Updated: Sep 11, 2021
By Brendhan T. Sears
It was a cooler morning, the prelude of a changing season giving way to an otherwise gorgeous day. I was 22 and still living at home – as most 22-year-olds are these days. My shift at a popular restaurant in Lake Forest, an affluent suburb just north of Chicago, wasn’t scheduled to begin until 11 that morning, and that was all the excuse I needed to sleep in. That plan, however, was interrupted.
My mother burst into my room shortly after the second plane hit the South Tower.
“Brendhan, wake up, some planes just hit the World Trade Center.”
“What?” I wasn’t fully asleep when she came in, but her statement made me think I wasn’t really awake either.
She turned the tv on, “look.” I sat up, rubbing the sleep from my eyes and stared in disbelief.
“I’ll be downstairs in a minute,” I said as I threw on a shirt and went to the bathroom to brush my teeth, mom continuing to talk. “They thought that the first one was an accident until the second one hit. Now they’re saying it’s a terrorist attack.”
Jesus, I thought.
I met mom downstairs a few minutes later. She worked at a popular bar and grill just down the road, so she also enjoyed a late start to the day. My father, a mechanic, was already at work, and my 11-year-old brother at school. I poured myself a cup of coffee and met mom in the living room to watch the latest developments. Aside from learning of the potential collapse of the towers, I don’t remember exactly what everyone was saying. I was too fixated on the videos of the planes crashing into the towers that seemed to play on an endless loop. Images that nobody will ever forget.
We watched terror unfold live. Make-shift triage centers popped up anywhere that seemed safe. Images of firefighters in stairwells ushering people to the safety of the lobby, greeted by police, only to return for more victims. Some never to be seen again. People trapped at or near the impact sight who could no longer take the heat from the fire. Jumping. The reporters on the ground filming live and hearing those people hit the ground. My God. Just when we thought that was the last of it, Flight 97 crashes into the Pentagon – grainy security camera images capturing the scene in a series of still shots taken every second, like a cartoon playing in slow-motion.
With the realization my grandmother was currently on a plane somewhere starting to really worry us, we watched in real time as the first tower collapsed. I’m teary-eyed now thinking about it. The panicked people nearby literally running for their lives. The cries of the horrified onlookers. The heart of the building pumping dust into the veins of the streets like blood, covering everything and everyone in its path and forcing people who thought they were out of harm’s way to take cover.
Everyone running out, but the first responders running back in.
Four minutes later, Flight 93 crashes outside of Pittsburg. We watched this new coverage in silence. Numb. What the fuck is happening?
It’s this brief moment in the day that I can’t seem to recall. Mom had to go to work right around the time the second tower came down. I don’t remember if she watched it with me, or if she had to learn about it when she got there.
Not really knowing what else to do, local news seemed to take to scare tactics. We have a major city, a Naval Base, and a nuclear power plant all within 40 miles of each other.
Are we next?
That possibility made me go into survival mode. Instead of going to work (I never liked it there anyway), I went to the school district’s superintendent’s office trying to take my brother out of class and bring him home. He’s not going to die alone, I thought. I was unsuccessful in my attempt. It seems a little silly looking back, I guess. I was met by some familiar faces, however, so I bided my time with them – a nervous comfort providing the solace I think we all needed in that moment.
After some time passed, I decided to go home and wait for everyone. Mom’s lunch rush - which I’m sure was anything but - was over at 2, and she and my brother typically arrived home within minutes of each other. We learned of my grandmother's safety, and the rest of the day was a blur of regurgitated news.
That night I decided to go to church. Tuesday was prayer night, and although it was something I didn’t typically attend, but I was compelled to that night. It was packed. Prayer sessions were usually personal – a short group prayer yielding to just you and the Big Man. That night was different. We all stood, hands joined in a circle that stretched wall-to-wall for a common prayer. The pressures of the day had taken a toll on me I hadn’t realized and the moment the prayer began, I lost it. The images came flooding back. All those people, I thought, and there was no way of telling just how many there were at the time.
My soul was heavy, and I cried the duration of the service. Hard. So hard, I eventually couldn’t stand anymore and had to break the circle to sit. Even after prayer had ended I was still crying. It was uncontrollable and I inconsolable. My friends gathered around me providing comfort until I didn’t have anything left in me. I returned home exhausted. Defeated.
The days that followed brought public memorials, continued searches, and walls dedicated to those perished and those still missing.
I visited NYC the following February, excited to be singing at Radio City Music Hall. There were memorials set up all over. Security was tight, and even though they knew who we were and why we were there, everything we brought inside was thoroughly scrutinized. Although some months had passed, the tension at a place like Radio City was palpable, and understandingly so.
Just as the pain of the day had become our new normal, a year had passed. I was now living away from home and the commute to my new job was significantly longer. Every radio station invited people to call in and talk about the day, many of them too overcome with emotion to do anything other than cry. I held it together until I stopped at my parents’ house.
I needed to make sure the flag was up.
I walked in the house and was greeted by my mother at the kitchen table. She was on the phone.
“Hi!” she said, surprised by my unannounced visit. I just stood there. “Are you okay?” She asked.
She couldn’t tell that, behind my sunglasses, my eyes were heavy, welling up with tears that hadn’t yet found the courage to escape. It was when I opened my mouth to speak and no words came that she knew. She put the phone down, raced to me and held me in a tight embrace, tears flowing from both our eyes.
As a kid, the Gulf War was something we watched unfold on TV after dinner. Highlights came in the form of green-colored missiles and bullets pulsing rhythmically across the night sky on the tv screen. I didn’t know what night vision was then, so I was really confused with what I was seeing. I knew what war was, sure, but I was still young enough to be detached from it. The idea of war was nothing more than a curiosity then, and you weren’t seeing the destruction on the same level as you were on this day.
This was different. I was now at an age where I understood destruction, terrorism, and the value of life. People often referred to September 11th as this generation’s Pearl Harbor. Perhaps that’s why I was so affected. Each passing year, the pain of that day becomes a little more manageable, but I’ll never forget.
What was your day like?
Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, as performed at the closing ceremony at the dedication for the 9/11 Memorial Museum.