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The September 11 Digital Archive

Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Behring Center Smithsonian “September 11:
Bearing Witness to History”

     Story of September 11
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Contributed by: Eckhart Spalding
Contributor's location on 9/11:
Contributed on: 19 August 2002

How did you witness history on September 11th?

As a sixteen-year-old high school sophomore at the time, I remember struggling out of bed in the morning at about 6:15 AM (local time; 7:15 AM Eastern Time) and thinking that today would be just like any other day. When the first plane struck the World Trade Center at 8:48 AM Eastern Time, locally it was 7:48 AM and I was in my "early bird" photography class at my high school, sitting on an uncomfortable "art class" stool reading the book "A Brief History of Time" by Stephen Hawking. After my phys. ed. class (1st hour), I was walking toward my Economics Survey class (2nd hour) when I overheard the school's stationed police officer tell another teacher in an excited voice about "smoke" and "the Pentagon". I didn't give it a second thought. As I sat down at my desk in my next class, a classmate asked if anybody had heard about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center; no one knew much about it, and I just thought it was possibly a rumor (after all, what does the WTC have to do with the Pentagon?), or, at its worst, similar to the B-25 crash into the Empire State Building in 1945. After the tardy bell rang, however, our principal came on the intercom and told the entire hushed school, in his rumbling voice, that there had been a major terrorist attack in New York City and that the World Trade Center towers had collapsed. I was shocked, almost to the point of disbelief, when the word "collapsed" reached my ears from the disembodied voice emanating from the classroom intercom. I was shocked at the magnitude of the attack and had also thought since I was a small child (I've always been interested in engineering) that the twin WTC towers couldn't collapse; as skyscrapers, they were far too sound and were therefore completely safe. After all, they easily withstood a previous terrorist bombing (1993) that was meant to topple the towers like dominoes. After our principal finished what he had to say, he asked for a particular student (whose uncle worked in the WTC) to come to the office (later, it turns out, this uncle was taking the day off to go golfing). The teachers had an emergency meeting with the school administration to be briefed on what had happened. In my next class, World History, taught by an awesome teacher (technically he's retired, but so excellent that the school keeps asking him to come back every year), we listened to the radio and teacher Richard "Lord" Nelson wrote on the front chalkboard, in typical style: "My guess is the people who have assaulted us this morning believe Americans are soft. They think we'll get hysterical and get all wobbly. That we won't go about our normal business. Let's not give in to this." (Later [maybe it was Sept. 12, but I can't be sure], that history teacher climaxed a captivating speech on the attack and the history behind Islamic fundamentalist extremism with the proclamation that "History is with us, folks! We can't escape history!") In my next class, my not-too-bright English teacher, when referring to bin Laden (whom we were generally suspecting) squawked, "What's his problem?!" I found that a far too simple question then, and think all the more so now. TVs were set up near the cafeteria for live coverage of the event, and Sept. 11 was the first day in high school that I didn't eat lunch. I spent my lunch period gaping at the TV sets. Before I could go to my next class, however, the school lights were suddenly shut off and everyone was ordered to evacuate the building. As if the past few hours hadn't been confusing enough, after standing bewildered outside in the sun for several minutes, it turned out that so many electrical appliances had been turned on in the school (TVs, radios, computers) for news of the event that an electrical transformer had blown on the school power grid and shut down the fire alarms (or so I heard). Thus, to many cheers and to many silent, anxious faces (I was one of the silent, anxious ones), school was dismissed early for the day, and what a day that was.

Has your life changed because of September 11, 2001?

I am sure that Sept. 11, 2001, has changed me in more ways than I am aware of. I AM aware, however, that Sept. 11 probably made me think more historically on issues, and that stereotypes of any culture only serve to reinforce misunderstandings (of course, my history teacher helped, too).

What do you think should be remembered about September 11th?

I think we should remember the misunderstandings we had with OURSELVES. Firefighters chanting "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" around President Bush at Ground Zero isn't going to get anything done. Harming (even killing) innocent people of Middle-Eastern descent after Sept. 11 uses twisted logic that is the SAME THING that caused the Sept. 11 attacks in the first place. Patriotism is important, but we should NOT let heart-pounding patriotism get in the way of a global and historical view of conflicts. This is very dangerous. This is the lesson of Sept. 11 that far too few have learned.

Did you fly an American flag after the events of September 11th?

I did not fly an American flag after the events of Sept. 11. Ironically, this is probably because I was so bewilderingly immersed in flag-waving around town that I didn't think to fly a flag myself. My feelings about the American flag have not changed since Sept. 11. It is a symbol which, through historical notation (50 stars, 13 stripes) represents a country founded on priciples that conflicted and still conflict (or at least seemed to conflict) with others. (The aristocratic founding fathers had undoubtedly capitalist views. As a nation, we have not deviated from this.) I do not think the flag should be treated as holy, however it is a great symbol of a great nation, though this nation isn't, and never will be, like any other nation, flawless.

Cite as: Eckhart Spalding, Smithsonian Story #309, The September 11 Digital Archive, 19 August 2002, <>.
Archival Information: 703 words, 4025 characters

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