Philadelphia Metropolis

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In the Shadow of the Towers

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By Sean Breslin

On Sept. 11, 2001, I awoke on a couch to find my sister's college roommate flipping through the channels to find CNN to check out news about a plane crash in New York. She left the room to make coffee, and came back as Flight 175 slammed into the South Tower. That was the first time I ever felt truly fearful. I remember thinking that we were up against something unknown that thought nothing of killing us.

I was in Denver when the attack happened, visiting my sister at college after a long road trip in my 1988 Honda Accord. My friends in South Jersey were taking bets on where I'd break down, and my father had offered to help pay for a plane ticket, worried about his 19-year-old son making a solo road trip in a car with more than 140,000 miles on it. But I was stubborn, and I wanted to see the parts of the country we always flew over on our way to somewhere else. I made it to my sister's dorm in time for dinner on Sept. 10, 2001.

twin woers 2.jpgLike the rest of the country, my sister and I spent a good part of the next day glued to

the television. Every once in a while one of us would posit something, guess at who was

behind the attacks, what country we would be going to war with, hoping people we knew

back East were all right. But mostly, we watched in silence as tragedy after

tragedy played out on the cable news networks.

My sister's campus effectively shut down on for a few days, so we had time to visit with

one another. We went on a hike, had lunch with our mother, bought CDs at a local

music store. But all we could talk about was the attacks, and soon we'd exhausted our

energies thinking about it. I had planned to stay for a week, but left on Thursday, Sept.

13, already working on a new route through Texas and Oklahoma and Tennessee, to

see as much as possible of the country I called home, the place that had just been so

viciously assaulted.

Early Friday morning, I reached Oklahoma City, a town that knew the wounds of

terrorism better than any other place in the country. The city, reaching out to New

York and Washington, had organized a public moment of silence at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing, and ran ads in the New York Times and Washington Post expressing support. I stopped by a small diner for breakfast. An elderly couple stood behind the counter of the otherwise empty dining room, both of them watching a television. I ordered my meal, and the three of us continued watching the news in a prolonged state of shock.

I had brought dozens of CDs along to keep me entertained on the road, but

through Arkansas and Tennessee, into Kentucky and Ohio, I listened to the news on

NPR wherever I could find a signal. I kept hearing the name of a small town in

Pennsylvania, Shanksville, where Flight 93 had gone down. I thumbed through my

atlas, found the tiny dot southeast of Pittsburgh, and headed in that direction, not really

sure what Iʼd find there.

Though the details of the passengersʼ fight against the terrorists had not yet emerged,

there was already a consensus that theyʼd stopped the plane from reaching some

undetermined target and prevented the  killing of more civilians. I drove down narrow farm roads pocked with potholes until I reached a roadblock, guarded by a severe-looking man wearing a dark suit and sunglasses. As I stood by the roadblock, a steady stream of people made a pilgrimage to the crash site, leaving flowers and flags, ribbons and teddy bears as a tribute to the passengersʼ bravery. I stayed for maybe an hour before driving the last six hours home.

Iʼd left South Jersey wanting to see the American landscape, to see eastern forests give

way to the western plains and to see the Rocky Mountains rise on the horizon. But that

day I realized Iʼd be seeing an entirely different landscape, a cultural and political

landscape that was shifting in ways we could not yet understand.

The trip helped me focus my curiosity about the world around me. Along my route, I

saw countless people trying to make sense of what happened, devouring every bit of

information as soon as they could get it. That trip planted in me the desire to help

people understand the events that shape our lives. Years later, when I went back to

school and had to pick a major, I chose journalism.

I canʼt pretend that Sept. 11 affected me the same way it affected those who lost loved

ones in the attacks, or those who went off to war to dismantle Al Qaida. But it did help

me to recognize that the world is bigger than me, bigger than the things I think are important at any given moment. Because in any given moment, everything can be changed forever, for everyone.

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