9/11: When I didn’t know.

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I hate not knowing what’s going on. When there’s “news,” I want to know. I have to know. And I have to know right away. And I have to know everything. I am like an information hoarder. I just hate not knowing.

On September 11, 2001, I was in my Sociology class at the University of Akron. The class began shortly after 9 a.m. Our professor arrived late — late enough that students had begun the usual rumblings of “How long do we have to wait before we’re allowed to leave?” — and apologized, mentioning that she had heard something on the radio about a possible plane crash in New York. People had cell phones, but not like today’s cell phones. At best, we could call someone, but that was about it. However, she didn’t seem terribly concerned about the radio report…and, to the best of my knowledge, no one was curious enough to call anyone to confirm the report.

Class was scheduled to end at 11:45, and we hadn’t heard anything more until class ended. There was no P.A. system or cross-campus communication system, so there was no way to contact thousands of students and staff except for word of mouth. I didn’t get that word of mouth…I was a “non-traditional” student, a 31-year-old among a mass of high school graduates, so I was virtually unknown to everyone around me.

Upon exiting my classroom, I immediately realized that chaos had descended on campus. People were everywhere…some were running, some were hurrying to their cars or to their dorms or just anywhere. In some places, they stood together, expressing their shock and fear and confusion and sadness. Others sat in stunned silence. It was surreal.

I had no clue what was going on, but I knew something was wrong. Wronger than anything I had ever experienced.

University of Akron Student Union 9/11

I went to the Student Union, pushing my way through the unusually noisy crowd, noting the expressions on the faces of strangers. Some seemed to look past me, others looked at me, as though they were trying to convey their emotions or read mine. I couldn’t grasp what could be this serious that it had so deeply affected everyone.

It didn’t occur to me to ask anyone what had happened, because it was quickly becoming a universal truth; I was just a latecomer. Part of me yearned to know what had changed everything, but another part of me was clinging to the remaining shred of comfort that came with not knowing. I was headed toward the opposite end of the Student Union, where there was a small sitting area with a big screen TV. Once I made it there, my life would be different. It seemed like I was forcing myself to walk at a regular pace, to savor the last seconds I would ever have without this knowledge.

What would this knowledge hold in store? What would change? What could possibly happen in 2001 that could be so devastating, so terrible, that I might be brought to tears? That you could tell by looking at me that something was wrong? I had to know. But for those last remaining seconds, I knew that my ignorance was a luxury, a privilege that I would soon surrender.

My legs finally brought me to the place where this knowledge would not be synonymous with power (in fact, on that day, this knowledge made one feel powerless), where the moment you knew was the moment you’d never forget. That moment would be seared in your memory. It was the moment when you truly knew horror and fear and shock and confusion and every negative emotion that could be conjured by your consciousness. I was among a throng of students who were competing for a view of the television. I remember seeing others with their hands over their mouths while some fought to maintain their composure, as I tried to duck and weave around people, to get a peek at what was horrifying them.

And then I saw it. At first, I didn’t even know what I was seeing because nothing could be heard over the deafening chatter throughout the building. Between hearing snippets of conversation around me and seeing the scrolling banner across the screen, I realized I was looking at what was left of the World Trade Center towers. But it was a heap of rubble, with a dust cloud surrounding Manhattan. How? What? Why? Nothing about this made sense. They then showed images of the burning buildings, followed by the collapses…these pictures told the story and yet I found myself doubting that a tragedy of such proportions could be real.

Pictures like this…

WTC 2nd plane hit - Greenwich Street
and this…

Collection of unattributed photographs of the September 11th terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, NYC LC-A05-A01 0001u original
and then…

LOC unattributed Ground Zero photos, September 11, 2001 - item 064
I learned that the university was closing down for the rest of the day — and everyone was being asked to leave the Student Union and leave campus. I walked toward the other end of campus, where I usually met my ride at the end of the day. I tried to use my phone repeatedly, but calls wouldn’t go through. I could see others were having the same trouble. Cell phones unusable? What was going on? How much trouble were we in? What would happen? Was it over?

When I arrived at my regular spot, my ride was there. I got in, and I think I said something along the lines of, “What the hell is going on?”

“A terrorist attack.”

I didn’t realize for quite some time that those two and a half hours I spent in Sociology class…discussing concepts and theories that I no longer know…being shut off from the world, from the TV, from the news, from the knowledge…that those were the last two and a half hours I would spend not knowing.

Not knowing.

That chunk of time is precious to me. I’ve spent the 12 years since knowing…knowing so many details and seeing so many images and hearing so much that it has a chilling effect. Life has changed for all of us, in so many ways, because of the events that unfolded during those two and a half hours when I remained blissfully ignorant to what would become the new landscape, the new frame of reference, the new knowledge of terror and tragedy and loss.

Of course, I will forever remember what happened on 9/11, but I’ll also remember the peace of mind that came with not knowing for those two and a half hours.

I have written about 9/11 previously, in “Remembering Kevin Cosgrove” and “9/11 in Words and Pictures.

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  1. says

    I was also in college, and I remember, shortly after I learned what was happening, seeing 2 women walking and talking and laughing together. And I hated them so much. But only because I wished to be them. Because they didn’t know yet. I’m not sure that I’ve ever wanted to be anyone else more in my whole life.

    • says

      Tiffany…that’s quite a powerful memory and emotion. I was the opposite, obviously, because I learned so late…but I would definitely have felt the same as you — and I imagine some people hated me that day, too. I would have.

  2. Rosie says

    That’s an excellent post. I was at work and was able to log on to the news. It was so terrifying to experience, not even being near where anything happened. The sense of dread and not knowing what could happen next. We didn’t get much work done that day, nobody could think straight, except for my boss. He just kept right on plugging away like nothing was happening.

    • says

      Thanks, Rosie. That’s how I felt as well…and I was working at a local airport (not commercial) at the time. Before I was due at work, I called my boss to see if I was still supposed to come in (since everything was shut down, per the FAA, but also…it just seemed “obvious” that I wouldn’t have work) and he was like, “Of course we’re working, why would we close?” It just seemed so peculiar to have to work, since it would just be “busy” work since no airplanes would be coming in or leaving. But I felt kinda cheated, in a way, that I had to work all afternoon, cut off from the news and whatnot. And I didn’t really get anything accomplished anyway, because I was basically in a daze all afternoon. I’ll never forget that conversation, and how he made me feel foolish for even asking if I had to work. I guess we all deal with things differently. That’s not how I was planning in dealing with it that afternoon.

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