We’re quite a diverse crew. Our individual paths toward the impact work we do here at the firm have all been different. Yet, whether we were kids at the time or seasoned professionals, our journeys were shaped in some way by the September 11 attacks and all that came after. We were moved to share some of our stories with you. We’d love to hear your stories, too. To all those who suffered a loss on that day, and all those who have suffered since, our thoughts are with you
Sarah Davey Wolman
“I was in 5th grade, changing classrooms for my morning science class when I realized something had happened. Teachers kept rushing back and forth to the teachers’ lounge; we overheard whispers that a plane had accidentally hit a building in Manhattan. Maybe a Stearman? Then parents started picking up their kids in droves. I grew up in Bucks County, PA, just outside of Philadelphia. A lot of parents commuted to New York for work, and we were close enough to Philly that there was concern of an attack there. My parents kept me at school, hoping it would be the safest place. When the school bus dropped me off at home, my mom told me to go upstairs to the spare tv room and watch the news, away from my younger sister. At least 18 community members from Bucks County died that day, pilots and flight attendants and workers and travelers. I became a voracious consumer of news and especially foreign affairs; my 6th-grade teacher thought I’d make a great foreign service officer. 9/11 undoubtedly shaped what I was taught in school, how I think about war, my interest in public service, and my eventual move to DC.”
“On 9/11/2001, I was in Hamtramck, MI protecting the right to vote in a city with one of the largest Yemeni populations in the US. I was there as a lawyer with the Civil Rights Division to ensure the city upheld a consent decree with the US Department of Justice that required poll monitors during elections, and to ensure that there were poll workers who could translate for the Yemeni community. At our second polling location, which was, I think, in one of the city buildings, a worker ran into the reception area to tell us that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I was completely confused. I thought he meant the trade center in downtown Detroit. And then I turned and saw a TV screen with scenes of the devastating destruction in New York. There I was, with people I had never met, sharing this awful, awful experience. But what broke my heart, even more, was to see the response of the poll monitors, most of whom were of Middle Eastern descent. The community, assuming they would be targets of hate, immediately sprang into action, pulling kids out of school, using phone trees to gather, and putting into action well-practiced plans to keep their community as safe as possible. It was heartbreaking to watch.”
“I was asleep in Oakland, Calif., when my older sister called and told me to turn on the TV. I watched the towers fall on the news, praying that my younger sister who was a student at NYU was okay. I was working for a national organization with a strong donor and funder base in New York City, and we had scheduled a fundraising house party in Manhattan in two weeks to launch our endowment campaign. Everything had already been set, but we assumed we would cancel. Instead, our host insisted we move forward and that it would be important for New Yorkers to be able to gather and talk about 9/11’s impact and how it relates to the important work of nonprofits like ours. I flew to New York to prep the event – my partner was nervous, the anxiety at the airport was palpable, and there was a somberness in the city. Ash was everywhere and it shocked and grieved me to know what the ash was made of. Activists were already starting to organize against growing Islamophobia and against legislation to expand government surveillance, while also coming together to mourn, help, and share. I was grateful for the chance to be in the city at this time, to bear witness to the horror of what happened, to be part of a community that understood that U.S. aggression was not the answer, and to embrace my sister.”
“I was in my 3rd week working as an HR Analyst for the Arlington County Fire Department. Arlington County, Virginia, is the jurisdiction that houses the Pentagon. There was a television on in the office, that’s how I heard about the first tower in NY being hit. Having grown up in Queens, I remember thinking that it was such a sad but freak accident for a plane to fly into a skyscraper at the bottom of Manhattan.
When the news came in about the second plane, I was bewildered. I was trying to focus on my work I became aware of chatter and activity over the radio system about an incident at the Pentagon. Soon I was seeing it on the news as well, that a plane had hit the Pentagon.
“The Assistant Fire Chief came by my cube and asked if I could lend a hand at the Incident Command Unit that would be staged on-site at the Pentagon – collecting and relaying information, taking notes on decisions and rationale. I said yes, having no idea what that would mean, but feeling willing to help in any way I could.
