“Today, our nation saw evil — the very worst of human nature — and we responded with the best of America, with the daring of our rescue workers, with the caring for strangers and neighbors who came to give blood and help in any way they could.” –President George W. Bush, September 11, 2001
When the White House was evacuated on that fateful day in 2001, my sister was a member of President George W. Bush’s administration. The memories of that day — and the danger she was in — are still sharp.
Instructed by Secret Service agents to evacuate and then to flee as fast as possible, women removed their high heels and ran in bare feet. Staffers in the White House and Old Executive Office Building raced for their lives. They were fully aware that United Flight 93 was on a path toward the nation’s capital.
My sister has barely talked about that day … the rawness is still real … and we are forever grateful to the heroes of Flight 93 who prevented a tragedy at the Capitol or White House. No one is certain which one was targeted.
I will never forget September 11, 2001 … and I don’t want to forget. Twenty Septembers have passed, and I am still easily overcome with emotion.
That week my husband and I were vacationing in Colonial Williamsburg with our two teenage children. The morning of September 11 we had just arrived in the Colonial area with our freshly-purchased annual passes in hand, when a costumed interpreter leaned in and quietly told us of the attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. We were shocked and asked more questions, and then I quickly stepped off to the side of the path to call my mom in Richmond to see if she had heard from my sister in D.C.
Amazingly, perhaps because her Austin cell phone was still routing through Texas, my sister had already been able to call and reassure Mom that she was okay even as tens of thousands of others in D.C. encountered jammed phone lines.
Reassured of my sister’s safety, we started walking through the restored area, making our way to the Colonial Capitol to hear from historical interpreters. Our hearts, however, were not on the Virginia history we usually loved. Visitors talked among themselves, strangers speculating about the events that were unfolding a couple of hours north of us, and wondering if America was under attack.
Under a huge old tree on the capitol grounds, the historical interpreter’s animated voice explained events of the past but it was difficult to concentrate on what he was saying. After an hour or so we decided to head back to our rental condo so we could turn on the television and follow news updates.
In D.C., the White House and U.S. Capitol had been evacuated, and stand-still traffic made escaping D.C. a nightmare. It took hours but my sister eventually made her way home to Bethesda where she then waited to hear news of her next-door neighbor who worked at the Pentagon that had been the target of an airplane attack by the terrorists. He had fled his office, leaving cell phone and car keys at his desk. With no way to contact family to assure them that he was safe, he began the long walk home from Arlington to Bethesda, arriving hours later after making his way through the clogged streets.
Our much-anticipated Williamsburg vacation had suddenly taken a drastic turn on that Tuesday in 2001, and all I could think of was wanting to go home to the Shenandoah Valley. Tears flowed easily … I was in touch with family and friends … and a patriotic, defensive streak came out in Americans.
We were glued to the TV for updates and hated to get too far from the news. There was an uncertainty because no one knew what was next. Everyone was on edge.
With two children, however, who were looking forward to our planned visit to Busch Gardens amusement park on Friday, we didn’t want to disappoint them so made the decision to stay the remaining four days of our trip. We tried to make it as normal as possible for them although we stayed on high alert, wondering along with the rest of the country if there were more attacks to come.
On Friday morning when we arrived at Busch Gardens, a new reality hit as, for the first time ever, our backpacks were searched when we entered the park. Little did we know it was the beginning of a new normal that was to expand and necessarily intrude on all our lives in the years to come.
At noon, everything in the park stopped to honor and remember what had happened to the country. Park guests lined the walkways and we all held hands as we bowed our heads in prayer, then listened to and sang along with Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” as it played over the park’s intercom system, echoing off roller coasters and drifting across the hilly terrain.
Tears streamed down the faces of strangers, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, who came together that week not as Democrats or Republicans, not as black or white or immigrants or rich or poor, but as Americans. Americans whose country had been attacked.
After the remembrance finished, as our kids made a beeline for the roller coasters, we worried about snipers in such a high profile area. It may sound silly now but it was, after all, only four days after the terrorist plane attacks and all were aware that more terror could be planned.
The day, however, was uneventful and we, thankfully, headed home to the Valley the next morning.
One memory that sticks in my mind is the sheer number of American flags waving after 9/11 on vehicles, store fronts, houses … I had never seen so many flags flying in the USA. At home I had dozens of American flags but none with me on our trip, and when we checked at Williamsburg shops for anything red, white, and blue, everything was sold out.
I was aching for an American flag. Again, it probably sounds silly, but it taught me a lesson: never leave home again without one.
Back in the Shenandoah Valley, we were in church Sunday morning as a sanctuary packed with friends and strangers sought comforting words even as tears streamed down many faces including mine. The most important thing of all was that we were home.
In the days, months, and years after 9/11, I held my children tighter … my husband and I lingered in conversations a bit longer … family and friends were dear and we pulled them closer. The events on 9/11 reiterated the importance of those around us. Tomorrow is not promised. Thousands on 9/11 never saw their loved ones again.
As America went to war in the wake of 3,000 innocent souls murdered and the destruction left on our shores, we held Support the Troops rallies to show our public gratitude to the men and women in uniform who were protecting not only the United States by taking the war to foreign soil, but also our freedoms. We recognized our First Responders, the front line of America’s defense.
For twenty years we said good-bye to those going to war … and embraced those who returned. We watched close family friends leave for battle and prayed for their safety. We have grieved with military families who lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, and flown American flags in their honor. Yellow ribbons have adorned our yards. We’ve sent care packages to troops in harm’s way and embraced their families at home.
We volunteered long hours on campaigns of political candidates who were strong on national security. In the middle of a war on terrorism, it was comforting to have a no-nonsense leader like George W. Bush whose first priority was the safety of the American people. Under his watch, America saw no more terrorist attacks on her shores.
Watching families mourn loved ones, my appreciation and respect for United Flight 93 continues to grow. Each 9/11 brings renewed alertness of terrorism attacks, and there’s a hope that we will someday return to the unity that temporarily held our nation together after that grim Tuesday in September.
And this year we have brought all American troops home from Afghanistan. But America was torn apart at the seams on January 6, 2021, when Donald Trump supporters – American citizens – violently attacked the U.S. Capitol in a quest to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s win as President of the United States while on a search to hang Vice President Mike Pence and kill other Congressional representatives. Police officers died that day as well as one of the rioters.
After coming together as a nation in 2001, now after twenty years must we be alert against attacks from our own fellow Americans?
We are also in the second season after enduring eighteen months of a global coronavirus pandemic that has pitted Americans against each other … pro-mask vs anti-mask … pro-vaccine vs anti-vaxxers … your freedom is more important than my freedom … families split, friendships broken … a loss that has affected just about every corner of the country.
A sadness hangs over this important anniversary.
Never forget 9/11.
But even as we never forget those terrorist attacks, let’s hope our country finds a way to heal from the domestic attack, that we can find a way to cap the random anger, that relationships can be healed, and that we find the bond of love and kinship that America had after 9/11.
Let’s hope it doesn’t take another tragedy for us to understand how much we have, how lucky we are to live in America, and that what bonds us together is far more than important than what tears us apart.
That is my prayer.