“Where were you?” That is the question every person (at least every person of a certain age in the United States and/or the Western world) is asking themselves today. It’s the question we all have of course been asking ourselves for the past 22 years. We remember it so clearly.
I was a 7th grader attending band class. I lived outside Washington D.C. (I currently still do). Our middle school is located not far from the Pentagon. Did the insulated, acoustic nature of our band class drown out the loud noise? Perhaps. Then I headed to my Latin class and all the footage hit us like a ton of bricks. Remember, potentially much younger readers, we didn’t have social media then. Television was our primary source of information. Assuming you’re a millennial or older, you may have been finishing up your first class of the day, catching the bus to work, leaving a boardroom meeting, playing golf, or driving to the grocery store. And then…. well…the rest is history.
My brother-in-law’s stepmother relayed her story to us several months ago. She lived in New York City at the time. On that fateful morning she was attending a meeting in midtown Manhattan. She glanced out the window and spotted a very disturbing, out-of-the-ordinary site, and she could catch glimpses of fire and smoke billowing out from it. “Are they filming a movie?” she asked her colleagues (Remember, this is New York City. Film shoots are not uncommon). Of all the “where were you?” stories I’ve heard, this is one of the most haunting, and, in this article, I will address why.
First, though, it’s important to recap the timeline of events. At 7:59 A.M. on the morning of September 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 11—carrying 76 passengers (excluding the hijackers) and 11 crewmembers—departed Logan International Airport outside Boston, Massachusetts. The plane was headed for Los Angeles International Airport. 15 minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175—carrying 56 passengers (excluding the hijackers) and 9 crewmembers—followed suit (leaving the same airport, headed for the same destination).
At 8:20 A.M., American Airlines Flight 77—carrying 58 passengers (excluding the hijackers) and 6 crewmembers—departed Washington Dulles International Airport (headed for Los Angeles International Airport, as well). At 8:42 A.M., United Airlines Flight 93—carrying 37 passengers (excluding the hijackers) and 7 crewmembers—departed Newark International Airport (bound for San Francisco International Airport).
At 8:14 A.M., the five hijackers aboard American Airlines Flight 11 (including the ringleader, Mohamed Atta) seized the plane (which was currently situated over central Massachusetts). They rerouted it, first turning it northwest and then south (headed straight for New York). At approximately 8:42-8:46 A.M., the five hijackers (including lead hijacker-pilot Marwan al-Shehhi) aboard United Airlines Flight 175, captured the plane (then located about 60 miles/100 kilometers northwest of New York City). At 8:46:40 A.M., the first airliner (Flight 77) crashed into the north face of the North Tower (1 WTC) between floors 93 and 99. Although the vessel entered the tower intact, everyone onboard was instantly killed.
At approximately 8:50 – 8:56 A.M., the hijackers aboard Flight 77 seized the plane, rerouting southeast from northern Ohio towards Washington D.C. At 9:03:02 A.M., Flight 175 crashed into the south face of the South Tower (2 WTC) between floors 77 and 85. Everyone on board was also instantly killed. Several parts of the plane, including the starboard engine, broke apart and fell to the earth. At 9:37:46 A.M., Flight 77 crashed into the western side of the Pentagon building.
All 59 passengers and crewmembers onboard were instantly killed, as well as an additional 125 people (including emergency workers) on the ground. At 9:57 A.M., several passengers—including Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham, Tom Burnett, and Jeremy Glick– aboard Flight 93 began a revolt. “Let’s roll,” they uttered, before wrestling control back from the hijackers. Despite their valiant efforts, at 10:03:11 A.M., the plane crashed 80 miles (129 kilometers) southeast of Somerset County, Pennsylvania (southeast of Pittsburgh). What was United 93’s intended target? Khalid Sheik Mohammed alleges it was the United States Capitol Building1.
At 10:28:25 A.M. the North Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed (1 hour and 42 minutes after Flight 11’s impact). A Marriott at the base of the skyscraper was also destroyed. At 10:50:19 A.M., all five stories of the Pentagon’s west side collapsed. At 5:20:33 P.M., nearly 8 hours after the initial attacks in New York City, 7 World Trade Center collapsed after fires started inside the building.
What happened in between? All sorts of hellishness and chaos. Every flight across the country was canceled. Schools were let out. Parents were alerted. People exited home from work as fast as they could. Roads were clogged. Passengers made frantic phone calls. Some people leapt to their deaths from the towers. No one had Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube, but videos from all angles captured the carnage.
And, through it all, unbridled heroism emerged as well. Brave police officers, emergency workers, and firefighters responded without a moment’s hesitation…rushing as quickly as they could into the Pentagon and the Twin Towers. They faced rubble, fire, smoke, collapsing infrastructure, toxic debris, and all other sorts of horrific dangers in their lines of duty. We remember the eternal footage of people sprinting for their lives as mountainous clouds of ash carpeted and consumed the city, blocking out the sunlight, but we also remember the firefighters triumphantly erecting the flag amidst all the “fog.”
