“I just wanted you to know that I'm okay, but I'm heading home.” That was the message from my sister 10 years ago this week. I was in the middle of putting the finishing touches on our newspaper at our Marengo office. Melissa worked in an office in Bossier City, LA. Her call came in the early afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001.
A group of my co-workers and I had left our Belle Plaine office that Tuesday morning for our weekly trip to the printing plant 15 miles away. As we were leaving, I glanced at the TV in our office in time to see a plane hitting the first tower.
The next few hours were spent finishing the paper. I don't think any of the people I was working with really understood just how devastating this was. Living in rural Iowa, where the tallest structure is a grain bin, you don't have daily reminders of just how massive a big city office building can be. Of course, later on, we witnessed horrors we thought we might only see in computer-generated scenes of fictional movies. But this was real. People were falling to their deaths right before our eyes.
When my sister called, I had no idea where President George Bush was. He had been visiting a school in Florida when he got the news that first one, then two aircraft had barreled into the World Trade Center in New York. After a brief statement to the nation at the school, the Secret Service hustled him back to Air Force One, We later learned that while the president wanted to immediately return to the White House, his security detail said it was uncertain whether the attack threat was over and they refused to send him into what may have been harm's way.
It was decided to land the plane at Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, LA. Some of my sister's co-workers, outside for a cigarette break, noticed that a large Boeing 747 was landing at the base. They quickly guessed that it was the president's plane. Not knowing if he was being hunted by an enemy, my sister decided she wanted to be home with her family and she called just before she left her office.
The rest of that day, as well as for several days ahead, there was plenty of speculation on who mounted the attack and what effect it might have on this country and the world. Some predicted that there might be an immediate gasoline shortage in this country. Deciding to get away from the wall-to-wall TV coverage for a few minutes, I drove down to our local convenience store that evening and saw a string of cars all the way out to the street. My neighbors were topping off their tanks just in case.
None of us really had a clue on how to act in the succeeding days. We had no experience with an attack on our shores that claimed over 3,000 lives. Should we go to work the next day? Would school be canceled for the week? Three days later, our high school football team was scheduled to travel out of town for a game. Should that game go on?
By Friday, we had a few more details about what happened. But many of us still had a tough time wrapping our brains around the events of the week. The trip to the football game was just the tonic for many of us to help soothe the pain and shock. It also sent a signal to the beasts who planned the attack that Americans might be down, but not out. There was a moment of silence before the game to show respect for the memory of the victims and support for their loved ones.
In those days following the attack, none of us would imagine that in the coming months and years that air travel would become a lot tougher because of increased security measures. We didn't know that our country would become involved in the longest war in its history or that a huge federal agency, the Department of Homeland Security, would become yet another necessary drain on our tax dollars.
Before we had the luxury of hindsight later on, we had no choice than to trust that the president would handle the threat. When I saw tapes of Bush's reaction when Andy Card whispered in his ear that the second plane had hit the towers and this country was under attack, Bush looked like a deer in the headlights. Some of the kids in the classroom thought he would become physically ill. But very soon the Texas stubborn streak kicked in and he went to work. He has written and spoken about his reactions and actions of that day. I would have hoped that one of his first phone calls would have been to his father, George H.W. Bush, who had been president less than 10 years before. I would have also hoped he would have called Bill Clinton, who held that office less than a year before.
Regardless of what we might think about the job George Bush did as our president, none of us can truly imagine the thoughts and fears that must have been pulsing through his brain as he turned to the TV in the plane and saw people jumping to their deaths from the burning towers and knowing there was absolutely nothing he could do to help them.
It's been 10 years since that terrible day. But we still haven't fully recovered. The emergency crews who responded to the scene are still feeling the physical effects of inhaling toxic dust and fumes from the crash site. Families of those who died that day are still coping with the emotional trauma. Our armed forces are still huntin terrorists in far away lands.
And those of us who live more than 1,000 miles away from New York, Washington or Pennsylvania know that despite the measures taken by our government over the years, terrorists could still attack us in any number of ways. This is a new era in warfare. It was the worst attack on U.S. Citizens since that December day in 1941 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
We might not be able to completely eliminate terrorist threats, but we can send a strong message to those who would vow to bring us down as a nation that we will never be defeated. We can do that by serving in the military, holding our elected officials accountable so that active duty personnel, veterans and their families are treated as heroes, whether they were involved in a firefight in Afghanistan or worked as a clerk at the Rock Island Arsenal. We can also volunteer through our churches or community organizations to help make life better for our neighbors, regardless of where they might live in this world.
Any of these actions will tell potential terrorists that while you might have us up against the ropes, the final bell hasn't rung and we will bounce back, again and again.