Terry McLaughlin: Sept. 11 sacrifices will not be forgotten
The radio woke us early on the morning of September 11, 2001.
My husband climbed out of bed to dress for work — just like any other weekday morning in our household. I had the luxury of another 20 minutes of rest before I also needed to prepare for my work day. But instead of dozing back to sleep, the words coming from the radio compelled me to sit straight up in the bed and turn on the TV.
It sounded like an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, a horrible accident. How could that have happened? Was it a private plane? It couldn’t have been a passenger jet?
And then to our horror, we saw on the TV screen a second plane hit another tower and we knew immediately that this was no accident.
Several days earlier, our 18-year-old son had sworn his allegiance to serve his country in the United States Navy, and we knew as the airplanes were hitting the Twin Towers in NYC that he was at Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois for NROTC Orientation Week. In our fearful parental minds, the Naval Training Center was an obvious target for an attack. I went downstairs to wake our daughter and share with her what little information we had, and we clung to each other on her bed with tears streaming down our cheeks. With no way to contact our son, we all had to push on with our day and hope to learn more as the hours passed.
My husband was a peace officer at the time, whose responsibilities included the Golden Gate Bridge — always considered to be a vulnerable target. He dressed quickly and left the house, knowing that his department would be on full alert and he could expect to be working long hours in the weeks ahead. Minimal work was done at my office or at my daughter’s high school that day, as everyone was intent on learning more and comforting those around them. My employer’s son was in the air on a flight from Switzerland back to the U.S. when the Twin Towers were hit. His flight was diverted to Canada, where he spent several nights in the airport, as all airline flights into and out of the United States were suspended.
At the end of a long day of worry, we received a collect call from our son, telling us that the marina at Great Lakes had been closed for security reasons, his university was opening a dorm early to accommodate him and his fellow cadets, and he was being bused to campus that night — and that he could only speak for two minutes because there were at least 25 other young men and women standing in line behind him waiting to use the pay telephone to call their families and assure them that they too were safe. And finally we could breathe again.
In the aftermath of the tragic events of September 11, we learned that our community had lost two young men — one a flight attendant, and another employed in the Twin Towers. Weeks later, a memorial for these young men was held at my children’s high school, of which one was an alumnus. It was a solemn and respectful service for young men most of us did not know, but to whom we all felt a strong bond in our shared grief and sorrow.
And then we began to learn the names of all the 2,996 victims — Barbara Olson, Fire Captain Terence Hatton, Lt. Timothy Higgins, Firefighter Stephen Siller, flight attendant Ceecee Lyles, Melissa Harrington, Peter Hanson, Brian Sweeney, and the list goes on in a seemingly unending, gut-wrenching fashion.
But from the ashes of a terrible American tragedy, remarkable stories arose like wisps of smoke. The firemen who charged into the burning towers, one after another pulling on their gear and daringly and selflessly running into danger to save lives. Todd Beamer, Tom Burnett and the other passengers on Flight 93 over Pennsylvania who used their cellphones to call the people they loved and then said “Let’s roll.”
Each of them gave us inspiration when America most needed it. They gave us a moment in time that still leaves us infused with gratitude and awe — and the realization that America does still create great, bold and courageous men and women like that.
Sixteen years since September 11, 2001, my son is part of a Naval Reserve Unit based at the Pentagon, where a memorial was erected as a daily reminder of those who lost their lives when Flight 77 crashed into that American stronghold. He and hundreds of others swore to serve their country on a beautiful September day when America was at peace, and found themselves almost immediately dedicated to serving a country at war. Asked if he regretted the choice he made, he said, if anything, he was even more certain that he had made exactly the right decision.
To those heroic men and women, and to the loved ones they left behind who somehow found the courage and will to get up in the morning, put one foot in front of the other, and carry on, we honor your sacrifice and promise that you will never, ever be forgotten.
Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Nevada City, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at email@example.com.
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