MIAMI – In 2018, I visited the new 9/11 memorial and the museum, and I felt proud to be an American. Being there changes your life. Today, I remember how that fateful day unfolded.

September 11, 2001, started off just like any other day. I was a senior at Brighton High School in Salt Lake City, Utah. I was saying goodbye to my parents as I was leaving for school. My Mom always had the Today Show on in the morning to catch up on the news. That’s when I saw the first images of something that happened in New York at the World Trade Center.

I remember just staring at the screen trying to understand what I was looking at and how it happened. The reporters were saying that they received a report that a small plane had flown into the World Trade Center and no further details were available at that time. I hugged and kissed my parents goodbye and headed to school.

When I arrived at school, it was apparent that everyone had seen what was happening in New York. I remember hugging a friend who was scared and nervous about everything that she had seen. I reported to my first class, Advanced Aeronautics, and the TV was on.

Within just a couple of minutes, I saw the 2nd plane hit the World Trade Center. You can’t express the overwhelming feelings that took over as you watched the Nation under attack. My heart broke for the people and the families that in those moments lost loved ones.

You didn’t want to watch, but you also couldn’t stop watching what was happening. The school bell rang to start the day, but no one moved. You could see the faculty trying to figure out what to do…do you turn the TV off? Do we try to have a “normal” day? Then it became apparent that the attack wasn’t over.

The reports of aircraft not talking to ATC and turning around were now flooding the screens. Where was it going to happen next? I remember my teacher writing all the information on the board as it came in. I can clearly see the look on my teacher’s face when he turned to the class and said “They are headed for the capital…” 

POTUS George W Bush receiving the news of the attacks was something I will never forget. The look on our President’s face went from joyful and happy, to the look of a man instantly ready to protect our country and its people. You hear about the order to ground every single flight in the sky over the United States. Trying to identify where the potential next threat could be. Then it happened.

9/11 museum. Photo: Yifei Yu/Airways

It’s Not over Yet

The pentagon has now been hit by a plane and more lives are lost. United Flight 93 becomes a target as it has made a turn towards the Nation’s capital. I feared what I would see next on the TV screen…New York and Washington DC are under attack.

United Flight 93 crashes in Pennsylvania after you later hear that the passengers knew what was happening. They took matters into their own hands and became Heroes. Every class I went into that day was spent watching the TV. How do you move on from this? How do you live a “normal” life after this?

You could hear people crying, students and teachers. The emotions were unlike anything anyone has experienced before. The report came that all the planes over the United States were on the ground. We didn’t know if the threats were over, or what do you look for next.

The footage flooded the screens of the horror on the streets of New York City, the sadness, the panic, the fear, the destruction, it was everything. I wasn’t there, but I felt like I was. The ultimate feeling of absolute helplessness was too much. You watched heroic act after heroic act unfold before your eyes, and it’s in the darkest moments the light shines the brightest.

We all watched it live. The World Trade Center and the Pentagon were on fire, smoke billowing from the buildings, and danger ever-present. It didn’t stop Americans from running in to save as many lives as they could. From the Firefighters, Police Officers, Port Authority, Service Men and Women, and to American civilians…the truest depiction of who America truly is. When you think the worst is over, it isn’t, not on that day.

I watched as people stuck in the Twin Towers jumped from the buildings. Reports started coming in about the integrity of steel under the immense heat and damage. People started running…that’s when I watched as the first tower fell. Then the second. The world was changed forever. There was no way back to the normal we all once so comfortably knew and took for granted.

This hurt but I wasn’t even there. My Dad was supposed to be flying on business that day. There wasn’t any word about when flights were to resume. I can still see the pictures in my head of all the foreign carriers that landed here at Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC). After their arrivals, our nation’s skies stood still. As reality sank in, the way we traveled was never going to be the same.

Going with family and/or friends to the airport and going all the way to the gate was over. Air travel will never be the same. They took something so beautiful and turned it into a weapon that took so many innocent lives.

9/11 museum. Photo: Yifei Yu/Airways

Visiting the 9/11 Memorial, Museum

That November, my family flew to Washington DC, experiencing the new way of air travel. We had the opportunity to visit the Pentagon with my uncle who worked there. I saw the hole/collapsed portion of the building, with a giant American flag draped over the side. We saw the memorials with flowers, pictures, and letters.

My Dad took me to the World Trade Center a couple of years prior. I stood inside the lobbies of both towers. I returned to New York while the excavation of Ground Zero was still underway. I looked into that hole in the ground with a prayer in my heart for those we lost. In 2018 my wife, her family, and I went to New York City.

I visited the new memorial, I visited the 9/11 museum, and I felt proud to be an American. There is a solemn but enduring strong spirit that resides at Ground Zero. It puts life in perspective. We can not forget this day. We should not forget this day. We will never forget this day.

Article written by Patrick DeWaal, Air Traffic Controller Salt Lake City TRACON (S56) UTAH

Featured image: Ground Zero. Photo: Francesco Cecchetti/Airways