At 5:46 a.m., twelve years ago this morning, I was sleeping peacefully. I had the bed all to myself as my husband had already left for the National Guard base and a routine KC-135 refueling mission.
Just before 6 a.m., the phone rang.
It was my husband.
“Turn on the news. Then call Mark. I love you. I’ll call you when I can.”
Click. Nothing more.
I wasn’t bleary eyed, groggy or fuzzy from being abruptly awakened. I knew the tone. I felt the seriousness. Instantly, I was alert and focused. Something big had happened.
I turned on the news.
I turned on the news and watched the world as I knew it change before my eyes as United Airlines Flight 175 tore into Tower Two of the World Trade Center in a horrific explosion of fire and black smoke. Tower One already burning next to it.
Dear Lord, how many people were in those buildings? On those planes?
Tears in my eyes, lump in my throat, I called Mark. Mark was the best man in our wedding and is one of my husband’s closest buddies. He is also a fellow tanker pilot and at the time, lived only a few miles from us.
He is also not a morning person. “What?!”
“Mark, turn on the news. Something is happening.”
I can’t share with you the first words out of his mouth when he turned on the TV but I promise you, I will never forget them. He knew what was happening. He knew it wasn’t an accident.
And then he simply said “Okay, I’m going in”. Calm. All Business.
Click. Nothing more.
And then, the wave of phone calls.
My husband had been an active duty KC-135 pilot for ten years when he left active duty in 2000 to finish out his service flying part time for the National Guard and work full time flying for American Airlines.
My phone was inundated by friends and family desperate for me to tell them that he was not on American Flight 11.
“Please tell me Gary was not on that plane.”
“I know you’re probably getting a lot of calls but please just tell me he’s okay.”
“Where is Gary? He’s not flying is he?”
Phone calls all morning and sporadically throughout the day. Those phone calls are what have stayed with me the most all these years. I am so thankful for that outpouring of love and concern but I have to be honest, that is not what still resonates. It is how I was able to answer that never leaves me.
“No, he wasn’t on that plane” – “Yes, he is okay” – “No, he wasn’t flying”.
The other wives, the husbands, the mothers, the fathers, the sisters, the brothers who were getting the same phone calls but could not give the same answers, they have stayed with me. I carry them with me because I can’t imagine having to answer as they did. For me, it was all okay. For them it was not and I will never forget. For them and for the loved ones they lost.
After 9-11-2001, I did not see my husband again for a week, other than that night when I met him at the guard shack to drop off an overnight bag and several dozen pizzas.
But I did see him again.
He spent the next week on high alert and when his unit got the call to launch and refuel fighters flying homeland defense, he and Mark piloted one of the first planes back in the air after everything had been grounded. He shared with me how surreal it was to be practically “alone” in the skies.
He flew with American again for only a short time before he was called back to full time National Guard duty where he has remained ever since, taking a military leave of absence from the airline. In the short amount of time he flew commercially after 9-11, his route was Dallas to Newark where for weeks he could see the smoldering remains of the twin towers on approach.
A constant and terrible reminder of all that was lost and how life had changed. How our country had been changed.
This morning, twelve years later, at my children’s school there was a Patriot’s Day ceremony around the flagpole in the inner courtyard.
The 6th grade students sang Lee Greenwoods “Proud to be an American” and several of their classmates shared beautiful sentiments they had written. One of the girls who read is a friend of Sara’s and as she spoke the words “I was born just after the events of 9-11”, the realization struck me that every child at that ceremony today was born after 9-11. They have never lived in an America untouched by terror. Those sixth graders are the first generation of a profoundly changed America. And they are a beautiful reminder of our resilience and strength; of what we have overcome. That life does go on.
The little girl who shared those words, her name is Hope.
There are so many things I reflect on and remember on this day each year.
I remember the pain and disbelief and being glued to the news.
I remember the sacrifice and the heroes. “Okay, I’m going in”. Firefighters. Police officers. Military. Ordinary citizens. Airline passengers. They stepped up, they went in.
And many didn’t come out. But others did because of them.
We came out of 9-11 because of them.
And we must never forget them.
The reminders are around us everyday. See them. Remember them.
Heavenly Father, today we remember what was lost in our country. Thank you for this day. Thank you for the freedom we are so blessed to know. May we never take it for granted. Thank you for the men and women who continue to sacrifice that we might gather in remembrance around a flagpole in an elementary school courtyard; safe and without fear. Be with them. Protect them. Let us not forget that there are those who live in fear and terror and horror everyday. We pray for them and for peace. We lift up to you the families of all who did not come home twelve years ago as their pain becomes new again on this day. Comfort them as only you can.
Let us never forget.