“On the way down to the Pentagon, it was clear that a whole lot of people were willing to help in any way they could. The roads to the Pentagon were jam-packed with responding units from surrounding jurisdictions. Flashing lights in every direction, hundreds and hundreds of police, firefighters, and EMTs.
“At some point, I remember seeing the giant chasm in the side of the building. I thought about the people who could be injured and suffering inside. The urgency on the scene was to secure and stabilize the site in order to search for and extract potential survivors as quickly and safely as possible. I remember at least once the scene was cleared of responding personnel because of a scare that another plane might be coming. “That was the only time I felt physical fear. Mostly what I felt, after hours and hours sitting in that Unit, seeing the television reports of the rising count of casualties in NYC, was deep sadness for all the lives lost, and a worry and dread for what this could mean for us all.”
“When the towers were attacked, I was coming out of Prospect Park, where I had just finished a run with a friend. Ordinarily, at that time in the morning, I would be at work or having some kind of work-related breakfast, but I was on sabbatical and looking forward to a glorious late summer day. I was going to bike in for lunch with a friend in Battery Park. Within hours, she was fleeing her building and I was in my backyard in Brooklyn watching charred papers from the World Trade Center float down from the sky. Once I had determined that my colleagues and friends were accounted for, I found myself wanting to avoid the television set. I read poetry and rode out to Coney Island on my bike. I think I was trying to assure myself that somewhere life was going on as normal. I stopped by the office for an afternoon some days later, to check in with all of you, and then went ahead with a planned trip to Europe, where every person I met, learning I was from New York, wanted to offer personal condolences. I felt like an ambassador from a city that millions around the world hold in their hearts, their memories, or their imaginations.”
El Paso, TX
“I was a junior in high school on 9/11, which started as a normal Tuesday. Having spent the morning in marching band rehearsal, I didn’t learn about what was going on in New York until I got to my first-period class. Ms. Hutchinson, my English teacher, was sitting pensively on her desk watching the news with the headline “Planes Crash into World Trade Center.” We then heard her scream “OH MY GOD!” All of us turned to the screen in horror as we watched the North Tower collapse into oblivion.
“When I found out later that these events were part of a larger terrorist attack, my heart sank. My eldest brother had just enlisted in the Army National Guard that summer and the thought of him possibly going to war haunted my family in the months after 9/11. Luckily, he was never deployed, but those events helped open my eyes to the larger world outside of high school life and into the delicate dynamics of national politics and public policy. With a heightened sense of duty, I served in AmeriCorps the following summer and dedicated myself to helping give underserved communities the voice they deserve.”
“There are moments in my life where there’s a clear delineation between who I was as a person before and after; September 11, 2001, was one of those occasions. I had always been an empathetic person, but it was 9/11 that awakened my need to ensure that the well-being of a stranger was as secure as my own.
“Every year I relive how something as trivial as eating a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios while watching the Today Show can transform into one of the most gut-wrenchingly tragic and, at the same time, deeply profound moments in life. And I sit with the truth that was so evident on 9/11/2001 – that we need to neither know nor look like our fellow human to give a damn; to want them to be okay, safe. We recognized the humanity in others when we were under attack; I pray for a day when danger and an enemy won’t be necessary.”
“A beautiful Tuesday am at home in S.E. DC. Stunned with live coverage. Then reports that the nearby Capitol would be hit. I walked away from the Capitol on Pennsylvania Avenue and sat at a table with Rep Bobby Scott. We fretted, uselessly, together. I soon learned that my friend and one of the best professionals I ever knew, Lisa Raines, was killed in the Pentagon plane. I carried her card and death notice in my wallet and briefcase for 15 years, a daily reminder of the fragility of life, and her professionalism and kindness. On policy, we learned about the allure of strong, albeit fraudulent, leadership, in Mayor Rudy Giuliani. We learned about herd mentality in the Patriot Act, and the under-focus on the role of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, as opposed to Iraq, in the attacks.”
“I was serving as a Chief of Staff to a member of Congress on 9-11. As I walked into our congressional office, our press secretary pointed out that a plane struck one of the World Trade Center towers. After the plane struck the 2nd tower, something in my heart told me to tell the staff to call their moms. “Call your moms, tell her that you are okay and go home.” After most of the staff left the office, I went downstairs to grab coffee at the Longworth House Office Building cafeteria.
