Ten years ago this month, the United States was met with what could be called it’s darkest hour.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, 19 al-Qaeda operatives hijacked four commercial airliners to fly into key American landmarks. At 8:46 a.m., the first blow was dealt with American Airlines Flight 11 colliding with the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. The damage was visible, the building billowing with smoke. National media went into a frenzy speculating on the cause of the crash, wondering aloud if it were an accident, or something more sinister. Many referred to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, in which a truck bomb detonated below the North Tower, as an indicator that this plane collision was an act of malice.
Less than a half-hour later, at 9:03 a.m., United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower, erasing all doubt. This was no accident, but an attack unprecedented not only in its methods, but in the amount of live media coverage capturing it. The nation looked on in horror as the attackers completed what would be their final salvo, when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the western side of the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m.
At the end of the day, the September 11 attacks left the United States with a heavy burden of lost life. There were 2,977 deaths recorded that day, including the casualties of United Airlines Flight 93, which crash-landed in Shanksville, Pa., after the passengers heroically fought back against their captors and prevented the plane from hitting another target, speculated to be the Capitol Building in Washington, DC. By comparison, the last attack of this scale on U.S soil, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, killed 2,402 people.
The American people were simply blindsided by 9/11. However, much like in Pearl Harbor, the terrorists had “awakened a sleeping giant.” Once again, Americans rose to the occasion, banding together to cope with their losses, as well as begin the healing process. These are the stories of a few individuals in our community, Richmond, Virginia.
“It was surreal that in a city that I had lived this was happening.”
Juan Conde, Evening Anchor for 8News in Richmond, was like many other Richmonders in that he had family living in New York City at the time of the attack. In Conde’s case, he is a Brooklyn native, and his father’s wife, who had been there for the ‘93 bombing, worked in the World Trade Center. Outside of the scare of loved ones being harmed, Conde was floored by watching the buildings collapse on live television. Having visited the towers several times, he never had pictured the buildings crumbling to the ground, being completely erased from the city skyline.
“I had no idea the buildings would collapse. That was the most amazing part to me. I couldn’t believe that these buildings, these icons that I watched being built when I was a kid in Brooklyn, that they could not be here anymore was really remarkable.”
Conde’s stepmother was not in the building at the time of the attacks and was able to escape the scene unharmed. However, due to the chaos and phone lines being jammed, he didn’t know this for more than a day.
“I couldn’t get any calls to New York. But my Dad is always very adamant that ‘no news is good news’. So as long as I knew that nobody was contacting me, I was going to hope for the best.”
Eventually arriving at work that day, Conde was met with a “somber” newsroom. While scrambling to process the events that had just taken place, and to learn more about what had happened, the emotional toll of the attacks weighed heavily on everyone working.
“Everybody was in shock, and dumbfounded… People were in awe, people were in shock, people were sad, and people were concerned for their loved ones.”
Channel 8 stayed with the national news that day, declining to air any of their own coverage of the attacks. According to Conde, there was no way that the local newsroom could do a better job reporting on the event then their national counterparts. It was a day or two after the attack that 8News went back on the air, meanwhile fielding countless calls from frightened viewers, who asked questions such as “Do you know what’s happening? “Are we under attack?” “Are we safe here?” “Will there be any more attacks?”
Once returning to the air, Conde notes that while they covered the events of September 11, the reporters did not let the enormity of what had taken place affect how they did their jobs. Part of this can be attributed to the American spirit, the chin-up attitude that pervaded the country directly after the attacks, and the other part can be simply explained as the natural cynicism of the news business.
“We were moved, but you’re moved, then you suck it up and keep going.”
Going back into the community, however, Conde and other reporters dealt with a Richmond community that did not know exactly what to make of what had happened-
“You keep thinking ‘Nothing like this would happen in the United States.’
Or you’re thinking that ‘I’m watching a Bruce Willis movie,’ because it’s just like something from a movie. This cannot be real.”
Carolyn Borash, 56, is a programmer at First Health in Henrico County. Borash has lived in Henrico since 1978, but her sister-in-law, who also works at First Health, is originally from Yonkers, NY, just outside of New York City. Borash also has friends with family in both New York and Washington, DC.
Borash’s story played out in a way not too far removed from how other Richmonders, and Americans, experienced the tragedy. September 11, 2001 was her sister-in-law’s 50th birthday, and the entire office was busy decorating her cubicle to celebrate the occasion. However, their attention soon turned to the events unfolding on television.
