Thursday, September 1, 2011

September 11, 2001: A personal narrative

    Everyone has their own story to tell about September 11, 2001: where they were when they first heard what had happened, and what impressions the events of that day made upon them. I also have mine, which I want to share as the tenth anniversary approaches.
    My story began the previous day (Monday). I was in Chicago, where I had been interviewed at Wheaton College for the presidency of a seminary elsewhere (although a finalist, I did not get the position). After the interview, people invited me to stay an extra day, but I decided to keep my reservation to Toronto for later that evening. I explained that I had to leave for Moscow on Wednesday.
   It was a good thing I did. Mine would be the last flight out of Chicago to Toronto for many days. Thankfully I got home shortly before midnight.
   The next morning, as I was listening to the news, I heard about the first plane, Flight 11, flying into the north tower of the World Trade Center. After turning on the TV, I was in time to see a second plane, Flight 175, fly into the south tower. Like millions of people all over the world, I was transfixed with horror at the sight.

   Slowly some details become clearer. I learned there were four flights that day that were responsible for the carnage: two in New York City, the third, Flight 77,  in Washington, DC, and a fourth, Flight 93, crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. But images of the first two crashes were indelibly seared into my memory on that momentous day. These memories are still vivid even after a decade.
   My wife and I were packing for our flight to Moscow the next day as we watched these events. We were not yet aware how much our travel plans would be affected.
  That morning I had to return a car to the office of CRWM in Burlington, ON. As I was driving there, I heard on the radio about the two towers collapsing, one after the other, in the space of a little less than half an hour. I saw the first images of this after I arrived in Burlington. 

   When I got home from Burlington, the scene in Toronto was surreal. Not a flight was visible in the sky over the city. Our condo was located on the 16th floor of the building. From our balcony we could see everything to the west, including the airport, but not a single plane could be seen anywhere.
   Normally, the sky over Toronto is filled with planes coming in for a landing or taking off. This abnormal situation lasted for several days.
   We learned that all air traffic had been cancelled for all of North America. Many flights from Europe and Asia, intended for the US, were diverted to Canada, where planes soon filled all the available space on the tarmac in major airports throughout the country.
   Hotels in Toronto, as well as elsewhere in Canada, soon became jambed and appeals were issued for Canadians to open their homes, which they did in large numbers. Many made new friends during those days.
   Unfortunately, we had to leave our condo. Where would we go, if our flight could not leave? The executive director of our organization, as if he had read our minds, called us and invited us to stay at his place, which was nearby.
   Needless to say, our flight to Moscow was cancelled. We had to wait five more days before we could leave Toronto.
   All we could see on TV for days on end were repeat broadcasts of the carnage in New York and at the Pentagon. Like people everywhere, we were thrilled to learn about the heroism of the passengers of Flight 93 by causing it to crash into a field rather than into the White House.
   There was a lot of speculation about who was responsible, but it was difficult to unravel rumors from facts. The implications of these discoveries were to be long lasting. In fact, they are still with us.

   The following Monday we learned that we could finally leave for Moscow. We were warned by the airline to get to the airport at least three hours ahead of time, which we did. But we soon discovered that there was hardly anyone flying out that day. It took us all of 15 minutes to get checked in and go through security, and our flight was nearly empty.
   I did not get to see Ground Zero in person until I visited New York City about two years ago. The first place that we went to the first day we were there was the Ground Zero museum. It was impressive, as were the new buildings that were rising as a memorial to 9/11.

   You have your own story about September 11, no doubt. This was a momentous day for everyone who witnessed the events as they unfolded. Later, as this week too unfolds, I will discuss the prelude to 9/11, and then I want to examine its legacy. That will take several postings: first the war on terror and then the war on Islam.
   My story is a preparation for that, since all of us view what happens around us through personal lenses. We each have our own perspective.
   September marked the beginning of our last year in Moscow. The reasons for our leaving had nothing to do with 9/11. Our situation at Moscow State University, where we were teaching in the philosophy faculty, had become untenable. All foreigners were being forced out.
   The next year (2002) would see us move to Nigeria, where we would be confronted with new problems. There we would witness the conflict between Muslims and Christians at close range. But that, as they say, is another story for another time.

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