Let’s return to the one question my brother-in-law’s stepmother asked the moment she saw the first plane in the building— “Are they filming a movie?”
When we consider any traumatic situation, denial or incredulity is not an uncommon initial reaction. In many cases, the denial or incredulity isn’t based upon any sort of defense mechanism or fear response. The person just simply doesn’t know what’s going on. They’re confused. Everyone that morning was, and it was very difficult to make an accurate conclusion about something going on that was wholly unprecedented (in other words, an “unknown unknown”).
People knew that terrorists attempted an attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. People knew that plane accidents and crashes occurred. It was awfully peculiar that a major jumbo jet would crash into a skyscraper on a clear and sunny day. But the very idea that terrorists would use commercial planes as giant missiles wasn’t something most people could conceive of. When the second plane hit, though, and the enormous fireball erupted…that reality became immediately apparent (as did the collective, unambiguous realization that this was no accident).
You find out that your son has just committed a horrible crime, that your spouse has been sleeping around, or that a commercial airliner has just smacked into a major urban landmark. You’re of course likely going to be very shocked! The “place” you occupied before the revelation is a fundamentally different “place” from the one you occupied after it. The new “place” is chaos…pure, aimless, structureless, and dimensionless chaos…and grief. Grief over losing your occupancy in the pre-revelatory “place.”
Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross famously identified five major stages of grief- denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These of course can also translate over to traumatic episodes, and many on the morning of and all the years following 9/11 certainly experienced all these stages.
Denial, though, absolutely came first (denial coupled with confusion). We saw it in the eyes of everyone—especially the news anchors. Turn on the old NBC, ABC, or Fox footage. Freeze the clock at 9:03:02 A.M. The look in their eyes. What were they thinking? Remember, these are news anchors. By the very nature of their industry, they are familiar with the myriad of dark and complicated stories that emerge in our world. Something very extreme and unprecedented must occur for news anchors and reporters to become speechless!
Denial usually arises first because if it is something overwhelming that a person has no experiential framework of reference for, they’re not going to be able to process it (at least not immediately). They can only appeal to a framework of reference they are familiar with. People on 9/11 knew about terrorism. They knew about warfare and people across the globe who loathed America and western civilization, but we relegated all that chaos to the literal pages of history or Hollywood. Ask someone in 2001 about D-Day and they would likely cite Saving Private Ryan’s opening 30-minute sequence (unless they were really there).
Put your average, militarily untrained person in the middle of a wartime fusillade and they’ll likely freeze up. That’s not a pejorative prediction. Many of us would (many of us would also likely go into “fight or flight” mode, but it’s hard to guess that sort of thing ahead of time). In fact, many of us would likely freeze up if there was only a single gunman on a single street corner who fired a single shot. That is…unless we have real world exposure to this sort of thing. Dramatic movies, shows, and video games give us the deceptive impression that we do.
Violent, bloody, gruesome, brutal, and disturbing carnage fill a lot of those productions. But the fact that they are dramatic productions or entirely contrived worlds makes all the difference. Take Die Hard or True Lies. People appear to shoot others, and buildings appear to explode into flames, but those are of course only appearances.
They’re action films. The actors within them are perfectly fine once the camera stops rolling, and when the film ends, people exit the theaters and go about their merry ways. A comedian I saw in college once pointed out the peculiarity of a video game like “Call of Duty” having a “D-Day Mission.” “What if your grandparents walked in and saw you playing that? Would that not be like you walking in on your grandchildren playing an ‘Escape from the Twin Towers’ mission?!”
This isn’t to say that 9/11 has no place within the domain of the “dream factory.” Many Hollywood productions- both film and television- have undoubtedly alluded to that fateful day. Examples include (but are certainly not limited to) “War of the Worlds” (2005), “Cloverfield” (2008), and the penultimate episode of “Game of Thrones.” Films like Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” and Paul Greengrass’s “United 93” (both released in 2006) directly covered the events.
“Hell bound?”- a 2012 documentary about the potential existence of a metaphysical place of eternal doom- begins and punctuates various scenes with an annual 9/11 memorial service in New York City. The understandably reviled Westboro Baptist Church verbally antagonize New Yorkers and “thank God for 9/11” as supposed divine punishment for more liberal, modern views on homosexuality. The film also appeals to an understandable American sentiment after the execution of Osama Bin Laden in 2011- a magazine frontpage depicts Bin Laden with the caption “Burn in Hell.” In the case of all these productions, the tone is clearly one of solemn, tasteful severity and horror, not positive excitement!
People saw the same site on TV that mirrored what they might have seen in True Lies, Die Hard, or The Matrix—a giant fireball and clouds of black smoke rising from a notable Manhattan skyscraper. The events that transpired certainly incorporated a lot of archetypal human fears- flying, fire, and heights. One person I spoke with initially thought they flipped to a movie channel when they saw the images of the first tower in flames (then they noticed this “movie” was premiering on every station).
