When I lived in New Jersey, stories of the World Trade Center tragedy were exchanged like baseball cards. The loss of those three thousand souls extended deeply into the communities surrounding New York and beyond. Everywhere I went, it seemed nearly everyone had a story of 9-11 heartbreak or a breathless story of a close call.
I am no different, even though I was far away from New York or the Pentagon on that fateful day. I was in the air, flying from Wisconsin to see my dying father in Massachusetts. It was a few minutes after 10:00am. We had already flown over Cleveland and into Pennsylvania, had just passed downtown Pittsburgh and were on final approach to the airport. Our tray tables were up, our seatbacks had been returned to their original upright positions, the flight attendants were strapped in their seats. I listened without fear as the grinding noise of the landing gear announced it was being lowered and locked in position. Suddenly the plane took an abrupt turn up and lurched to the left, its engines howling in protest. The plane rattled loudly, a couple of overhead bins popped open. Everyone cried out. The captain came on the PA system and told us there was a “control tower issue” that was causing us to be suddenly diverted to Akron, Ohio. What he didn’t tell us and maybe didn’t even know himself at the time, was that while we had been in the air the World Trade Center in New York City had been hit by two planes, another was bearing down on the Pentagon and there was a plane in the airspace right behind us, coming up very quickly. After we got out of the way, United flight 93 kept coming, plunging minutes later into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing everyone aboard.
When we landed in Akron, it was chaos. People were panicked; crowding the television sets in all the bar and restaurant areas where stunned newscasters were delivering the latest updates against unimaginable footage of people leaping from the burning buildings. Airport police were running up and down the hallways, airline counters were packed with grounded passengers. I called my husband and heard the relieved, choked sob in his voice as he realized I was fine and not on the plane that had just gone down. Rather than try to re-book my flight, like so many were trying to do, I rented a car and drove the 450 miles back to Milwaukee in a daze, feeling as if I had passed through the shadow of some unspeakable evil. My father assured me on the phone that he and my stepmother would be fine, but his voice was weak. I knew I was losing valuable time with him that could never be recovered. Later that night I found out a friend who worked in the Pentagon nearly lost her life. She was spared because she had broken her leg and was on crutches, crutches that made her late for a meeting in which several of her co-workers were killed. My friend was devastated, knowing she would have, should have, been in there with the rest.
Spared. The word began to haunt me. It implied that somehow by landing safely that day, I was given a break that others weren’t, and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why I had come so close to something so awful but remained untouched. “Survivor’s guilt” it’s called, my knowing that most of those who were killed that day were decent people like me, or better, and who also had just as much to live for. “It just wasn’t your time,” I was told, but it didn’t comfort me. Because if I had come that close, then why had I been granted a pass when others weren’t? What responsibility came with my survival? What was it I was spared for? “You must still have work to do,” was another line I heard, but rather than make me feel better, it tortured me, as I struggled to figure out what that work was that was so important that I would survive on a day when so many other good people had died. Everyone I talked with had some kind of spiritual take on what happened that day, after all, isn’t that what we hope our faith will provide us, a way in which to make sense of the senseless? But even faith has it’s limits, and I’m sure that places of worship were filled with folks just as lost as I was, no matter how great they believed the reward might be for those on the other side.
We are still at war as I write this – planes filled with passengers are still crashing. Temples, churches and mosques, places that traditionally offer spiritual refuge, are blowing up around the world as cultures and ideologies clash over who has the real line into God. Local papers show photos of young men and women in their teens and early twenties who flew halfway around the globe in a military uniform only to come home in a body bag or with limbs torn off in the carnage. I have been looking at these pictures for more than ten years now and every time my heart hurts, knowing that just as many young people are dying on the other side of these great ideological divides. Despite all that separates us, the pain of losing loved ones ultimately unites all of us as human beings. Somewhere out there, reporters are being taken by the arm, being shown the family photos, the survivors overwhelmed with grief and guilt.
To this day, I carry my boarding pass from 9/11 in my wallet. I take it out when I am overwhelmed by the minutiae in my life, so that I never forget what is really important. I take it out and say a prayer for all those lost souls and for me as well, that in my life, this life that was spared, that I remember to be kind, to be fair, to live with an open heart and an open mind and to always be aware that the world can change in a single, searing flash.