Thirteen years ago today, I was a first-year student at the University of Virginia. Most mornings, I ate too many waffles at the dining hall. On the morning of September 11, 2001, I decided to go to the gym. I walked in, sat on a stationary bike, and nerded out by reading a book about JFK. I looked up at one of the TVs in the gym. They weren’t flat in those days. They also weren’t HD. I saw a bunch of smoke and the frantic faces of terrified people on the television screen. I assumed there had been a bombing in the Middle East. It was not Israel or Jordan. It was New York City.
I watched as the reporters on television spoke of an airplane crash and a tragic accident. I watched as flames smoldered near the top of the first tower and smoke began to fill the sky. As I watched, I saw a second plane rocket across the screen and smash into the second tower. As I sat on a stationary bike, I watched hundreds of people die on live television. It felt like I was watching a movie. Everyone in the gym stopped what they were doing. The world changed. We were under attack. I wondered whether Charlottesville could be a target. I was afraid that my family and friends in the Virginia Beach area were in danger because of all the military facilities down there. No one in the gym checked their emails, text messages, or Facebook accounts. Smartphones and social media didn’t exist. We stood there and watched. Together.
There were frantic reports of bombings, fires, and other missing planes. People could be seen jumping from the tops of the towers. I had never witnessed such raw fear and desperation and I hope I never will again. As we continued to watch in an eerie silence, one of the towers collapsed. In the comfort of an air-conditioned gym hundreds of miles away, we watched thousands of people die. Shortly thereafter, it happened again. There were massive clouds of ash on television. Underneath it were mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters.
Every 9/11, I watch the videos again. I watch the planes crash into the buildings. I watch the towers fall. I watch people jump to their deaths. The news reports look so old these days, but it still hurts. I try to imagine the fear of the people on those planes and in those buildings, but I can’t do it. I can’t even begin to understand the horror. I’m left feeling both sorrow and gratitude that I’ve never had to choose between being burned to death or jumping from a 100-story window.
Most of all, I’m left feeling confused. I don’t understand why someone could do something so horrific. I don’t understand why someone would kill thousands of people just because they are different. I don’t understand why after thirteen years, trillions of dollars, and thousands of additional lives lost at war, there are even crazier terrorists who want to see Americans die. I don’t understand how we can stress about traffic, bad Wi-Fi connections, and a waiter who takes too long to bring us menus when we all share the common experience of watching thousands of people die a horrifying death simply because they were Americans.
I stayed at the gym for three hours that day. It feels like yesterday. I will never forget. I will never forget to take life for granted.