Saturday is Patriot Day. It isn’t a federal holiday, but it does mark a significant moment in America’s history.
On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks killed 2,977 people at the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and aboard United Flight 93 near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. This year marks the 20th anniversary.
My family visited the Flight 93 National Memorial at Shanksville when our youngest child was a toddler. One stone wall listing the names of the victims leads you on the path the plane took before it went down. A wooden ceremonial gate keeps people from walking on the sacred ground where the minute remains of 44 passengers, flight crew and terrorists and plane components mingle with the dirt. The gate only opens on Sept. 11.
The kids remember a little of their Shanksville visit. All of them were born after 2001. While they participate in memorial events and learn from history books, I often wonder if they really understand what happened. I’m not sure they grasp the scope of the attacks and the togetherness that kind of happened afterward.
Do they understand how the childhood I grew up with — latch-key kids, being able to go anywhere almost without worry, playing outside until the sun went down — differs so much from what their experience — security restrictions, national IDs, strict school policies, etc.
While we visited the memorial, I remember my kids didn’t care about the locally sourced wood and stone used for the memorial. They were drawn to the people — the photographs and information about the individuals who died in the attacks. They wanted to know who these people were. They wanted to check out the flowers left beside some of the names. As we read the descriptions aloud to the kids, you realize they were parents to someone, someone’s children … regular folks thrust into an extraordinary, horrific event.
A few years later, I participated in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C.
While heading to the start of the Marine Corps Marathon, I caught a glimpse of the Pentagon’s memorial, which has 184 benches arranged according to the victim’s age — the youngest was 3, the oldest was 71. Each bench is engraved with a victim’s name. They’re arranged so people who read the names face skyward along the path the plane traveled.
I didn’t see the names until my way back home. I did see the reflective pools under the benches lit up in these rows. Seeing it lit up while getting ready to run your first marathon can bring a tear to your eye.
As I look back on September 11, 2001, I wonder how it will be seen once all those who lived it, remember it die off. That’s why it is so very important that we tell our stories to future generations, so they know the truth as best we can give them, not a revisionist’s imagining.
On the 20th anniversary of the attacks, my husband, daughter and I climbed 2,071 stairs — the number of stairs in the 110-story World Trade Center buildings that collapsed. We went to a nearby city and joined some city firefighters and regular participants, who were accompanied by their children.
The firefighters wearing their gear led the group up the first of 10 sets of stairs at 9:11 a.m. at the local high school’s football stadium after the station sounded an alert over their radios. Each set had about 55 steps, so to finish, we did four circuits.
We started up the first set of stairs. That was easy. Every once in a while, you could hear the firefighters’ locators ping. But we didn’t need to find them in the smoke, they were right in front of us, climbing just like we were.
About halfway through the first round of stairs, I knew something was up with my body. It wasn’t happy, so I moved to the side and got all the way in the back so I could set my own pace.
Soon afterward, one of the firefighters air tanks started going off, chiming in regular intervals. It was low on air.
As we climbed, I concentrated on the stairs and wondered how those going up the stairs of the World Trade Center and Pentagon dealt with the constant pinging and ringing as they went into danger. How did they manage to climb all those stairs with their heavy gear? I guessed adrenaline helped them, because I ended up taking a break during our third circuit.
My heart was jumping and I couldn’t catch my breath. I knew I could do this but my body hates the heat. Gail, a woman who just happened to be in town for the weekend, sat with me and helped me calm my body enough to keep going.
It was about that time that the firefighter with the low air took a break. Other firefighters started shredding parts of their gear. It was hot and not something done by the faint of heart. Was it something done by the foolhardy? Maybe, but that was just me and my quest to do an in-person event for the first time since 2019.
By the time I started my way through the fourth circuit, my husband and daughter finished the climb. My daughter actually finished first and looked a little dazed but OK. My husband was tired, but doing well.
I took a second break in the shade with five more sets of stairs to climb. When they came to cheer me on, I appreciated their support but I needed them to shut up. To be honest, I’m one of those runners that when I’m not performing as well as I had hoped, and I hear someone say, “You’re almost there,” and I’m not really almost there, I will give you the evil eye and maybe think of cutting your tires. Or in this case, I flipped them off and said, “Don’t cheer me on.” I hope the women recording her climb didn’t film me doing that. I’m sorry for messing up a family-friendly event.
I did this stair-climbing thing out of a need for a quest. I suggested this adventure. If I couldn’t finish it while everyone else did. I knew I could do it, but I had to finish on my own terms.
And I did.
I really wanted to make sure my daughter knew the importance of 9/11 — the tragedy but also the triumph of how communities came together. In the end, I was the one who forgot that last part.
I was thrust back into reality when one of the firefighters, who was wearing his uniform pants and shoes and a T-shirt soaked with sweat said, “I can tell you’re glad to be done” and gave me a fist bump.
Unlike those firefighters we were honoring, I was able to go home, take a nap and talk with my kids. I has so much to be thankful for. In the moment where I was supposed to be reverent and mindful, I closed down.
It’s easy to be in pain and to shut yourself off from the world. I think the COVID pandemic forced some of us to do that to the point that it’s more instinctual than it was before. Sharing that pain, even for a brief moment, is part of what makes us human, what helps us heal. You often find others know exactly how you feel, and they are willing to help you carry your burden for a bit.
I let my pride get in the way of the true meaning of Patriot Day — acknowledging the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, and the triumph of the human spirit that came afterward.