Sept. 11, 2001. It was one of the worst days in American history.
It has been 20 years since we watched planes crash into the World Trade Center and witnessed the Twin Towers collapse, heard of a plane slamming into the Pentagon, and of the bravery of a group of passengers before their plane tore into a Pennsylvania field.
It has been 20 years since the images of that second plane crashing into the World Trade Center, of firefighters and policemen facing death to rescue others, of trapped people leaping to their deaths rather than face the rising inferno, of rising smoke columns replacing those of the fallen Twin Towers, of people fleeing a wave of smoke and rubble and death, of a much-different Rudy Giuliani – the Mayor – leading a parade of dust-covered New Yorkers in an evacuation of the city, of desperate relatives papering the city with photos and information of missing loved ones.
A relatively small number of U.S. citizens were actually there. But we were all there, witnessing these terrible incidents, one after the other, minute by ghastly minute, as they unfolded across our television screens. We may not have been in New York or Washington, D.C., or that lonely field in Pennsylvania, but we have come to feel that we were there.
We lived that shared experience of what quickly became known as 9/11. We shared the shock, the grief, the outrage, the frustration, the helplessness, the determination, the generosity, the loss, the fear and even a glimmer of hope.
Yes, there was hope in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
On that day, there was no South or North, no East Coast or West Coast, no liberal or conservative, no Democrat or Republican.
There was only one name for us.
While New York struggled to literally clear away the debris of a world gone mad, each American no matter how far away or how close to New York, carried pieces of that rubble in their hearts. It formed lumps in our throats.
We wept in Los Angeles. We mourned in Houston, Texas. We prayed in Boston, Mass. We lit candles in Memphis, Tenn. We held moments of silence in Greenville, S.C. We attended special church services in Enid, Okla. We tried explaining 9/11 to our children in Portland, Ore.
In Valdosta, we did all of these things, and we raised the American flag, as the rest of the country did from sea to shining sea.
Though New York and Washington, D.C., are hundreds of miles away and often considered an entirely different culture from the Deep South on most days, these cities seemed like our hometowns on 9/11.
Valdosta residents felt the shock of 9/11 as if the Twin Towers had collapsed in the courthouse square, as if the Pentagon plane had struck the mall, as if the plane in Pennsylvania had crashed into our farmland.
Valdosta mourned, wept, prayed, lit candles, observed moments of silence, attended special church services. We shared stories of our neighbors and relatives who happened to be in New York on that day. We shared photographs from family there, or pictures we had taken of Washington and New York before 9/11. We wrote poems.
We made donations literally of blood, sweat and tears, as Valdosta residents gave to blood drives, local emergency personnel volunteered to work in New York.
And our city grieved.
Now, 20 years have passed. The early spirit of national unity is so far gone it’s hard to imagine it ever existed.
The ripples of 9/11 still reach out. They touch our hearts. They haunt our memories. Twenty years and counting.
Dean Poling is an editor with The Valdosta Daily Times and The Tifton Gazette.