A little bit different of a post here today at SuperNoVABride. I thought I would share with you my September 12 story. No, that’s not a typo. I found out about the September 11 attacks on September 12, 2001. Here’s my story.
September 11, 2001. Our ship is maneuvering its way through a Typhoon. It’s been 11 days since our Semester at Sea voyage departed Vancouver on August 31 (we lost September 8 when we crossed the International Date Line). It’s been six days since seeing any land, when we could see the Aleutian Islands way off in the distance from our ship, the S.S. Universe Explorer. We’ll be arriving in Japan in just two days. And I am incredibly seasick today because of the rough seas. Despite being sick, it’s been an exciting day. The fresh air helps my seasickness so I’ve been outside taking video of the waves crashing over the front of the ship. It’s so windy that if you jump, the wind will carry you about a foot before you land. But, my first exam of the semester is tomorrow and I have to study. Everyone on the ship has to study, because the exam is for the class that all students are required to take on Semester at Sea, called CORE.
I’m studying on an outside deck that’s covered and shielding me from the rain. Then the captain makes an announcement at 7PM. All outdoor areas on the ship are now off limits. Waves are getting higher and it is safer for everyone to stay indoors. The ship should be out of the storm by 3AM. I manage to study for another hour inside before I’m overcome by seasickness. I decide that my best option will be to go to sleep now and wake up bright and early to cram for my 9:20AM exam. Not ideal, but it’ll have to do.
When my alarm goes off at 5AM the next morning, September 12, 2001, I am relieved that the ship is no longer rocking so violently. I get ready for the day, and realize that my stomach is growling loudly with hunger. Not surprising considering that everything I ate yesterday came right back up. So, I take my books up to the cafeteria to study while I eat some breakfast.
As I approach the cafeteria, there’s a small crowd of people huddled around a bulletin board. I don’t think much of it. A student had just finagled his way out of an expulsion and I assumed the Dean had posted a statement. I set down my books at a table and grabbed some food from the buffet. As I sit down to eat, there is this strange vibe among the 25 or so people in the cafeteria. A few tables down, I overhear a strange conversation.
“How do you even PLAN something like that?” a student said to his table-mate.
“I don’t know. But airplanes are powerful machines.”
I study and eat for maybe another 90 seconds. As someone walks by my table, I overhear one person say to another, “Do you think they’re going to turn the ship around?”
I suddenly do not feel well. Not like the seasickness of the day before, but that feeling when you’re about to get bad news. My stomach hurt, and gone was my intense hunger. I force down a few more bites of my food. I leave my textbooks on the table and go over to read what is on the bulletin board.
There are two sheets of paper, both are fax printouts. I start to read the one that says “Timeline of Terrorist Attacks in the United States.” I think to myself, “Oh, that’s a shame,” and have visions of an Oklahoma City-type attack. I scan the timeline briefly, not really digesting any of the information. My eyes stop where it says, “North World Trade Center collapses.”
Out loud, and to no one in particular, I say, “Oh my God. The World Trade Center COLLAPSED??”
A guy behind me says in a very unemotional voice, “Yes. They both did. I’ve read this timeline about 20 times.” I turn around and look at him like he’s crazy. But he just keeps staring at that fax. Only knowing that both towers had collapsed, I run down to my cabin to wake up my roommate Sarah. She’s from New Jersey and her dad sometimes works in Manhattan.
“Sarah, Sarah WAKE UP! Everything at home has just gone to hell!” Confused and half asleep, she can’t figure out why I’m reacting the way I am. “Come upstairs and read about it. There have been terrorist attacks at home.” Hold on,” she says, “I have to shower first.” “No, there’s no time for that! It happened in New York, doesn’t your dad work there some days?”
She takes her time, brushing her hair and teeth. I’m getting extremely annoyed, and she can tell.