“While I was grabbing coffee, Flight 77 hit the Pentagon. Immediately after, the Capitol Hill police started running down the halls telling us to leave the building immediately. Back then we had Blackberries and we were watching CNN about what we should do. We didn’t have the evacuation, communication or security plans that they have in place now on the Hill.
“I was with two colleagues and we left the building and didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t get access to my car so we just walked to Tortilla Coast and watched the news for hours. I just remember being frozen and I had no idea what to do.
“It took me years to watch the movie Flight 93 and I couldn’t stop crying throughout the film. Reports said that the plane was heading to the Capitol Hill building. Those people sacrificed their lives to save ours.”
“That morning, I walked to work in Princeton, NJ in what felt like a beautiful morning, and when I arrived my boss was crying. I came over to her worried that something had happened, then realized what she was watching on the TV and that one of the Twin Towers was burning and to my complete horror in minutes a plane crashed into the second tower. I have not recollection of what I did for the rest of the day, but I didn’t leave the news throughout the day. I tried to call or text friends in NY but most of them could not be reached, so I just hoped that they would be alright. That weekend, I went to the coast of NY to honor the landscape of NYC that was forever changed. Even to this day, when I drive to or by NYC, I look for those towers and say a little prayer for those who were killed, for those first responders who came to their aid (those who perished and those who survived), and for all of us who were changed by that day.”
“I was four years old. I walked down the stairs of my family’s old house to see my dad standing in the kitchen, as I did every morning. However, I immediately could tell something was different. My dad was staring at the TV, seemingly refusing to take his eyes off the screen. He was crying, and he called my mom, who had, at previous points in her life, spent substantial time in the Twin Towers. Although I could only hear one side of the conversation, I could tell something serious and terrible happened. I walked into the kitchen to be closer to my dad and saw the towers falling on live television. It was one of my first memories.”
“September 11th was the second day of my first job out of college, staff assistant in Congressman Conyers’ office. When I arrived at work all stations were covering the crashes. The staff watched in disbelief, just trying to process what we were seeing and beginning to absorb that this was terrorism unfolding on television. A short time later staffers across the hall began yelling that they saw smoke rising in the distance, their window at the back of Rayburn faced Virginia. Before it was reported, we were watching the fire from the Pentagon crash. Several of us decided to leave then, ahead of being evacuated. I went home and sat with a friend and watched the coverage, checking in with family and friends as cell service would allow. It was a terrifying day, and surreal to experience such crushing emotion with the entire nation.
New York, NY
“I was in New York, in my last year of law school at Columbia. I was getting ready for class with local news in the background covering a “fire” at the World Trade Center. Certainly tragic, but nothing out of the ordinary.
“I saw the second plane hit live and had a “did I just see what I think I just saw?” moment. (Side note: were I a savvier entrepreneur, that would have been the moment at which I’d said, “you know, it would be great if people could pause and rewind television,” and invented the DVR. But I didn’t, so here I am now.) So it wasn’t for a good five minutes before even the newscasters started talking about it on air.
“That hour or so in a classroom (pre-smartphones and constant Internet access) was a bit of a time warp. Things were so normal when we entered that the professor mentioned the attack only briefly at the top of the class, but moved on pretty quickly and we carried on as normal. But by the time we walked out, the school had wheeled a few televisions into the lobby, and people were watching the coverage, in various degrees of shock.
“I’ll never forget one moment: a student ran in and shouted to both everyone and no one at once “did you hear? Planes hit the World Trade Center and are hitting everything else! The Capitol Building – gone! The White House – destroyed! They’re all rubble!” And then she started rolling up her sleeve and proclaimed “I’ve got to go give blood!” before darting out. And my only thought was, “yo, this woman needs to get a hold of herself.”
“A little later, the university canceled classes for the rest of the day and I headed home. On that walk, I saw something that I, a son of Brooklyn who had grown up not far away, had never seen before: The City, totally silent, with no traffic on the streets. It felt like an abandoned movie set, under a cloudless blue sky and perfect weather.
“All day, that eerie stillness would be broken up every few moments by two sounds only: ambulances, and fighter jets.”