7 Years On


September 11, 2001.  9/11.  There’s no forgetting the shock of that day.  Seven years on and aspects of the events are as fresh today as they were as I sat watching CNN.  The initial confusion that was slowly, terrifyingly coalesced into the realization that the United States was being subject to a coordinated attack unlike anything ever seen before (or since).

The eventual number of causalities was not record setting (as cold as that sounds) but the instruments of their deaths marked a paradigm shift in how we viewed commercial airline travel.  The glamour, excitement and just plain fun of flying, in an instant, was destroyed forever.

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot (767) and author who also writes columns for SALON and is a frequent contributor in the forums over at Airliners.net.  Today he posted a very poignant remembrance of that awful day.

On the Tuesday morning when everything happened, I was deadheading from Boston to a work assignment in Florida. My airplane took off only seconds after American’s flight 11. I had watched it back away from gate 25 at Logan’s terminal B and begin to taxi.

Forced to land in Charleston, South Carolina, he joined other bewildered people to watch as the second plane hit the World Trade Centre:

I’m watching the video of the second airplane, shot from the ground, apparently with somebody’s camcorder in a kind of 21st century Zappruder film. The picture swings left, picks up the United 767 moving swiftly. The plane rocks, lifts its nose, and like a charging, pissed-off bull making a run at a fear-frozen matador, drives itself into the very center of the south tower. The airplane simply vanishes. For a fraction of a second there is no falling debris, no smoke, no fire, no movement. It’s as though the plane has been swallowed by a skyscraper of liquid. Then, from within, you see the white-hot explosion and spewing expulsion of fire and matter.

Finally, tragically and unbelievably, the towers collapse

To me, had the airplanes crashed, blown up, and reduced the upper halves of those buildings to burned-out hulks, the whole event would nonetheless have clung to the realm of believability. But it was the collapse — the groaning implosion and the pyroclastic tornadoes whipping through the canyons of lower Manhattan — that catapulted the event from ordinary disaster to pure historical infamy. As I stand awestruck in this shithole airport restaurant in South Carolina, the television shows the towers of the World Trade Center. They are not just afire, not just shedding debris and pouring out oil black smoke. They are falling down. The sight of those ugly, magnificent towers collapsing onto themselves is the most sublimely terrifying thing I have ever seen.

In the ten-second bursts it took them to fall, I knew something about the business of flying planes was changed for good. And pilots, like firemen, policemen, and everyone else whose professions had been implicated, had no choice but to take things, well, personally. Four on-duty crews — eight flight officers in total –- were victims. They were disrespected in the worst way, killed after their beloved machines were stolen from under them and driven into buildings.

Captain Smith then goes on to reflect on how the world of air travel has changed:

People ask now, “What’s different?” Maybe I’m more philosophical than many of my peers, but at heart the changes aren’t the quantifiable kind: security, cockpit doors, baggage screening and the like. It’s more sinister and intangible — something that can’t be armored, upgraded, or fenced in by razor wire. It’s a state of mind — a state of disappointment and anger. Anger to have had our planes so brazenly stolen, coworkers fooled, killed, and thousands more thrown out of work. What drives it home are the same pains and inconveniences now faced by everyone: long lines, angst and unpleasantness in the terminals.

I can’t see how it be summed up more eloquently than that.