An early morning telephone call: "Turn on TV! Turn on TV!" someone kept yelling. "Turn on TV!" And there it was, an incomprehensible horror. Two jets into the World Trade Center? What the hell? Is this a movie? A joke? What?
Ten years ago. It hardly seems that long since 19 madmen driven by hate changed this nation, perhaps forever.
As America stood transfixed, jetliners fully laden with fuel struck the North and South towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and another crashed in a Pennsylvania field near Shanksville as passengers battled hijackers for control of the aircraft.
In the minutes, hours and days that followed we came to understand the immensity of the crime: the horrid deaths, the people who held hands as they plummeted from the towers rather than burn, the devastation, the flashes of horror that Americans absorbed film bite by film bite. An endless, swirling blizzard of papers fluttering to the ground from the towers. Fire. Smoke. Towers collapsing, crushing, burying even more of the unlucky, as the rolling, choking concrete dust and disintegrating buildings blanketed everything for blocks.
Depending on which numbers you use, 2,996 people died, including the hijackers. All 246 aboard the planes died; 2,605 died in the towers or on the ground; 125 were from the Pentagon; 343 New York City Fire Department firefighters, 23 New York City Police Department officers, and 37 Port Authority Police Department officers died. Twenty-four people remain missing.
One bright morning, we were who we were. Hours later, we became somebody else, something else altogether. The immensity was stunning. It demanded numbers, facts, a way to measure, to categorize. It was all that made sense; the only way to understand. But there was so much more.
A day later -- maybe it was two, or three -- I was watching TV along with the nation as exhausted rescuers and searchers frantically dug, sometimes with bare hands, prying girders, concrete, steel out of the way, looking, listening, hoping, sifting debris, scratching for anything. I was mesmerized. A newsman, I cannot for the life of me remember his name, asked this gentleman I took to be a played-out searcher how the effort was going. It turns out the guy, a firefighter, I believe, maybe in his 50s or 60s, was at the site all day, and would be there every day, digging, searching -- looking for some sign of his son.
His boy was, he matter-of-factly told the reporter, a NYFD firefighter who had vanished when the towers collapsed. He had started looking for him soon after and, by God, would continue until he was found. He was going to take his boy home.
Safe in a warm house, on a comfortable couch a continent away, my children safe, I remember I could not breathe as he talked, his voice flattened, dulled by fatigue. I was shaking. I was crying. My God. How does a father live through that? I asked myself. How do you get down on your hands and knees in the dirt and the rocks and the concrete and rubble and dig to find some sign of your beloved son, a hero by any measure, so that you can take him home? How do you go on living? Do you even want to? A few days later -- thankfully, I think -- firefighters not far from the father found his boy. Cameras caught the scene from a distance. The firefighters stood at an awkward, sad attention and carried the son away. I cried like a baby. I could not see the father's face. It was just as well.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, we have been at war, in a fight to the death with a dedicated enemy who lives to destroy us and all that we believe.
We can blame Republicans or Democrats or President Barack Obama or Congress, and we can argue about who should lead what is left. We can argue about our freedoms. We can argue about whether we are the good guys. In days ahead, we can do what we do best, argue about everything. But not today.
Let us remember those who died or were hurt on 9/11 and on terrible days since in faraway places with unpronounceable names. Let us remember those who daily go in harm's way. And let us remember their families. As for me, I'll remember that fallen firefighter's father, forever.
And offer a prayer.
Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com.