There was nothing more exciting to me growing up than a trip to the airport. And it was certainly an adventure, considering the closest airports from my small town in Pennsylvania’s rural Appalachia was more than two hours in either direction.
But it meant going to the city — either Pittsburgh or Buffalo. It meant someone from our family was visiting. It meant seeing commercial airliners up close — something I wouldn’t even ride myself until my early 20s.
Pittsburgh International Airport was my favorite of the two we would frequent, especially in 1992 after a $1 billion upgrade turned the facility into something that almost seemed akin to Disney World. Its trams were the most fun, stepping on board the miniature subways while also feeling like we had somehow transported ourselves into a science-fiction movie.
I was always ready for airport security. It really wasn’t much — take everything out of your pockets. Step through a metal detector. “Thank you, and enjoy your stay.”
Then it was what could sometimes feel like a forever wait staring out the large airside windows next to the gate, waiting for the plane to taxi in. Watching the ground crew work fast as the plane parked and ready to empty was fascinating to me. The coordination alone was a spectacle that could never be missed.
Of course, going to the airport to greet your loved ones off the plane now is a much different experience. Security is much different — and far more complex. And the only way you can wait at the gate is if you buy a ticket to depart. Otherwise, you're relegated to the main terminal. If you see any planes at all, it’s from your car window when you arrive and leave the airport itself.
Those were a few of the many changes that happened after Sept. 11, 2001. I was 1,000 miles away that morning, asleep in my bed in the New Tampa community of central Florida.
My roommate — a college student who moonlighted as a substitute teacher at local schools — pounded on my door. I thought maybe our building was on fire.
“Get up! Turn on the TV! The World Trade Center exploded!”
I slowly opened my eyes and moaned, irritated by the rude interruption of what had been a very peaceful slumber.
As I pulled myself up into a sitting position, I remembered that I didn’t have a television in my room. So I stumbled over to my Gateway computer, turned it on, and signed onto AOL.
Among the unread messages was a breaking news alert from CNN. A plane had crashed into the north tower. I shrugged, believing it was nothing more than some small private plane blown off course and crashing into one of the radio towers atop the building.
Dismissing my roommate’s excitement as a mere over-reaction, I finally emerged from my bedroom. My roommate’s door was right next to mine, and it was wide open. His own television blaring cable news.
I didn’t even look his way as I headed to the bathroom.
“Mike, you have to see this! There is smoke billowing out of the windows! I can’t believe that this is happening!”
So the plane didn’t hit one of the radio towers. It actually hit one of the buildings. Yet again, I dismissed this with a tired wave. I mean, small planes crashing into skyscrapers was hardly unique — especially in New York City. Anyone who knows some of the more interesting history of Manhattan can tell you about the B-25 bomber that crashed into the upper floors of the Empire State Building in 1945.
Was it tragic? Yes. More than a dozen people were killed, but fog was to blame. There was no fog outside our window, but then again, September weather in Florida was far different than September weather in New York.
Then my roommate yelled something I can’t quote here. Let’s just say it got my attention. A second plane had crashed, this time into the south tower. I walked up to the television for the first time, watching in disbelief as the horror unfolded in front of us on the television screen.
It’s strange. I can remember every second from the moment I was startled awake to the very point where I saw the true devastation of 9/11 for the first time. After that, it’s a blur.
I don’t remember feeling sadness or even fear. At least not for a while. We as people are just not prepared for something like that, especially in our own country and in its greatest city.
In the days that followed, I heard and documented the stories of so many people. And each had a common refrain, that I absolutely agreed with: Our society will never forget what happened on Sept. 11, 2001. It’s a memory that will remain vivid generation after generation.
Except 20 years later, that’s not what happened. Memories exist, of course, but nowhere near as clear. Our 20-somethings were too young, in many cases, to fully grasp what was happening. Many in college weren’t even born.
But we shouldn’t be surprised. This is what makes us human. This is what allows us to endure. Where we remember our pain, but not to the extent that it emotionally paralyzes us. It’s good — yet we can’t lose sight of what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, and everything that came after that fateful and tragic day.
The great 20th century philosopher and essayist George Santayana famously said that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But then again, it’s not always so black and white as the late Chicago Sun-Times columnist Sydney J. Harris would quip: “History repeats itself, but in such cunning disguise that we never detect the resemblance until the damage is done.”
While we can spend a lot of time taking a macro look of what happened 20 years ago, we want to be careful not to overlook the very human toll 9/11 took — on families of those who were lost, and of the survivors who still endure.
“Today is not about political agendas or foreign policy,” said one survivor, Jen Murawski, during a 2004 remembrance ceremony. “Today is about remembering a group of everyday people.
“That beautiful Tuesday morning, we got up, got dressed. We went to work. Got on airplanes. We were going about our daily lives.
“By the end of the day, 2,973 of us were lost forever. For those of us fortunate to survive, we were left to deal with the physical and emotional scars that will last a lifetime.”
And it should be a survivor who gets the final word here.
“I don’t think there was a soul not affected somehow by what happened three years ago,” Murawski said. “And today, Sept. 11, is about never forgetting.”
The author is editor of The Riverdale Press