Having never been to New York City, I did not appreciate the size of the Twin Towers, so that when I joined a handful of other Times-News staffers clustered about the newsroom TV set that beautiful, terrible morning, I thought for all the world that the smoke billowing from the North Tower was caused by a plane no bigger than a Piper Cub. And I wondered how stupid someone could be to run into one of those buildings on such a clear day.
It was, in those final moments of the American age that passed with the Towersâ€™ collapse, a moderately curious news event.
Until the second plane hit.
I was watching when zoom lenses trained on the smoky spectacle caught the great gray airliner hurtling into view and exploding into the South Tower, so that in the instant it occurred, I knew we were at war.
And in that moment, and forever more, I took unto me a part of that city, so that I could no longer hate the Yankees and would in days to come, hang upon my living room wall, together with photos of the kids and their grandparents, a magazine portrait of those two doomed towers in that other time gone by, the State of Liberty framed between them.
The guttural horror of that day, branded to memory and seared to soul, was in being witness to devastation and destruction unimaginable, carnage and death in real time. We were on the second floor just off Mechanic Street in Cumberland, Md., about as far removed as one can be from Manhattan skyscraper, yet I was with them, above and below in the hell of that inferno.
We all were. As Americans, and as fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, grandparents and friends, we held their hands and kissed their foreheads, drew them to us and held them close. And our tears flowed and our hearts broke, as the smoke rose and flames churned.
Screaming silently together, we reached in vain for the rewind button to that other world that greeted our day, before our very eyes now torn asunder and ripped forever from us.
No one knew their fate, even as cameras caught bodies falling from the sky. But it was a fire alive, not smoldering, but consuming. Flesh and bone, steel and concrete.
We let them go as the Towers collapsed. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
I guessed the loss at 10,000, gone in an instant. Thanks to the brave men and women of the New York City Fire and Police Departments, which lost 466 of their brethren, the final toll would be 2,606. Counting the Pentagon attack, which unfolded in the same dizzying hour, 9-11 would ultimately claim 2,977 lives.
As the smoke billowed from the first Towerâ€™s collapse, and dust-caked survivors struggled through streets and across bridges, I left the TV and went to work, writing an editorial for the next dayâ€™s paper. Like many others, it evoked the trauma and loss of Pearl Harbor â€“ when 2,402 perished in that other day of infamy -- and the righteous anger, national unity and unwavering determination that followed.
I loathed the privileged son that was George W. Bush from the time he entered the national scene, but the next morning I told the managing editor that he was my president, and I was 100 percent behind him and wanted nothing more than for him to succeed in righting a grievous wrong. Within days, the Stars and Stripes flew from the back of my pickup, where it remained until it was in tatters.
Rumors swirled with abandon as morning turned to noon that dark day, with reports of one airliner down, and fears of more in the sky. No one was safe, everyone vulnerable.
Schools were in turmoil, parents pulling their kids en masse, in fear that any mass of Americans would be a target. After writing the editorial, I headed to Fort Hill High School for a story, and the principal advised amidst a fevered, fearful but orderly atmosphere, that parents were free to pick up their kids, no questions asked.
Those Fort Hill parents in particular had cause for concern. They were just way too late, as the deed, had it been done, would have happened an hour or more earlier.
For if the courageous few of Flight 93 had not risen when they did, 20 minutes before the airliner would be over Washington, if they had doubted or delayed but a minute or two, the vile fanatics at the helm may have seen upon the landscape not field and forest, but home and industry, the Queen City prostrate beneath them. Angling in from the northwest, sons of liberty tearing at the bolted cockpit door, the brick expanse of Memorial Hospital and Fort Hill High just beyond might have risen into view. Rather than rolling the plane over to self-immolation, they would have steered toward ridge-top brick and mortar, and hundreds of souls.
But the heroes of Flight 93 rolled just in time, sparing not only The Capitol, but all which lay between Shanksville, Pa. and Washington, D.C. Including Cumberland.
On the drive home that afternoon the world seemed still and unified, like Christmas Day turned upside down. In the days to come and many months to follow, I would catch a contrail 30,000 feet above the mountains of home, and offer a silent prayer and quick salute for fellow Americans on the wing.
That night, like so many other Moms and Dads, I hugged the Progeny Three extra tight. And did my best to explain the unexplainable of that dayâ€™s events, which did not go unnoticed by even the youngest children. I told them thousands of kids were being tucked into bed at that very hour, their mothers and fathers forever gone. They went to work and didnâ€™t come back.
I used to run in the mornings back then, and in the days to follow Sept. 11, 2001 I felt an American breeze sweeping over the Mountain City, North to South and sea to sea. It was unity. Dearly purchased, and mightily harnessed to the national cause of righteous retribution. We were one.
Ten years on, a house divided teeters at the brink of economic collapse, and we reach out once more to that world long gone, when the United States of America, more than just financially sound, stood tall among the nations, rightfully claiming the moral high ground that freedom requires. We did not torture. We did not launch unjust wars of choice.
The attacks of Sept. 11 were not the nationâ€™s downfall, rather our response to them.
This 10th anniversary, we mourn not only the victims of 9-11, but the America that died with themâ€¦