“Melissa, I’m sure everything is fine. I’m sure that whatever it is it’s just being completely blown out of proportion. You know how the media can get”
We go upstairs and this time the crowd around the bulletin board is much larger. We make our way to the front, and for the first time, I read the timeline from beginning to end, trying to understand what happened. Every time I read it, I absorb some new, practically unbelievable piece of information. Planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers. Planes crashing into fields in Pennsylvania. Planes crashing into the Pentagon. U.S. airspace closed. Borders with Canada and Mexico closed. New York Stock Exchange closed.
Although the timeline is only a single page, I am completely overwhelmed with information. About the 5th time reading it, it starts to sink in. Someone behind me chokes back a sob. There’s a second, more pronounced sob, although I’m not sure if it’s from the same person. In that instant, my emotions change. I’m no longer confused and overwhelmed. Tears start streaming quietly down my face as I’m overcome by sadness. I wipe them away but they quickly return. My quiet tears turn into sobs so heavy that it’s hard to breathe. I look at the other sheet of paper on the bulletin board for the first time. It’s a faxed copy of a news article printed from the internet. It says that nearly 50,000 people may have died in the World Trade Center. My tears start running faster.
The tears in my eyes are making everything blurry. For some reason, my senses are heightened. Everything starts to feel very surreal. Oh My Goodness, I’m dreaming! My tears stop flowing. Yes, of course. Wake up Melissa. You’ve had these before. Ultra-realistic dreams. All that seasickness medication from yesterday is messing with your head. C’mon, wake up! I fold my arms across my chest and pinch my left arm with my right thumb and forefinger. I’m not waking up. I pinch harder. I let go, and grab a strand of hair and pull it from my scalp. It hurts, but I’m still standing here in this hallway. I study my surroundings again, looking for any hint of a dream. As I take a small step, I bump into someone kind of hard. That would’ve definitely woken me up. This is no dream.
As quickly as I went from confused to sad moments earlier, suddenly, I’m furious. I don’t want to be here. I don’t care how long I’ve been looking forward to studying abroad, I hate being here. Why did I have to pick THIS semester to go abroad? I certainly don’t want to be on this damn ship. I want to be on land, at home in the United States, with access to a television and the internet so I can read details beyond what is just printed on this ridiculous piece of paper. I can’t breathe. I’m feeling claustrophobic. Why is this hallway so small? Why is this ship so small? I am so sick of seeing these same surroundings. I need to be on land right now. I want to know what is going on. I want to hear news anchors narrate what is going on. I want to be able to click around from news website to news website, constantly refreshing for new information. I hate this ship. And while we’re at it, I hate the terrorists that have done this. I hate everything.
I’m swiftly snapped out of my self-pity session when I see a blonde girl, inconsolable and frantic. She is sobbing and running around the main deck, looking for someone to help her contact her family. I hear her say that her dad works in the Financial District in Manhattan. Someone suggests that she try one of the e-mail stations. I feel so selfish. Here I am mad because I want to be watching live television and have internet access, while there are people on the ship that have real, genuine concerns.
There are 4 e-mail stations on board the ship for 600 students and nearly 100 adults and faculty at a rate of 50 cents per minute. It finally occurs to me that I should check my e-mail, but I can’t pull myself away from that bulletin board. And in the back of my head, I’m still worried about the CORE exam. Sarah said she was going to check her e-mail too, and I went with her. As we approach the stations, the line is about 80 people deep. There is a sign posted that all classes, including the CORE exam, are canceled and that there will be a meeting at 9:20 instead.
As we waited in the e-mail line, the blonde girl walked past us. She was no longer sobbing, but her eyes and face were red and puffy. Someone asked her, “Is everything okay at home?” She said, “He got a haircut. My dad stopped and got a haircut before heading to work today. He’s fine.” She let out a chuckle of relief as she said it, and then a long exhale, like it was the first time she had breathed all day.
Another student was sitting quietly by himself on a sofa near the e-mail line. Someone asked him if he was alright. He replied that his dad works in the World Trade Center. He had been trying to get an outside line on the ship for an hour. When he could get a line, he couldn’t get through to New York. He was eerily calm. Shortly after, the Dean of Students walked up to him, saying they had gotten through to his family. His dad was fine and they had him on the line. He walked away with the Dean. When he returned a few minutes later, he said his dad had managed to get out of the World Trade Center in time but that New York looked like a warzone.
