From the Vaults: “Tuesday’s Tragedy Puts Deadlines on Hold”

For the UAS Whalesong

Editor’s note:

As we mark the 15th anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001, I thought it might be appropriate to look into the Whalesong’s archives for what UAS was doing and thinking at the time. Dated Sept. 18, 2001, this touching article was written by Kevin Myers (not to be confused with Kevin Maier), who was a student and Whalesong staff member at the time.

Tuesday, Sept. 11 was a day with a lot of ink on my calendar. It was the deadline of the project I’d been working on all summer. I also had a movie screening planned for a review I was going to write and an interview with one of the University’s new professors. Coordinated into all of these deadlines was a daily routine of getting my two young children to and from day care. In fact, the story that was going to occupy this space was going to be about the challenges of being a working parent while going to school. That all changed when the phone rang at 7:35 a.m.

In the years to come, that is how I will answer the question. Where were you when you heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? My children’s day care is located in the Federal Building. At 7:36 a.m., my wife hung up the phone and said, “They’re closing the Federal Building because of terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.” We gave up the habit of listening to the news in the morning after my daughter started to understand words such as death, murder, and bloodshed. On Tuesday and the days to follow, those words became unavoidable. It would be a day spent trying to put into perspective for an almost four-year-old that which I could not put into perspective for myself.

It wasn’t until I was driving to my wife’s office and heard the news reports that I began to understand the extent of what had happened. “Why did that man (the reporter) say there’s fire and people died? Are they talking about my school?” My daughter asked nervously from her car seat. I tried to explain that these things happened 4,000 miles from Juneau. That all her teachers and friends were fine and they were only closing her school because it’s just what they do when really bad things happen to the government. “Can we drive by my school just to make sure it’s okay?” We did.

My children and I arrived at my wife’s office so I could drop them off, get to my office to check the status of all the projects on my calendar and hopefully be back in time to take the kids to lunch. As we walked into her office, I was surprised to see all of the employees gathered around, searching on the internet, trying to piece together what had happened that morning. It was surprising, because she works in an under-staffed, non-profit law practice. No one is ever just standing around, let alone the whole staff. Suddenly, the importance of all my deadlines started to fade slightly; enough that I stood talking with them for the next 20 or 30 minutes. We talked about the fourth plane that never reached its target and speculated about a heroic effort by the pilot to down the plane in a field. We tried to put the attack into perspective. We talked about Pearl Harbor, the Challenger disaster, Oklahoma City, and the Kennedy assassination, but we just couldn’t put our finger on what made this feel so much worse.

As we talked, the horrific events of the day started to take on a human face. Planes and buildings started to become men and women, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. I was holding my one-year-old son and I could feel my eyes welling up as an immense feeling of loss washed over me. As my heart broke for the potentially thousands of families who lost loved ones, I was also filled with thankfulness that my own children were safe in my arms. The stress I felt about deadlines was gone. Instead of going to check on my deadlines, I brought my children with me to cancel them. When I got to my office, I was met with phone and e-mail messages that had already postponed all of my deadlines. There was an e-mail from the executive director of my organization telling us that our families needed us more on this day than the organization did. Months of planning and strategy meetings all became superfluous in the wake of the day’s events.

My wife and I try to teach our children that people are good, and it is our ideas that are sometimes bad. On a day when the most evil of these ideas was implemented there was also cause for hope. I remember the Mayor of New York City, Rudolf Giuliani, choking up as he told of lines of New Yorkers blocks long, waiting to give blood, and members of the House and the Senate gathering on the steps of the Capitol in a show of unity, singing “God Bless America.” As a whole, the nation seemed more concerned with helping our own, rather than searching for revenge. The prevailing sentiment seemed to be that you can knock us down, but you can’t knock us out. The message to our attackers was that what it is to be American is not held in the symbols of America, but in the spirit of its people.

I would try to spend the rest of that day pointing out to my children the hope and compassion that lay beyond the smoke and the rubble. I would try to accentuate that it is the most difficult times that brings out the best in people, that no act of inhumanity can overcome humanity. We stayed in town and went to lunch. Radios everywhere we went were  tuned to the coverage. I started to feel numb after a while. The kids got to spend some time with their Auntie, which they loved, and it gave me time to just think awhile. On our way home, I was barely aware that I still had the radio on, and the reporter announced that the death toll would reach into the thousands. My daughter asked, “Why would someone want to kill all those people?” I turned off the radio and drove into the driveway. I didn’t know the answer to her question. I’d been trying to figure it out all day, and I was no closer to the answer.

“Zoe,” I said, “I just don’t know.” She got pensive, looked out the window for a while and let out a sigh.

“It was a sunny day, daddy,” she said in a sad voice, “but now it’s raining.”

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