Sunday marks the 21st anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, in which nearly 3,000 victims were killed after Al-Qaeda operatives hijacked four commercial airplanes that then crashed into the Twin Towers in New York City, The Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., and a field in Pennsylvania.
That infamous day – and the ensuing days, weeks, months and years – remain engrained in many of our memories, but to varying degrees after all of this time depending on where you were at the time, how old you were, and how personally you and your family were impacted.
Rather than rehash familiar stories of 9/11, I wanted to individualize and share the experience this year. So I pulled my recollections of that fateful Tuesday morning in 2001 and its aftermath, and asked our editorial team at the Weekly to do the same. (I only wish I had thought of this before our summer interns left because at least one of them wasn't even born yet in 2001.)
My clearest memories, though admittedly a bit fuzzy today, are of the morning of Sept. 11. A late-riser before school, I turned on ESPN's "SportsCenter" like usual only to find news coverage that almost looked like a disaster movie.
While that adjective was appropriate, the visuals were far from film fiction.
It was hard for my eighth grade brain to grasp the reality of the smoking World Trade Center towers; when the first fell, and then the second, accepting reality quickly (sadly) became easier. I ran upstairs to make sure my mom knew what was going on as she got ready for work.
I went to Benicia Middle School as scheduled that day, and I vaguely recall the principal over the sound system trying to reassure us all during first period that we would be safe on campus and school could go on.
Some students did go home, or didn't even come in the first place. I'll also always remember one Muslim girl in my grade who wore a hijab and her younger brother were kept at home for days if not weeks out of rightful fear of harassment from ignorant and cowardly students and parents. Of course, 13-year-old me should've been a more assertive bystander in those moments.
That's about the extent of my first-hand recollections. When I think back otherwise, I see snapshots from news footage, documentaries or movies watched after the fact. I also can't help but fixate on how politicized 9/11 soon became and how the aftermath still ripples to this day.
I found my memories and reactions to 9/11 were common to my colleagues' in some ways and very different in others. Here is what they told me:
Livermore Vine editor Cierra Bailey, who was in fifth grade at the time of the attacks, said, "I remember waking up and getting ready for school like any other day. I walked into my mom's bedroom to let her know I was ready to go and she was staring at the TV like she was watching a horror film -- eyes wide and mouth agape."
"I turned toward the TV to see what she was watching but I didn't understand what I was seeing," Bailey said. "She was in such a state of shock that she didn't even have the words to explain to me what we were looking at. At the time, it didn't occur to me that the horrific scene playing out on the news was real and I didn't know what the World Trade Center was."
She continued: "My mom -- who was pregnant with my now 20-year-old brother -- couldn't pull herself away from the TV to leave on time, so we were running late to get me to school. As we turned the corner of our street we were met by another frightening scene. There was a big fire at an apartment complex in our neighborhood which made us even more late due to traffic and detouring.
"But it was also an eerie parallel to what I'd just seen on the television. When I finally made it to school, I remember every teacher had their televisions on and all we watched and talked about throughout the day was the tragedy that had unfolded that morning on the other side of the country. At that point, 9/11 was the biggest historical moment that had occurred in my lifetime that I was old enough to remember.
"When I think about 9/11 now, I have a lot of mixed feelings. I feel grief for all of the lives that were lost and their loved ones, I feel anger that it ever happened and I feel sadness for how Muslims were treated in the U.S. in the days, months and years following that day."
Our editor emeritus Jeb Bing recalled the effort to cover Sept. 11 reactions locally in the Pleasanton Weekly on a quick turnaround for the print edition that week.
"My wife Jan and I were just getting ready for work when we saw the news on TV. Needless to say it was a terrible shock," Bing said.
"I quickly headed to the Pleasanting Weekly's office to plan our local coverage both for news and photos, starting with a photo of a city worker moving the City Hall flag to half staff. We covered police and fire taking positions to protect streets as needed. Next we took photos of firefighters using their helmets to start collecting contributions from motorists and merchants on Main Street," he said, adding:
"That night, the Weekly helped organize a special community-wide prayer service at the fairgrounds with at least 20 clergy and churches participating."
Publisher Gina Channell Wilcox remembered "that Tuesday morning, I was getting my boys ready for school and my daughter ready for daycare. When the phone rang, I was really annoyed because, as usual, I was running late."
"The caller told me to turn on the TV because a pilot crashed into the World Trade Center. I said, "In New York?" – thinking "That's in New York, I'm in Illinois and why are you bothering me when I have three kids to get out the door?" she said.
Wilcox continued: "But I was curious so I turned on the TV news and my sons, ages 13 and 9, joined me to see the smoke billowing from the tower. Then we watched a plane come onto the screen and the fireball as it crashed into the tower.
"I couldn't wrap my head around what had just happened. My first thought was why are they doing replays of the plane crashing into the tower.
"Then it hit me -- the plane crashed into the tower that didn't have smoke billowing out of it. "Oh my God! There's a second plane!"
