I was probably just coming into sight of Saint Joseph's High School, riding up the bike path, when the first plane hit the towers. It was a gorgeous late summer morning, and the day began as just another pleasant and fun one with my students. It was somewhere in my first period of teaching Church History that Judy Simon knocked on my door, told me to turn on my television, and that something was happening in New York City. We watched, concerned, as we heard reports of a plane having hit one of the World Trade Center towers, and could see a live shot of the tower smoking in the distance. What a horrible accident. Within a few minutes of tuning in, there was suddenly movement and the image of a second plane hitting the other tower.
That's the frozen moment for me: the second plane, a second or two from impact, and the sudden feeling of my heart having dropped into my stomach because this was no accident – this was an attack. To just have time to breathe or yell "No!" before it hit.
The confusion and anxiety among the students jumped perceptibly, matched with a kind of shocked stillness as they clued into the fact that they were seeing something bigger than even a great tragic airline disaster. Speculation started. Just the day before, we had been talking terrorist/guerrilla tactics and strategy, as I took them through some of the significance of the First Jewish War, and we had to consider how a small group like the revolutionaries in Judea could have held off the Roman Empire, the greatest military power in history to that point, for four years. Suddenly that history lesson seemed terribly relevant as people began asking questions about who was attacking us and why they had done so this way.
I think a lot of people have forgotten one of the possibilities of those hours: the chief question going through my mind as we heard about other planes potentially in the sky, and of rumors of attacks in DC before anything was confirmed, was whether this was an act of domestic terrorism. Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing was the freshest such attack in recent memory. His execution had been just two months before. Somehow, the thought that this was a domestic attack seemed far more awful to me than if it were a foreign power or radical Islam. It was only when I heard that the Pentagon had been hit that I began to let go of the fear that we were being attacked by our fellow citizens, since it seemed to me that a foreign entity would be interested in strike against the Pentagon, while I would have expected that domestic terrorists would find a strike against the Supreme Court to be much more symbolic to them.
After that, the day begins to blur for me. Moving from the group of students in my room to a large gathering of students in the cafeteria. Images of talking with P.J. McCurry and being weirded out by the relative silence of the streets and the slowly-growing-more-noticeable absence of air traffic in the sky. Of watching more and more footage coming in from New York, and the awful collapse of the towers and the shrouds of dust consuming the city. Of worry for friends in New York, especially Folkheads thought to be in the area or now working in the towers, and the breakdown in telephone communications. And just a memory, or non-memory, of the blur of sheer shock and horror.