see our open debate and political contests as weakness and disunion and we’d better understand that before too much more time passes.

  3. Brian S.
    Tue 12th Sep 2006 at 9:20 am


    I was attending Penn State at the time. I had just gotten out of gym of all things and I went to Pollock Commons to get breakfast, which is really strange because I think in the 3 years I was there I ate breakfast maybe three or four times at most. I’ve always wondered what made me go there that day. Pollock is close to the football training facility so it was me, maybe 2 or 3 others and a few football players watching the T.V. It was a beautiful day outside too. I went straight back to my room and, as everyone seems to have done, I called my entire family, one after the other. I was on the phone with my sister Linda when the 1st Tower went down and I swore up and down. But then Lin started to cry and we then helped each other calm down. And I was really angry too. I took a shower while flight 93 was still in the air and then went to the student center (the HUB) for most of the day to be around people. It was tough in there. They had rolled out TVs and a lot of people were crying but it was a community feeling all around the campus that day and it was a cool feeling. I made it a point to go to my 4pm class, which was American Military History. The prof. was Carol Reardon. She got up and was all fiesty, shaking her head, saying something like they don’t know who they picked a fight with. There were quite a few military men and women in that class too and they were grim, they knew what they would be doing soon. I remember everyone having a hard time using their cell phones too, pretty much all day. well, I’ve vented enough, I just wanted to give my story of that day. Brian

  4. Mike Nugent
    Tue 12th Sep 2006 at 10:00 am

    On the morning of 9-11 I was on the range conducting some rifle training training for a class of Police Firearms Instructors for the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. I remember the completely frustrating feeling of impotence, standing there with twenty cops, all of us armed to the teeth with automatic weapons, not being able to do a damned thing about the attack on our country.

    I was able to get through to my sister who lives on the Brooklyn waterfront across from lower Manhattan. Her husband was supposed to be at the WTC later in the morning and her son attended Stuyvesant High School, just a few blocks away. She couldn’t reach either one of them and had personally seen the second plane hit. “Tense” doesn’t describe the feelings until we learned (much later in the day) that they were both safe. The next day her neighborhood was blanketed by ash and debris. She found a charred page of an airline inflight magazine on her sidewalk.

    I’ve been to NYC several times in the past 5 years but still cannot bring myself to visit “ground zero”. Battery Park is as close as I’ve been able to go and from there the feeling is actually palatable. The conspicuous empty space in the Manhattan skyline enrages me as much today as it did 5 years ago.

    I can never forget that day and can never forgive those responsible. We should stop at nothing less than hunting them down and exterminating them. NEVER allow the memory of the events of 9-11 to mellow.

  5. Tue 12th Sep 2006 at 10:40 am

    I spent the night with my folks in Manassas and drove in to the Vienna metro station the next morning, bound for the National Archives. As I pulled into my parking slot I heard about a plane hitting the WTC. Assuming it was an accident–and a small plane–I hopped on the Metro. Word started to filter in as new people got on board but not the entire story–which by the way I never got until that night. There was a little panic, but not much. The fellow sitting next to me turned out to be in naval intelligence. He was stunned, and told me that we needed to get off the Metro, as all their scenarios included subway bombings. I made it to archives, and spent much of the day out on the lawn with other researchers, wary of reboarding the subway. There were rumors of attacks within the city at Metro stations as well so we stayed put for awhile. Whenever planes flew over, everyone froze. Eventually I headed to the Library of Congress, as a family friend works there and we were supposed to meet later. Standing outside LC a policeman came close to arresting me. I finally made it home about seven, and flew out a few days later on the first flight out of Dulles.

    Years ago I was touring Antietam and I met a NYC firefighter. He was using his vacation to hit as many Civil War sites as he could, riding place to place on his motorcycle. In the tower at Bloody Lane we talked about the heroism of the soldiers. Ive often wondered where he was five years ago yesterday. He struck me as the type of man who would have walked right in.

  6. Tue 12th Sep 2006 at 7:13 pm

    Brian, Mike, and Ken,

    Thank you very much for sharing your stories here.

    Valerie, I respectfully but vehemently disagree with you. We’ve already sacrificed far too much in the way of civil liberties to the moron in the White House. What I will never, ever do is to give up my right to disagree with the government and to say so publicly, irrespectiv eof what the Islamo-fascists think.


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