For the first twenty years of my life, September 11th was always a red letter day – my big sister’s birthday. Ten years ago, today’s date acquired a much larger significance. Every American (and I suspect many non-Americans) remembers exactly where they were and every detail of that day.
Ten years ago today, I was a junior in college, studying abroad in London. It was the middle of the afternoon for us, and we were in a literature class when our program administrator came in and whispered to the professor that something had happened in New York, that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, and they thought it was probably terrorism. They decided that the students shouldn’t leave the school building because they did not know if Americans abroad may be targeted next, and our student housing was located in a heavily Middle Eastern neighborhood which they thought may be unsafe for us. (They couldn’t have been more wrong, but more on that later.) Class was quickly canceled, and most of us devoted our attention to trying to help contact a classmate’s brother who worked in the World Trade Center, who turned out to be fine. The internet went down, it was difficult to get a phone connection, and we had no television or radio. So we spent about 6 hours only getting bits and pieces of news, much of which turned out to be rumors and hearsay. For instance, we heard that the White House had been hit by a plane and that Dick Cheney was dead. We also heard that there were 12 planes in the air headed for the 12 largest American cities. Our professor told us about his dramatic brush with terrorism – he had been on a hijacked plane in the 1970s and held as a hostage at the Entebbe Airport in Uganda, and he told us all about his time in captivity, interactions with the hijackers and other hostages, and eventual release. It was an incredible story, and engaging enough that it helped us get through the long hours with little news about what was unfolding in the U.S. that day.
Finally, we allowed to return to our flats. We were all glued to the television for hours, watching the footage of the towers falling, hearing for the first time the story of the heroic passengers who crashed Flight 93 in an unpopulated area, sparing unknown lives. We watched President Bush declare to the world that we would bring those responsible to justice. We watched Prime Minster Tony Blair promise that Britain would stand strong alongside America in the fight against terrorism. Then, like so many Britons after a major event, we went to the pub, where the locals awaited us young Americans with open arms (and open tabs). I will never forget the generosity of the people of London and how openly they grieved with us. On September 12th, the man who made sandwiches at the local deli stepped out from behind the counter to comfort and embrace me and my classmates. Several days later, I visited the U.S Embassy, which was covered with thousands of flowers, t-shirts and hats emblazoned with FDNY, NYPD, and the New York Yankees (ugh), and hundreds of messages of hope and love. Londoners waited in line for hours to sign a book of condolences that was to be sent to the White House. I know that in the days following 9/11, many of my friends and family members back in the U.S. experienced a surge of American pride and community. I had a very different experience. I was able to witness firsthand the sentiment expressed by the whole world: “Today, we are all Americans.”
I will be forever grateful to the heroes of 9/11, and in my mind that includes not only the many who risked their lives to pull people out of the wreckage at ground zero, but also those who offered a simple hug to a scared young American girl, far away from home.