Erik Quinn: The Heart of a Family: 09/11/01

Monday, September 11, 2006


In September 2001, Brian and I had been married for a little over four months and had returned from our honeymoon in Mexico and Catalina earlier in the year. I remember trying to get my name changed as soon as possible on my passport before we went on our cruise. Even before terrorists attacked this country and effected strict travel and security restrictions, when I traveled alone in the past, I discovered I was often a favorite target of humorless, power-tripping customs and security officials. I was subjected to having my luggage opened and my delicates spread out on a table for the world to see. Every item in my suitcase was scrutinized. When I requested that innocent but suddenly questionable items, like novelty bottle openers and goose liver paté, be deposited in the trash can so I could be free and catch my next flight, these men insisted I keep them and continued to interrogate me. Sometimes even my carry on was searched without warning at airport gates when the people around me seemed to pass right through. When I was actually singled out and pulled from a line of people without warning, I was asked why I was going home on a certain date. I was asked what my business was in another country. On one occasion, I was loudly ordered to stop so dogs could sniff my bags for contraband (For what? Cocaine? Heroin? Exotic birds crammed in my makeup bag?). There was the time I was searched three times on one flight home. I feared that if things got any worse, I would find myself the subject of a vigorous cavity search in a smoky back room of a foreign airport. On our honeymoon, however, I was looking forward to traveling with my husband and looking a little less like a drug mule and more like a boring tourist. Cloaking myself in a new name gave me an added sense of security in the event my maiden name had been a cause of my previous travel woes. Unfortunately, I applied for my name change in 2001 too late. The whole process was more of a hassle than I had anticipated and would have only resulted in an addendum to my existing passport, so I decided to forego it, knowing my physical appearance as a single female traveling outside the country was probably the single root of suspicion on my prior journeys. On the cruise ship at the end of our travels, our cruise director briefed us on how to get off the ship. He told everyone that if you heard your name announced, you were in “big trouble.” Everyone laughed, including me, and I told my husband not to be surprised if it happened to me. As things turned out, the day we were scheduled to leave, we were quietly packing things up when I heard my name announced over the loudspeaker for every passenger to hear. It was nestled in a list of foreign-sounding names. I couldn’t believe it! I suddenly found myself sequestered from the rest of my pleasant, geriatric, clam digger-wearing, pleasure-seeking fellow travelers in the midst of a group of foreign men. I don’t recall any other women present in this group of detainees at all. I was gruffly ordered to sit and wait. After being at the mercy of some very rude customs officers asking me mysterious questions about my hair and eye color and what I was doing on my travels, I was allowed to leave without an apology or the courtesy of an explanation. By now, I knew the drill, although I was more nervous than annoyed. My travel troubles had never gone quite this far. After I was released, I perfected my best innocent but slightly annoyed look before disembarking the ship. Amazingly, I actually made it past the customs gate on shore without incident.

Sadly, little did I know that a few short months later there would be more sinister men easily gaining access to passenger airplanes who would change our lives and travel forever. I ended up being very thankful that we had married and honeymooned when we did.

On September 11, 2001, I got out of bed and showered before work. Since I was interim supervisor for our department, a position I loathed, I had a supervisors’ meeting early in the day. I was in absolutely no hurry to climb into my truck and head off to work. I lounged in my bathrobe on the couch and had some coffee. Brian was still sound asleep upstairs. Flipping through the channels on television, I stopped on a Bloussant breast enhancement infomercial. I have absolutely no desire or need for this ridiculous product, but for some reason I watched this advertisement for a good 20 minutes in a sleepy haze while the first plane was slamming into the World Trade Center. When I came to the realization I was being mindlessly drawn into some extremely effective advertising, I flipped over to one of the major networks and saw footage of what had just happened. My mind very roughly switched gears while it tried to make sense of what I was witnessing. The plane looked tiny to me against the massive skyscrapers, and I told myself it must have been a small, private plane in a horrible accident. At the time, I had recently heard of a man crashing a Cessna into a building somewhere in Florida. I had no idea how big this particular plane actually was or that it was full of innocent people. Even so, I was shocked to see a puncture wound in this beautiful, familiar building and screamed up to Brian, who quickly came down to watch with me. Over the course of the morning we watched the awful drama in New York unfold as I reluctantly got ready for work with one eye on the television. We watched the fiery orange blossom swell out of the second tower and debris raining down from the sky on the people below. I finally retreated into the bathroom and had my hair dryer on full blast when Brian knocked firmly on the door and informed me the Pentagon had been hit. I remember looking at him and saying, “Who is doing this?” By the time I was in the truck headed to work that gorgeous, crisp morning, I was listening to a man who had called in to our local radio station and was telling the morning crew DJs about a loved one who was a flight attendant in New York that day. He could not reach her by telephone, and the DJs were telling him she was probably fine. He kept sobbing on the air. There were then reports of additional planes that were unaccounted for and had possibly been hijacked. When I got to work, I sat around a table in the conference room with people I normally couldn’t stand the sight of, yet I felt a weird sense of connection with them as we all tried to sort out what was happening. By then, all four hijacked planes had met their fiery demise. It was announced the clinic would close its doors early, and we ended up going home a couple hours later. I was confident that with that many people in the area hit in New York City, there would be many survivors recovered daily for the next few days. I saw it happen in Oklahoma City and had faith it would happen again. It didn’t. Many of the bodies had been incinerated and were merely unidentifiable gray ash. Being a news junkie, our television was on constantly. I remember how eerie it was looking up at the perfectly blue sky with no vapor trails criss-crossing it or the sound of airplanes at all for three days. It was hauntingly, apocalyptically peaceful.

