9-11 memorial and museum

Where Were You on 9/11?

Palm Springs Life editors share their personal stories as the nation marks the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

JIM POWERS Current Digital, History

9-11 memorial and museum

The National September 11 Memorial and Museum sits at the site where the World Trade Center Twin Towers once stood.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY 9/11 MEMORIAL AND MUSEUM ON FACEBOOK

Where were you on 9/11?

“Where were you” questions are often only posed following an event that shakes the earth to its core, like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Unthinkable. Unreal.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the attack of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7 a “date which will live in infamy.” We thought that would never happen again.

That changed on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists flew commercial planes into Tower 1 and 2 of the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a fourth plane headed for the U.S. Capitol crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylavnia, after heroic passengers stormed the cockpit.

More than 3,000 people died that day, the World Trade Center crumbled to the ground, and we all recorded in our minds where we were when it happened. Palm Springs Life editors share their recollections of that day below as we honor the 20th anniversary, and we encourage you to do the same in the comments section of the Palm Springs Life Facebook page.

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PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY 9/11 MEMORIAL AND MUSEUM ON FACEBOOK

Steven Biller, editor-in-chief

Twenty years ago, I was hardly the early riser that I am today, so I was still in bed at 5:46 a.m. Pacific Time, when the first of four hijacked commercial airliners flew into the World Trade Center. But my alarm clock had already come on and NPR’s Morning Edition was reporting the story. Still bleary-eyed, it took a few minutes for the news to register.

I turned on CNN to see if it was really happening. Then, a second plane flew into the other tower, and the cameras eventually turned to the nightmare scenario on the streets of Lower Manhattan. At the time, I was the editorial director of a group of magazines based in Orange County, and one of my editors, who, like myself, grew up on the East Coast, called my home, hysterically crying, and asked if I was watching and what we should do. I told her I was watching but couldn’t think of anything we could do other than to check on our friends and family in New York. I reached out to several people and then showered, dressed, and drove to work.

When I arrived at the office, a few minutes after 8 a.m., the typically full parking lot was sparsely populated. People stayed home, glued to their television sets as the world began to change forever. What I remember most about Sept. 11, 2001 and the days, weeks, and months that followed is the way it brought the country together: People from all walks of life seemed united against a common enemy: terrorism. Two decades later, I’m more concerned about domestic terrorism, which has already breached the Capitol with Americans erecting gallows and calling for the hanging of the vice president and members of Congress. I wonder if our country has the capacity and the will to fight terrorism at home and abroad. It’s a valid question at a time when we’re reflecting on the preservation of our democracy and way of life.

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PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY YOUTUBE

Derrik J. Lang, deputy editor

I was sitting in an introduction to journalism class at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, Florida, when I had the first inkling that something was not right Sept. 11, 2001. On one of the bulky desktop computers surrounding the small classroom, a fellow student had pulled up a live webcam of the World Trade Center after seeing a news alert that a plane — or was it two planes? — crashed into the iconic towers. "Turn that off," the professor barked at the student. I don't think he realized it at the time, but the journalism teacher was instructing his students to ignore the biggest news event of our lifetime as it was happening. We finished the class in a state of pure anxiety. It’s been 20 years, and I still remember that sensation.

Afterward, I made my way to the student union where a mass of people had gathered around a big screen TV broadcasting CNN. It was there I learned the extent of the devastation. I was a resident advisor for the freshman dorm and had a couple of students from New York on my floor, so I headed back to check on them. They were, like everyone on campus, completely rattled. All classes were canceled. The sky was empty. I proceeded to sit alone in my dorm room the rest of the day, watching the news while eating an entire box of Honey Bunches of Oats with my bare hands. I couldn’t be bothered to grab a spoon or a bowl.

The next summer, I got an internship at Entertainment Weekly magazine and moved to New York. “Are you afraid to live there after what happened?” was a question I fielded more than once.  Nope. I was undeterred, motivated by the resiliency of the New Yorkers who’d overcome the unimaginable. My dream of working in media in the greatest city in the world seemed easy by comparison. A few years later, I graduated and relocated there full time. Brooklyn was my home for five years — not long enough to become a full-fledged New Yorker — but enough time to say that part of my soul will forever be linked to that city.

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Greenwich Village in New York City.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GETTY IMAGES

Anna Kula, senior art director

My home is West 12th Street in Greenwich Village, New York City. On this spectacular, beautiful fall day I am not home.

I’d been freelancing in Princeton New Jersey for Bloomberg Personal Finance magazine where my friend is design director. Doing a reverse commute from NYC to Princeton four days a week for a few months has been a fun break. So when the photo director offers her apartment while she is away, I jump at the chance to hang out in Princeton.

Which means Monday when I leave NYC, I bring a little overnight bag and jump on the train. Heading to the office on Sept. 11, I don’t know what’s happening until I reach the offices where everyone is huddled in silence in front of the large TV. When I bounce in, people turn around to look at me with shocked and drawn faces. As I look toward the screen everything stops.