"It was at that moment, I -- like everyone else in the world -- knew this was not an accident.
"As the executive editor of a newsroom of 100--plus journalists, I had to get to the office. I was directing reporters and photographers from my car as I was driving, and one of my editors said a plane had hit the Pentagon. When that sunk in, I hung up on him and called my brother, who worked in an office above Union Station in downtown Chicago. Without pleasantries, I told him to get out of the city. He argued. I cried. He eventually got on a train home.
"I later regretted my decision to send the boys to school. Apparently I wasn't the only person to realize a big city like Chicago could be next and there were understandably many anxious children and adults that day, and that frightened my sons.
"And the teachers' decision to allow the students to watch news coverage that day is unforgivable. My 9-year-old had nightmares; my 13-year-old couldn't eat or sleep.
"The 'Gen X'ers' like me, who grew up in the time of the Cold War, feared a nuclear war. But we also knew that no war had ever been fought on American soil. The 'Millenials' like my sons, who watched planes turning into fireballs and people falling to their deaths, don't have the luxury of saying 'it won't happen here' because it did," Wilcox said.
Reporter Christian Trujano recalled his parents' reactions.
"The morning of September 11, 2001 was just like any other regular morning. My parents were getting ready for work and I was patiently waiting to get dropped off at the daycare," Trujano said.
"All of the sudden, my parents stopped everything they were doing. At the time I remember this being a bit odd because of how rushed our mornings usually were -- you had my younger brother and myself putting up a fight just to get dressed most of the time," he added.
Trujano continued: "I remember my mom turning on the TV and staring at what I thought was a movie. Then she started crying.
"My dad walked in the room to see what the problem was and I remember seeing both of them stare into that oversized TV -- both of them seemed speechless, confused, and most of all, scared.
"I used to ask myself -- why did they care so much for what was happening to a country that wasn't theirs (both of my parents were born and raised in Mexico) and that didn't always treat them equally?
"But I recently came to the realization that at that time, many immigrants like my parents were feeling the same way -- scared for how they will be seen after the attack. My parents were always hard workers, but the color of their skin never failed to get in the way of promotions, better opportunities, or even simple chances to speak out on things they didn't agree with at their jobs.
"After 9/11, I felt my parents' attitudes shift to this sort of defensive, always-on-the-lookout mentality, which greatly affected how I grew up. And I say this with the caveat that I know other middle eastern ethnic groups in the U.S. felt this much more than my family did. But I also know that since that morning, I have never seen my parents as fearful for our lives and safety as I did that day," Trujano said.
Reporter Jeanita Lyman told me, "I was the first to break the news of 9/11 to my family, when every radio station was taken over by news coverage upon the impact of the planes and aftermath. With the story rapidly evolving and changing on broadcast news outlets, I went out to find a newspaper as tangible record of what exactly was known at press time."
"For a long time, this was the only thing that stood out in my memory about that day. But as time has unfolded and the latest generations have been born, I've sought to also hold onto memories of life before 9/11, and reflect on what has changed," she added.
"The late Washington Post publisher Phil Graham called news 'the first rough draft of history.' Memories also serve as a very rough draft of history. But unlike news, we carry memories with us at all times, and we have the ability to compare and contrast them with the present moment at all times," Lyman added.
And Nicole Gonzales, our newest reporter who was two months shy of her 1st birthday on Sept. 11, 2001, said, "I can't say I remember much of that day, or any of the immediate aftermath. What I do remember, however, is the ripple effect that day had on the nation, my childhood and lessons taught in class. In school, this day always seems to stick out as a very morbid, sad and serious day of remembrance."
"Those of us that were too young to remember were instilled with the immense weight of what had taken place that day, knowing then how sad and important it was, and years later only beginning to understand the specifics. As well as growing up in a post-9/11 world and living with the thorough and clear systemic ways this day impacted the nation," Gonzales told me.
I very much appreciate my colleagues for being so open and honest with their reflections for my column.
As for local remembrances on this 21st anniversary, the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department will hold its familiar observance at each fire station in the two cities on Sunday morning at 9:45 a.m.
The Exchange Club of the San Ramon Valley will present its annual 9/11 Remembrance Ceremony at the All Wars Memorial in Oak Hill Park in Danville from 5:30-6:35 p.m. Sunday.
The event will feature a presentation of colors, a performance by Monte Vista High School chamber singers under the direction of Rosaline Neisinger and special remarks by Danville Police Chief Allan Shields and San Ramon Valley Fire Chief Paige Meyer.
A keynote address will be given by Capt. Roy Smith, an Air Force veteran and retired United Airlines pilot, sharing "his experiences of the trauma and retraining that ensued after the tragic loss of lives during the attack on American soil at the World Trade Center, Pentagon and Stoney Field."
Consider visiting one of these public observances or finding your own way to reflect on that somber day forever etched into American history.
Editor's note: Jeremy Walsh has been the editor of the Embarcadero Media East Bay Division since February 2017. His "What a Week" column publishes on the second and fourth Fridays of the month.