Strangely, it took a full a week or two later for the reality of what had happened to hit me emotionally. I remember standing in front of my closet hanging up some clean shirts when I suddenly burst into tears without warning. After days of watching with grisly fascination, it had finally hit home. I thought of the families that had been destroyed and the people I watched jump to their deaths from their burning offices for all to see on national television. They were people who went to their offices just like I did that day. It was so horrible that it took days for my brain to finally wrap around the magnitude of it all.

Since then, I have been amazed at how this country pulled together to start healing from such a massive wound. The first time I attended a football game after that horrible day, I cried when I heard the national anthem. Everybody in the stands cheered so loudly that it gave me goosebumps. The words to this song, although they written almost 200 years ago, are surprisingly timeless. Brian and I attended a multi-faith memorial service on September 11, 2002, at our local hospital on our lunch hour and sang hymns, held hands, and prayed surrounded by soft lighting and candles. We also sang "America The Beautiful." There were speakers who were Presbyterian like me and many others, including people of Catholic, Native American, Jewish, Hindu, and Muslim faiths. It was an incredible experience.

What happened in 2001 was undeniably horrible on an incredibly large scale in a brand new setting, but, unfortunately, what was behind this act is nothing new. A lot of what has happened over the course of the history of the world I find equally repugnant. There have been countless mass murders of innocent people and thousands of gallons of blood shed throughout the centuries all over the world, the sting of which seems to fade in the collective consciousness to seep into dusty textbooks -- until the next time we are reminded that darkness is still very much in our midst. Evil is timeless, too.

I take comfort in the fact that when evil shows itself, there is an opposite force of goodness readily apparent that seems to overpower it. There are people who drop what they are doing and rush to help, sometimes giving their own lives in the process. There are some amazing stories of heroism and survival that were written that day in the ash and dust. I will never forget that day.

I don’t have the desire to travel like I once did. I have a better understanding of how precious life is because of September 11th. For some people, that knowledge drives them to accomplish all they can before it’s over, seeking thrills or traveling to new and exciting places full of strangers. For me, the knowledge that every day is a gift makes my desire to cultivate what I have here at home with the people in my life a top priority.



Blogger Aspen said...

I too woke up this morning feeling a sense of heaviness around me. The memories of that long horrific day will always be ingrained in our head like the generation before us when President Kennedy was killed.

Thanks for describing such vivid memories. And we shall...NEVER FORGET!

Love you lady!

9:31 AM  
Blogger Lisa R said...

Wow I got goosebumps just reading about your day. I too had just be married a few months (5)and was glad I did not have to travel.

It was so strange around here everything sutdown people went home and then the serch for loved ones started. It was impossible to get a phone line land or cell so finding anyone then worked downtown was a nightmere. Eventually all our loved ones we accounted for...earing to say the least.

I know I'll never forget.

Love ya, Lisa

10:35 AM  
Blogger Kerry said...

So true, all you said. I think it was the lesson to learn from 9/11 - pride of our country and sticking together, not ripping apart each other. I suppose that was the small glimmer of such a horrible, dreadful day. Hopefully we will never know that again.
Love -K

7:07 PM  

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