What is happening? Is this really happening? It’s the same as everyone felt that day. Except this is my city. My home. I see those towers every day when I cross Sixth Avenue and look downtown. This is personal.

Anxious hours follow, trying to contact family and friends. Where are you? Are you safe? Are you leaving the city? I stay in Princeton until Saturday morning, I cannot stay away any longer. I needed to get back. I needed to see my city. As if somehow if I could see it and smell it I could process all of this.

Even though I told myself not to go down there – the air is bad, let the workers keep working – I can’t keep away. I need to witness it. To cry there, where it has happened.

To honor all those lost.

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PHOTOGRAPH BY GETTY IMAGES

Lisa Marie Hart, Home + Design editor

I was riding the subway into work from Brooklyn to Midtown on Sept. 11. In lower Manhattan, a few people boarded with a buzz saying a plane had hit the World Trade Center; they were going home. At each stop, new passengers brought more chatter and speculation. When I got off at 51st Street, everyone on the sidewalk was frozen in their tracks, facing downtown.

Smoke billowed against the blue sky. No one moved. From a payphone that still worked, I left a message for my mom and went to work on 53rd Street where the company owner was telling people to leave. Just go somewhere else, he said. A handful of us walked to my coworker’s apartment. People on the streets were dazed, crying, lost. Hand-scrawled signs hung crooked in shop windows: “Closed early today.”

We spent the day in tears, what-iffing, trying to be strong, panicking, becoming unglued, calming each other, all facing the TV like everyone else.

The trains started running again in the late afternoon and I went back to Brooklyn where the air smelled like battery acid and cars were dusted in an ash I knew was powdered buildings, planes, offices, and the people who had been in them. In the weeks that followed, the city was quiet – aside from the funeral bagpipes wheezing down Fifth Avenue past our office. Any siren or plane overhead jolted nerves. The smell hung in the air; posters of missing faces were taped up, and taken down. I kept a journal of that time and recorded all the answering machine messages left for me that day, but I do not read it or listen to them.

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Carl Schoemig, intern. Carl is a native of Germany.

I was in Munich, Germany, when the attack happened on Sept. 11, 2001.

I worked as a summer intern with a company during the spring semester, which was a requirement for my business studies at my home university. In Germany, fall semesters start later in the year than in the U.S.

I remember that day very well. It was in the early afternoon. One of the marketing managers came in the office and said, there was an attack in New York. Co-workers had set up the projector in the conference room to watch the news shows.

We couldn’t believe what we saw. Seeing the first plane crashing in the tower seemed so unreal, but it happened again to the second tower. Everybody was shocked from seeing the plane crashing into the skyscraper. Seeing the first tower collapsing was even more terrifying. They also broadcasted the pictures showing people jumping off the building. I guess that was the most terrifying image I have ever seen —knowing it is real and not a movie.

I had a friend who was an intern in the U.S. I tried to reach out to her. I know she worked at different places, but one was in New York City at a German broadcasting station. I was afraid something could have happened to her.

That day changed everything. Everyone was scared. I remember we did not go home early that day. No one wanted to be alone. It was a strange feeling when I finally went home. I had to take the subway. I remember that I watched my surroundings more carefully than before and tried to stay away from crowds. At home my roommates and I sat together and watched more news and spoke about the things that happened. We knew the attacks would change the world.

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PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY 9/11 MEMORIAL AND MUSEUM ON FACEBOOK

Jim Powers, senior online editor

I had to teach an early morning class on Sept. 11. I was an adjunct instructor at Mesa Community College and taught a class in publication design. I had the Today Show on in the background as I started to get dressed when I saw the first report from Katie Couric saying a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, but they weren’t sure what kind of plane it was. And then the image which is seared into probably all of our brains — the visual of the North Tower with a gaping black hole in it and smoke pouring out.

Then the second plane hit. You could just feel their hatred for us. They had us on our heels, and they knew it. I immediately called a close friend and told him to turn on his TV. He gasped when he saw the report. Class was sparsely attended that day and I turned on the TV in the classroom and let it run for the duration. I made my way to the newspaper I worked at as sports editor in a bedroom community of Phoenix, and most of the staff was watching the small TV we had in the newsroom. Calls started to come into our reporters, letting us know of people they knew who might be in the Twin Towers or in one of the planes. Suddenly something so far away seemed much closer.

My Mom called and asked if I was Ok. I mistakenly told her there was a nuclear power plant about 50 miles outside of Phoenix and they were surrounding the place with Patriot missiles. Not a comforting thought for Mom.

Now 20 years later, I’ve started to watch some of the more recent 9/11 documentaries and I find myself looking to the sky every time I hear a plane. Are we better prepared to fend off another attack? Are we in this together, or is it yet another issue divided by party lines? If I’m asking these questions, then my confidence in the answers is equally pessimistic.

• READ NEXT: A 9/11 Play Pays Tribute to First Responders at Palm Canyon Theatre.