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Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Behring Center Smithsonian “September 11:
Bearing Witness to History”

 
     Story of September 11
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Contributed by: John Andrew Palser
Contributor's location on 9/11: England
Contributed on: 13 August 2002

How did you witness history on September 11th?

The events of September 11 fell during the holidays following my A-level exams, just before I went off to university. I remember getting a phone call from my dad as I was eating my lunch, ringing to tell me that a light aircraft had hit the World Trade Centre in New York. One of the twin towers was onfire but it looked merely like a dreadful accident. I turned on the television to be confronted by the scene of smoke and flame belching from one of the twin towers. The rest of the BBC news had been halted to make way for full coverage of this epicentre of world events. Within seconds though, all thoughts of a tragic accident evaporated as, captured live, the dark and fleeting shape of a 767 banked in a dive and raked into the second twin tower. I remember exclaiming to myself as a gout of smoke, flame and twisted metal showered over the area around the Trade Centre as the jet impacted. From then on, I was gripped by the coverage which went on well into the evening. A short while after the second tower had been hit, news filtered through that there had also been an incident in Washington. A pall of smoke was shown rising from the area near to the Pentagon and I remember there being garbled reports that a car bomb had gone off at the state department. Soon, however, pictures were being relayed of helicopters and jets circling the area and it was soon evident that another aircraft, a 757 of American Airlines had hit the Pentagon and inflicted heavy damage. By this time, reporters were announcing that both American and United Airlines were 'growing concerned' about a number of their flights. American mentioned flights 11 and 77, while United voiced worries about flights 175 and 93. Then came the horrific denouement to a tragedy. The moment of the implosions of the twin towers. I speak as if they occurred at the same time because that is what it felt like. The shock of seeing one of the towers collapse was such that when the other fell later on, it was hard to register that anything else could happen on this day to compound the tragedy. As if by a sickening afterthought, news came of United flight 93's fate: the 757 had ended its journey when it crashed into a field in Chambers County, Pensylvannia. The rest of the day was a time of great depression, the like of which I have never known after having seen a tragic news story. My parents arrived home and were instantly glued to the television, having heard snatched stories from colleagues and friends about what had unfolded that day in the USA. I recall that we didn't eat dinner until 9.00 that evening, such was our focus to learn everything we could of the days events.

Has your life changed because of September 11, 2001?

One of the most important things that I have learned from September 11 was that life is there to be cherished. Most of us have the chance to live life as fully and wholesomely as is possible. We must learn to hold friends and family high in esteem and cherish the experiences that we have with them, for we can never be certain of our own mortality or that of others. Since September 11 I have found myself taking a camera with me whenever I socialise, whether it be a party with friends or a meal with my family. This provides me with tangible evidence of the experiences I have shared with those closest to me. Once a person is gone from this earth, it is only our memories that we have to keep them alive. If September 11 underlined one fact clearly, then this is it.

What do you think should be remembered about September 11th?

Ultimately, September 11 joins the great litany of man's inhumanity to man. It is hard for me to think of those who died that day merely as figures, due to the number of obituaries and memoriams I have seen in newspapers and on the internet. We realise that death is an all encompassing leveller, but we must remember that people who died on September 11 and indeed in other atrocities are all individuals. They have experienced the same thoughts and feelings as all of us. The fact that we can identify with these people as decent human beings trying to earn an honest living makes it all the more important that we remember their passing on September 11.

Did you fly an American flag after the events of September 11th?

Being British, I did not myself fly an American flag but I must admit to pangs of admiration concerning the American people. Being a history student, I have always had an intense interest in worldwide terrorism. Like all UK residents, I have vivid memories of news reports when I was younger that detailed the latest terrorist attack by the IRA on a British target. In a way, I felt that America had been relatively lucky in terms of terrorism on their own soil. Aside from atrocities such as Oklahoma, the Trade Centre bombing of 1993 and the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, terrorist attacks against American targets have been consigned to foreign countries, specifically the Middle East. However, I thought it abhorrent when some columnists in the national newspapers here in Britain put forward the idea that America almost deserved September 11, having got off scot free for so many years. In my opinion, no one country deserves to have a landmark destroyed and over 3,000 people killed on it's soil in one day. When America asked "Why us"? in the days following September 11, the world could indeed empathise with this question. The world also knew that the redoubtable American spirit, embodied by the national flag, would soon gear up to find those responsible for the worst terrorist outrage in history.


Cite as: John Andrew Palser, Smithsonian Story #132, The September 11 Digital Archive, 13 August 2002, <http://911digitalarchive.org/smithsonian/details/132>.
Archival Information: 489 words, 2663 characters

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