While we waited in line, we heard someone say that they had received a fax from their parents. Sarah went down to the Purser’s office to check for faxes. She had received one. It said, “Dad and I are okay. Love you.” She was instantly relieved.
We approached the front of the e-mail line just as the shipboard meeting was starting. I logged in to my e-mail and I had about ten frantic e-mails from my family as the previous day’s events had unfolded. Everyone was okay. I e-mailed everyone to tell them that I was okay and that I’d try to call them later that day from the ship.
The shipboard meeting is short, but very emotional. We have no television, and really no idea of what planes crashing into towers would even look like. It’s barely 9:30AM and I am completely exhausted. I’ve experienced such an array of feelings today already that make me feel emotionally drained. Relief that we were out of the storms, hunger, worry, confusion, sadness, anger, self-pity, guilt, back to sadness, and, a little ashamed to admit, excitement about being on land tomorrow for the first time in two weeks.
We would be arriving in Kobe, Japan the next day and someone at the shipboard meeting suggested that we make origami cranes, a symbol of peace and joy in Japan. Throughout the rest of the day, the main auditorium was filled with students making origami cranes and they were strung together and hung in the main hall the rest of our 100 day voyage. When I wasn’t making origami cranes, I was out on the deck enjoying the beautiful weather and scenery as we sailed past countless little rocky islands. I feel guilty, and every time I find that I am enjoying myself, or hear laughter or a squeal of excitement, I remind myself of what was going on at home.
After our ship arrived in Japan on September 13 and we were waiting to clear customs to disembark, newspapers were placed around the ship. Someone had removed a page from one of the newspapers and hung it up in a busy hallway on the main deck. The page contained an unbelievable photo. The photo was a zoomed-in image of a man falling head first from the World Trade Center. I was stunned and even more confused about what exactly had happened in New York. Above the photo, someone posted a handwritten sign. “Never Forget.” It was the first time I had heard that phrase associated with the attacks.
After we got off the ship, instead of there being an excitement to start traveling around Japan, there was a mad dash for internet cafes. In e-mails we had received from our families, we kept hearing about videos of the planes crashing into the towers. And we all wanted to see it. When I finally did find a video of it online, I could hardly believe my eyes. I was torn between wanting to keep up with what was going on at home, and wanting to have fun in Japan. I left the internet café a few minutes later.
The universal symbol of our entire 100 day voyage in all ten countries that we visited was a simple hand gesture that people used to communicate with us through language barriers. The gesture was that of raising their flat palm above their head and then lowering their hand. A distinct look on their face always accompanied the gesture. Typically the look was pity or devastation. And sometimes a hug or handshake or bow or other embrace followed. The gesture communicated a collapsing tower. The look on their face communicated their sadness for what had happened, and the embrace, their support for us.
On our last day of the voyage, one of our professors gave a farewell speech. One quote resonated with us all: ” … there is no way you will ever understand it. September 11 will be one of those markers in people’s lives … like Kennedy’s assassination and Pearl Harbor. It will be the marker for your generation for decades to come. And you missed it. You weren’t there. And because of that, there will forever be a hole in your life.”
Each year, on the anniversary of the attacks, I watch hours of September 11 footage on the internet. Especially footage of newscasts that were broadcast as events unfolded live on television on September 11, 2001. I can’t say that it’s a healthy thing to do, but it’s some weird attempt of mine to “be there” on that day. I wonder what I would have been feeling that day if I was watching it on the news or if I was around close friends and family, and not near-strangers I had met only 11 days earlier. If I had been able to hear the emotions in newscasters’ voices about the events, instead of reading about the events on some sheet of paper.
Like a movie spoiler, I knew what the end was in a matter of moments without having to watch the action unfold hour after hour. Then I stop and think to myself. This was not some action movie. These were real events. Real people died at the hands of pure evil. I should not mourn that I missed the events. I should mourn for those that died. And mourn for the way that the world changed on that very day.
So, I’m okay that I missed it. It was an incredible time to travel the world.