The protective playful boundaries of the fictitious soon melted away. We figured out that “games” and “emergencies” aren’t the same thing, and this was clearly an emergency. It was an extreme, life-and-world-altering emergency, and there was nothing remotely adventurous or exciting about it. That is the true nature of warfare, disease, and other major sorrows. They make for great literature, drama, and history, but they aren’t the types of experiences you’d regret “missing out on.”
The other major, existential aspect of 9/11 worth zeroing in on is the specifically visual aspect. Film and television are of course primarily visual mediums (although sound also does obviously play a huge role). The double-triple-quadruple take everyone collectively made that morning likely also accounted for the possibility that what they saw was part of a film shoot. Or perhaps they thought it was a large-scale prank or some strange aesthetic tableaux…or, the most likely option, a very rare and unfortunate accident! Then the second plane hit…then the third (Pentagon)…and then the fourth (Shanksville, Pennsylvania).
What did the people “see” when they saw the planes hit…when they saw the smoke…when they saw the pancake-style collapse? Literally they saw massive structures disintegrate, they saw mushroom clouds of ash and debris, and they saw crowds stampeding away from it all. But that only accounts for vision in the most low-resolution sense of the term (not insignificant, but certainly not comprehensive).
The process of vision itself is quite intriguing. When we look at an object, light that reflects off that object enters our eyes through the front, outer layer, known as the cornea2. The cornea then bends the light and passes the image through a watery substance known as aqueous humor2. Light travels through the black pupil (which the colorful, brown, hazel, blue, or green iris surrounds), and the pupil then dilates or retracts depending on the amount of light2.
The pupil then passes the light to the lens behind it, and then the lens further bends and adjusts the shape of the image2. This “double bending” turns the image upside down2. The light then travels through clear, gelatinous, vitreous fluid until it reaches the retina, and the retina focuses the image through photoreceptor nerves2. The photoreceptor nerves, which contain the notable “rods and cones,” transform light rays into electrical impulses2. The nerve receptors then carry the images to the occipital (rear) portion of the brain2.
Vision though gets more intriguing when we consider its relationship to attention and perception in general. Human vision is so powerful that it can detect the slightest change in another person’s gaze. A person can tell the difference between someone else looking at their forehead and someone else looking at their nose (even from a broad distance). Human eyes are constantly in motion (“saccadic movements”)—always scanning the world from multiple angles—and they filter out everything that isn’t important or relevant (which constitutes almost everything)
The famous “invisible gorilla” experiment (conducted in 1999) demonstrated this phenomenon. Two teams dressed in black and white shirts. The task- count the number of times each person passes the basketball to someone else wearing the same color shirt. When they finished the task, the scientists asked the participants how many passes they counted (16 passes). Most got that part correct. Then they asked the participants: “Did you notice the gorilla that walked through?”
About a minute into the experiment a person in a giant black gorilla suit walked into the middle of the frame, stood there for a few moments, thumped their chest, and then walked off. “What gorilla?” many participants asked. This experiment that highlighted the reality of “attentional blindness” also highlighted the reality of the “black swan.” We’ll notice something if we expect to perceive it…if the “something” is predictable. If it isn’t…if it’s an “unknown unknown,” then our “radar systems” likely won’t detect it.
The crumbling towers and fleeing crowds were only what people literally saw. What did they primarily “see.” They saw fear and terror, chaos, death, grief, anger, uncertainty, the dissolution of the several-trillion-dollar financial system, the tightening of security everywhere across the world, a whole slew of complex geopolitical conflicts that would erratically, divisively, and unpredictably unfold over the course of several decades, and the hideous final consequences of human hatred and superstition…among many other things! That’s what they “saw” when they saw the towers fall.
Twenty-two years later. Those who were born that day may very well now be entering grad school. People born then do of course have a clear memory of the Covid-19 pandemic. Granted, the Covid-19 pandemic was primarily a natural catastrophe (and one that proliferated over the course of several years instead of a single day), but many sentiments and experiences were still the same—the different stages of grief/trauma, the longing for a previous era, and people “seeing” beyond what they literally “saw.”
Like the Covid-19 pandemic, though, there were many who “saw” what they saw and didn’t look away. There were the nurses and doctors who struggled day-after-day in the overwhelmed hospitals where everyone around them was dying, and, 22 years ago, there were the emergency workers and firefighters who climbed up into the burning towers…those whom we’ll never forget!
Again, today we take into our hearts and minds those who perished on this site [twenty-two years] ago. And those who came to toil in the rubble to bring order out of chaos and help us make sense of our despair.
–Michael Bloomberg, 2002 (mostly)
 September 11 Attack Timeline, 9/11 Memorial and Museum. Retrieved July 31, 2021.