I remember it like it was yesterday. It was like any other nice fall day in New Mexico. I woke up early to get ready for school. I was a junior at Rio Rancho High School – the same school that was later used to film scenes from the classroom of the fictitious teacher Walter White from Breaking Bad. As I was leaving my house my mom said a plane had flown into the World Trade Center in New York City. The news was on at our house and I glanced at some footage before I left for school. I remember thinking it was some kind of accident with a small plane.
I drove to school, which was only five minutes from my house. When I got to my first class the TV was on. The upper part of the North Tower was engulfed in flames and smoke. Right away I knew it was not a small plane as I had previously thought. All of us were talking about what could have happened. News anchors began speculating about what happened. Was it intentional? Was it an accident? No one really knew. All we knew was we were witnessing something tragic play out in real time. Then, we all watched the second plane fly into the South Tower. After a collective gasp, we just all starred at the TV. It was now clear this was an attack.
Watching this all unfold as a 16-year old was strange. I remember many of us wondering out loud if we were at war while we were fixated on the TV. It was silent for several minutes as we watched in bewilderment while the Twin Towers burned. Then reports started coming in about another plane that flew into the Pentagon. We all wondered what was next, how long it would last, and who was behind it.
At one point I turned to my friend Stephen and said, “You know when they get these fires put out I think they are going to have to demolish these buildings.” Then, not even 30 seconds later, the South Tower came crumbling down in a pile of debris and smoke. No one knew what to say. We just all watched in amazement and confusion. Then reports started coming in about another plane that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. All of this happened in the course of a few hours.
The school sent all of us home early. After the attack started the government shut down U.S. air space. It was eerie not seeing in airplanes in the sky. I asked my dad what he thought. He served 25 years in the Navy and spent two tours in Vietnam. All he said was we were at war. I watched the news all day. It started becoming clear who was behind the attack. I recalled watching a 60 Minutes special about Osama bin Laden and the attack of the USS Cole in Yemen. So when I started hearing his name I had a basic background of who he was and why he would have done this. I could not stop thinking about all of the people who needlessly suffered and died that day.
I don’t remember the weeks and months that followed in any detail. I remember hanging up our American flag outside our house everyday for a few weeks. Many of our neighbors did the same. Eventually planes started flying again. By October the war in Afghanistan had started. The Transportation Security Administration was created in November. Air travel was forever changed.
It is hard to comprehend how 20 years have gone by since that day. So much has happened since, but that morning in my high school classroom is such a vivid memory. It feels like it was not that long ago. I often think this is how people felt who were alive during the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. But there is one major difference. We all watched the attack happen in real time on TV while most Americans heard about Pearl Harbor and saw the destruction after the attack. Watching it all unfold in real time is something I will never forget.