It was the day that changed everything. It was the day that changed nothing.
Sept. 11, 2001, started for most Americans the same way that any other Tuesday would. People woke with thoughts of the workweek ahead and the assignments they had to complete. What they would do this weekend, and with whom. What the next hot song would be, and who would win the game on Saturday.
Nineteen hijackers wiped out those thoughts. At 7:46 a.m. Central time, an airplane tore through the north tower of the World Trade Center at more than 400 mph. At 8:02 a.m., another plane smashed into the south tower just as television cameras were making it to the scene, ensuring that the image would be indelibly etched into the American psyche.
The Federal Aviation Administration shut down U.S. airspace, but it was too late to stop a third plane from slamming into the Pentagon. Americans were stunned, petrified and furious. How do you stop an attack when you don’t know who’s attacking you?
The passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 knew how: by any means necessary. They were everyday people who became heroes. One of their leaders was 32-year-old Todd Beamer, an account manager and three-sport high school athlete from New Jersey. Beamer called a phone company supervisor and said that the passengers intended to retake the plane. He recited the 23rd Psalm and asked the woman to call his family.
Then Beamer issued a now-famous battle cry: “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll!”
No one knows for sure what happened in the next few minutes, but what is known is that the plane never made its target. Flight 93 came down in a western Pennsylvania field at 9:03 a.m., and the nation’s fight against terrorism had begun.
But the terrorists had already done their damage. Minutes before Flight 93 crashed, the 110-story south tower of the WTC collapsed, filling the streets of New York with thick plumes of smoke, raining down debris and crushing hundreds of police and firefighters who had rushed into the building to save the trapped and dying.
Panic set in nationwide when the WTC’s north tower fell at 9:28 a.m. The paranoia spread to the University campus, where many students went to class unsure where, when or if the United States would be attacked next. Fortress America had been penetrated, and no one was safe anymore. Students knew an attack on Tuscaloosa was unlikely, but it was difficult not to wonder: “Are we next?”
The nation needed someone to take charge. That someone was New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who emerged on the international stage as a calming voice in a chaotic storm. By Sept. 12, thousands of volunteers were on the scene at New York’s ground zero. Some stayed for months.
More than 3,000 people died in the Sept. 11 attacks. Many of their bodies were never found.
America was stunned. The stock market was closed for almost a week, and the weekend’s sporting events were canceled as the United States entered a period of national mourning.
President Bush promised to find the men responsible for the attack and make them pay. His popularity soared as the country turned its attention to a fight for national survival.
Investigators quickly connected the attacks to the terror cell al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden. Meanwhile, officials hustled to shore up homeland defense. Bush appointed Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge to head the new Office of Homeland Security. A color-coded terror alert system was implemented. The FBI announced plans to reorganize to improve communication with other intelligence agencies. Security was stepped up at airports, nuclear plants, national monuments – anything that could make an attractive target for terrorists.
Patriotism surged. Stores couldn’t sell American flags quickly enough, and police and firefighters became national heroes. At the University, Denny Chimes turned into a makeshift Sept. 11 memorial with candles and pictures of the victims.
But the domestic threats weren’t over yet. A few weeks after the attacks, someone began mailing letters laced with anthrax to newsrooms and politicians. Five people died, and millions more panicked, before the letters ceased in November. Federal prosecutors are investigating former Army researcher Steven Hatfill in connection with the mailings. He denies any involvement.
Prosecutors also charged French citizen Zacarias Moussaoui in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks. His trial will begin in December.
Internationally, Bush zeroed in on Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, which was providing safe harbor for al-Qaeda. The United States issued an ultimatum: Turn over al-Qaeda or else.
The deadline passed, and on Oct. 7, it was bombs away over Afghanistan. By December, the Taliban were forced into the mountainous Tora Bora region of eastern Afghanistan, and the Americans installed an interim government in the country. U.S. troops remain in the region today, tromping through the mountains searching for remaining al-Qaeda pockets.
The first stage of the war on terror was relatively bloodless, but there were still casualties – and surprises. The first American to die in combat was CIA agent Johnny Spann, a Winfield native. Other deaths followed. A reporter discovered a Taliban fighter, John Walker Lindh, was an American citizen. Lindh’s lawyers struck a deal with federal prosecutors under which he will serve a maximum of 20 years in prison.
The months rolled by, and each day put more distance between Americans and Sept. 11. Gradually, other stories bumped the war on terror from the headlines. Talk at the Capstone turned to the NCAA investigation, the Student Government Association elections and the departure of President Andrew Sorensen. Today, there is talk of invading Iraq, but it seems to many to be a distant prospect. As best it could, normalcy had returned.
Today, on the one-year anniversary of the deadliest terror attack on American soil, people will wake up with thoughts of the workweek ahead. Thoughts of what they will do this weekend. Thoughts of who will win the game this weekend.
Sept. 11, 2001, was the day that changed everything. It was the day that changed nothing.
And one year later, it’s the day that’s still impossible to forget.