Her sister-in-law walked in right as Borash learned of the devastation herself. There was no time to remove the decorations. What had begun as a day of celebration became a period of mourning, as everyone in the office struggled to find out if their loved ones in New York and DC were safe. Even an attempt at normalcy, taking the birthday girl out to lunch at the local O’Charley’s, was strained by the scenes of disaster on the TVs there. Borash had to request a table away from the TVs just to have an hour without being bombarded by reminders of the tragedy.
“After a while, you go numb, you can’t feel anymore. It was so overwhelming.”
Fortunately, no one tied to anyone at the First Health office were hurt in the attacks. The next day, however, Borash and her colleagues found it difficult to return to work.
“Everybody was still talking about what happened, everybody was still very somber. Not knowing what to do, not knowing how to react. They couldn’t go back to normal.”
Borash tried to find solace in getting back to her regular work routine, focusing on her job. However, returning to work in the same building where she found out about the tragedy proved to be a struggle.
“It’s like you live it again.”
While Borash was not necessarily concerned with her own security on the local level, on a national level September 11 dramatically affected her world view.
“It really shows you how vulnerable you are. Just because you live in the United States doesn’t mean that you’re going to be spared some bombings… it takes away from the measure of security that you always had.” –
“There are always certain events that happen in your lifetime that you remember where you were. [9/11] was one of those circumstances.”
Deputy Chief Eric English, a 22-year veteran of the Richmond Police Department, was not in Richmond at the time of the attacks. A Sergeant at the time, English was at the Air National Guard base in Sandston, VA, training new police recruits. Military personnel rushed out to where the training was taking place, telling English and his men that they had to leave the base. While everyone did eventually learn that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center, the enormity of the event did not translate at first.
“We’re out there, all of us thinking that somebody just didn’t know how to fly a plane. At that time, it just didn’t register to us that it was a terrorist act.”
It wasn’t until English and his men watched fighter jets take off from the base that they realized that something was very wrong. Once they returned to the Richmond Police Academy, they learned the full scope of the event. Because of the close proximity of Richmond to Washington, DC and the Pentagon, English and the rest of the police department went into top gear patrolling the city, to make sure it was safe.
The RPD maintained a strategy for weeks after the attacks of patrolling every potential target, to be as sure as possible that Richmond was safe from immediate danger. Even after that period, according to English, the RPD approached their jobs with a “heightened sense of awareness.”
English credits the experience of 9/11 to some key changes in the operations of law enforcement.
“I think [9/11] made us communicate better. Not only locally, but nationally and globally, it forced us to have to communicate better and get information out. What happens in foreign countries where they are fighting could potentially affect what’s going on here in the states, and we had to really start looking at that.”
One area of interest to the RPD was Richmond’s Muslim community. Not because of any fear that this community would cause violence in the city, but because of the fear that others might attack the Muslim community.
“It was more of us trying to protect citizens of the Muslim community, and property as well.”
English recalls no issues in Richmond with violence against Muslims. According to English, the RPD have had no arrests having to do with any kind of terrorism.
Even though the RPD took to their duties very seriously in the wake of the attacks, English says that they were just as affected as anyone else.
“People were just shocked that something like that could happen, that people would have the mentality to do that.”
Overall, English sums up the change in the department’s operation:
“It’s been ten years, and our awareness is still at [a high] level. We have to be careful about who we engage, the information that we get, and how we use it to insure that we try to protect citizens the best we can.”
There can be no clean summary of how our lives have changed post-9/11. If you ask Juan Conde, he will link the public’s raised awareness of terrorism to an unprecedented encroachment on American liberties. The advent of the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security shows our nation’s weakness in preserving our way of life. However, ask Deputy Chief English, and this raised awareness is exactly what our country needed to bring our local and national governments to par in dealing with a globalized world, where turmoil on one side of the world can have clear repercussions on the other side. These changes have worked to make us safer, and are for the better. In the middle of the divide, you find people like Carolyn Borash, who refuses to see people as anything other than people, counter to the rise in anti-Muslim sentiment portrayed by national media. She accepts the need to stand in long lines at the airport, as long as her country is better protected than it was ten years ago.
For this generation, never has there been an experience that has collectively shocked us more, nor has there been an experience that has unified us as much. Some question the direction our country has taken in the years following the tragedy, but in comparing stories with members of our community, what is striking is how similar they really are.