It was just after 9 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, when my phone started ringing.
Or maybe it was later.
It’s hard to remember as the little details of that day all seem to blur together in my mind even though the larger memory of the tragic events of 9/11 are permanently etched into my brain.
I’ll never forget.
Caller ID let me know it was my mother on the phone and I thought about letting it go to the answering machine because I was running late for work.
Back then my hours at the Mesabi Daily News were pretty flexible but on that particular day I had to get to an morning interview in Aurora.
I don’t remember what the story was about or who I talked to that day, but I do remember holding my one year old daughter in one hand and answering the phone with the other. I barely got the word hello out of my mouth and she was already telling me to turn on the tv, that we were under attack.
She had been watching the Today Show that morning when a plane crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.
Like most Americans who saw that day unfold in real-time, she didn’t really understand what was happening in that moment — whether the plane ended up there by accident or not — but she was glued to the television as Matt Lauer and Katie Couric, back from commercial break just before 9 a.m., informed viewers that something had happened.
“We have a breaking news story to tell you about,” Couric said. “A plane has just crashed into the World Trade Center here in New York City.”
We would all be told later that a man named Mohammed Atta and a group of hijackers aboard American Airlines Flight 11 crashed the plane into floors 93-99 of the North Tower of the WTC at 8:46 a.m. eastern standard time, killing all 92 people on board.
Little did we know it was a declaration of war.
NBC’s cameras were instantly fixed on the two towers, heavy black smoke billowing from 1 WTC, as Lauer and Couric took phone calls from witnesses near the site. The first caller had no idea a plane had hit, all she knew is the building was on fire and emergency services personnel were quickly arriving at the scene.
You could hear the sirens in the background.
Another caller told them she saw the plane and was describing the scene in more detail when at 9:03, live on television, a second plane crashed into the South Tower.
Lauer responded in real time the way I’d guess millions of Americans watching did at the same time: “Oh my god.”
Every year around this time I watch that Today show footage on Youtube and each time I do I still get the same sickening feeling in my stomach when I see the fireball produced by United Airlines Flight 175 barreling into floors 75-85, killing all 65 people on board and dooming thousands more to their eventual deaths that morning.
Sometimes I find myself holding back tears.
In the 20 years since that day I’ve watched plenty of documentaries about 9/11 but I always go back to the Today Show footage because it’s so real and raw.
It also serves as a sobering reminder of how much American life — and how many American lives — changed that day.
How we went from talking about sharks, Britney’s albino python, and Harry Potter, to Osama Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
We are still talking about the Taliban and probably always will be.
But on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Bin Laden’s bunch weren’t on the average American’s radar. Most of us were going about life the way we always have.
At 8:50 a.m. that morning, just minutes after the first plane smashed into the north tower, Lauer was interviewing some long-forgotten author about a book few people ever read about Howard Hughes and his peculiar habits.
Nobody in the studio — just a few blocks away as the crow flies — had a clue what was happening.
Watching that interview now, knowing what we know, is surreal.
Then there is the footage seconds before Flight 175 hits 2 WTC as live TV cameras are rolling.
Watching the footage today, it is easy to see the plane coming as NBC had a wide shot of the two towers, but in that live moment 20 years ago, maybe because of the distance involved or the fact that nobody quite knew what was happening, it just didn’t register as to what it was.
It looked like a small plane or maybe a news helicopter and it was also hard to tell how far it was from the building, which probably explains why just seconds before impact, NBC went to another camera showing a close up of the smoke pouring from the north tower.
The only thing viewers see is a giant fireball rising from the bottom of the screen as the woman on the phone with Couric and Lauer exclaims: “Oh my goodness. Oh, another one just hit! Something else just hit! A very large plane just hit!”
Every time I watch that scene unfold in front of me, I struggle to contain my emotions.
All at once I think about all the people on those planes staring out the window at the New York City skyline flying past them at upwards of 500 and 600 miles per hour, not knowing exactly what was happening to them but no doubt fearing the worst was yet to come yet having no idea how bad it would be.
Those planes were just the start, of course.
So many people died that day — 2,996 to be exact.
So many people have died since then as a direct result of the events that unfolded on Sept. 11, 2001 — from those who ended up with medical conditions after sifting through the smoke and debris searching for survivors, to the family members of those lost on the ground and in the air who died inside upon hearing the news that their loved ones went to work or got on a plane on a normal Tuesday morning and never returned home.
Then there are the men and women who lost their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq - from American servicemen and women, to aid workers, contractors, Afghan and Iraqi civilians, and many more.
According to the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs, Over 929,000 people have died in the post-9/11 wars due to direct war violence, and several times as many due to the reverberating effects of war and over 300,000 of them were civilians.
That’s why we must never forget the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and how they changed the world.