clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

9/11 is history for young people, but we who witnessed it will never forget

They will never know what it felt like that morning to watch on TV as the Twin Towers came down. They will never understand the stunned silence that gripped the nation as we wondered, “What comes next?”

In this Sept. 11, 2001 file photo the twin towers of the World Trade Center burn behind the Empire State Building in New York after terrorists crashed two planes into the towers causing both to collapse.
AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler

Tears would come to my father’s eyes when he spoke of December 7. It was a special date to people of a certain age. One they would never forget. But as a young boy it didn’t mean much to me.

Yes, I had seen film of Pearl Harbor following the Japanese surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941 and knew what it meant. Heck, I had seen dozens of World War II movies by the time I was 7 years old.

But 18 years had passed since those 2,403 Americans were killed, launching our country’s entry into the war. For me, that might as well have been Gettysburg or Bunker Hill that Dad was talking about.

It was history. And so is Sept. 11, 2001 to anyone under the age of 18.

They will never know what it felt like that morning to watch on TV as the Twin Towers came down. They will never understand the stunned silence that gripped the nation as we wondered, “What comes next?”

On Sept. 11, 2001, I finally understood why my father always choked up at the mention of December 7.

Eighteen years is a lifetime. For months after September 11, there were no Republicans or Democrats in America. Everyone who had hated New York suddenly loved the place. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani wasn’t some goofball appearing on TV to defend Donald Trump but was America’s mayor.

“Tomorrow New York is going to be here,” he said. “And we’re going to rebuild, and we’re going to be stronger than we were before…terrorism can’t stop us.”

Firefighters and paramedics from across the country flocked to New York to help. Folks from rural America donated money. We didn’t know what would come or how many more would die, but we stood together as one. We were the United States of America.

That was a long time ago.

For me, September 11 will always have a face. It is that of Ellen Mariani. I met her in Chicago at Midway Airport near the baggage carousels for arriving flights.

“Anyone here from a flight that has been grounded?” I called out.

Mariani was one of the first to respond. She looked to be in her late 50s. She wasn’t sure what was going on. She was on her way to California from the East Coast for her daughter’s wedding when the pilot announced the plane would be landing in Chicago instead. She had heard something about a terrorist attack on New York and that all flights had been grounded, but not much else.

When I told her I was a newspaper reporter, she eagerly asked me for information.

I told her two planes had crashed into the Twin Towers in New York City. It was believed to be a terrorist attack.

That’s when she said, “I hope my husband is all right.” He had been forced to catch a different flight to California. He was flying out of Boston.

I had heard on the car radio on my way to Midway that one of the flights to crash into the Twin Towers was out of Boston. Mariani had not. I asked her for the airline’s name.

“United,” she said.

I asked for the flight number.

Nervous now, she fumbled through her purse and pulled out a piece of paper. “Flight 175,” she said.

I phoned the newspaper office. I didn’t want to trust my memory. I asked the office manager to check the wire stories on the Twin Towers. She confirmed that United Flight 175 was one of the planes that had crashed.

I looked at Ellen Mariani and wondered what to say. I didn’t have to say anything. She had been watching my face. And she began crying.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

Forever sorry. That will always be 9/11 for those of us who will never forget.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.