The other day one of my colleagues at work pointed out to me that the high school class of 2019 — this year's freshmen — is more or less the first class of students not yet to have been born when the brutal horror that is Sept. 11 occurred in 2001.
I let that one rattle around in my head for a moment. It was for me, at once, both a profound and an obvious thought.
I guess the thing that knocked me off stride was the fact that 9/11 happened 15 years ago. Really? It seems like yesterday.
It was a gorgeous Tuesday morning. Autumn was coming. I was already in my work station at The Dispatch, and had been for several hours. The clear blue September sky that we saw in North Carolina that day enhanced the entire eastern seaboard, reaching to lower Manhattan as well.
Then a fellow worker, reading off the Associated Press wire, announced that an airplane apparently had flown into one of the World Trade Center towers.
I didn't think much about it at the time. I thought maybe a little Piper Cub or something like that had clipped the building, and went on with my job. There was precedent: I remembered hearing stories about a B-25 that flew into the Empire State Building in a heavy fog during World War II. It was all just very odd and didn't seem to make any sense.
But as the morning stretched on, the news worsened. When the second tower was struck, it was immediately clear this was no accident. There was video: a jet passenger plane dissolving into a ball of flame upon impact. Instant death.
Then the Pentagon was attacked. The morning was never going to end. We learned the plane had been hijacked. Yet a fourth plane, also hijacked, had crashed in Pennsylvania, headed to Washington DC and perhaps either the White House or the Capitol.
No more flights were allowed to enter the country. There was speculation that any suspiciously rogue aircraft still in the sky would be shot down. With their passengers.
Oh my God.
The one image (of many) that's seared into my brain came later that morning. We'd finished deadline and most of the reporters were gathered around the television in the editor's office. We were watching the chaos of the burning buildings when suddenly, but as if in slow motion, one of the towers collapsed in on itself. Where a majestic building once had been there was now a pillar of smoke and debris.
I have come to regard this day as our generation's Pearl Harbor. Like the Class of 2019 in relation to 9/11 now, I wasn't yet born when the Japanese attacked. But I have depended on the oral, written and photographed history of that event to build my understanding of the moment.
Understanding the moment. It was a challenge for us then. And it's a challenge for us now.