Mia, our granddaughter, asked the question after hearing “Nine-Eleven” at our dinner table. Mia, almost ten years old, was visiting us in Groton with her brother Julian, nearly fourteen, this July. They reside in Tokyo, Japan, from where our son John manages Asia/Pacific sales for a Massachusetts firm. Naoko Kitamura, the mother, converses in Japanese with her children; their dad prefers English. At Tokyo’s Lycée Française, their school, almost all teaching is in French.
Mia and Julian: “Nine-eleven” stands for September 11, 2001. 9/11 is a date that changed everything. This short-hand naming of a date is similar to “Fourth of July” for Americans or “Quatorze Juillet” for French people – dates that changed everything.
9/11 did that for your Grandma and me. We were asleep on a convertible couch in your parents’ living room in San Francisco. Your parents and baby Julian slept downstairs; you, Mia, were not born yet. A phone call jarred us awake. Your mom answered, downstairs; Grandma and I had no idea of what was said and who the caller was. The time was around six o’clock in the morning. Within seconds your dad bounded up the steps, hollering: “Mom, Dad, wake up, one of the World Trade Towers in New York is on fire; a plane hit it. Turn on the TV.” We did, and with that we became witness to one of America’s most tragic days.
How did your dad know what was going on in New York? No TV or radio was on in your parents’ condominium, and smart phones were not yet common. It was that telephone call. Your Japanese grandmother called to alert your mom. In Hikone, Japan, it already was evening, and the TV was on in your Japanese grandparents’ home. An announcer informed the viewers about the fire in one of the World Trade Center’s towers, and your grandmother immediately shared this news with your mom in America.
And why were we, your American grandparents, in San Francisco anyway that day? Your dad had urged us to spend a weekend with his young family prior to flying to Las Vegas, Nevada, for the wedding of your dad’s Uncle Bill to Betsy, his fiancée, who were to fly to Las Vegas from Atlanta, Georgia. Your family and Grandma and I intended to fly from nearby Oakland to Las Vegas for this wedding.
The Tuesday, September 11 flight from Boston included four passengers with evil intentions.
Grandma and I had planned to travel to San Francisco just a couple of days prior to the wedding in Las Vegas, flying possibly on Tuesday, September 11th. The earliest take-off hour from Boston for San Francisco-bound planes was 8:00 o’clock. That’s the time we would have departed on September 11 by United Airlines, and that is the departure hour we chose for Friday, September 7. Traveling on September 7 instead of September 11 was a good thing because the Tuesday, September 11 flight from Boston included four passengers with evil intentions that became known only later that day.
After turning on the TV what did we see? Terrible scenes in New York: People being sucked out or jumping out of windows high on the burning tower; a second large plane approaching the towers, then slicing through World Trade Center Tower Two. Later, thousands of frightened people fleeing on foot from the tower area, then both towers collapsing in place, creating clouds of dust and debris that blew through the canyons of tall buildings and seemed to swallow the fleeing crowds.
Presentations on TV turned tense and angry. News of a plane crashing into the Pentagon in Washington began to spread as well as the story of another west-bound plane changing course over Pennsylvania, now aiming for Washington, possibly for the White House or the Capitol. Later we learned that passengers in that plane had seen the pilots being murdered by “Arab-looking” travelers. The passengers tried to take back control of the plane and during the melee, the plan crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. All on board perished.
Among the passengers on Flight 175, the “second” plane that crashed into the south World Trade Center, were three from Groton: Christine Hanson, Sue Kim Hanson, and Peter Hanson, a family with eerie similarities to your own. Mr. Hanson, about your dad’s age, worked as a sales executive in Asia for an American firm, just like your dad; the wife was a Korean woman; your mom is Japanese; they traveled with a small child about the same age as you, Julian. We later learned that Peter Hanson, a very brave man, called his father with a phone on the plane and reported some of the events on that plane to his own dad on the ground in Connecticut.
In the field behind the Groton Library stands a gazebo, a sort of bandstand, given to and by Groton in memory of the Hanson family by the dad who was in phone contact with his son on that plane.
That Tuesday, all of us stayed glued to the TV in disbelief and sadness.
That Tuesday, all of us stayed glued to the TV in disbelief and sadness. We learned that the President, George W. Bush, was told of the surprise attack while in Florida reading from a book to a grammar school class. He was whisked away on his presidential plane to an unknown place and was not heard from or seen on TV until later in the afternoon when he promised to pursue and punish the attackers. We learned that some of the young-looking passengers on the stricken planes occupied the first-class sections right behind the cockpits. Once aloft, these passengers murdered the pilots, took control of the cockpits and changed the aircrafts’ westward direction to east – two planes toward New York City, two others toward Washington.
Our own plans for the week were shattered. The nation’s air-traffic system shut down. Your dad’s Uncle Bill and his bride Betsy could not travel to Las Vegas for their wedding; guests who expected to fly could not get off the ground.
With the original reason for our own travel gone awry and with the thought of the country being at war, I got uncomfortable being holed up in San Francisco awaiting events over which we had no control. Grandma and I decided to return to Massachusetts. With no planes flying we decided to go by train. Impossible, also. The railroads’ reservation services were overwhelmed; reaching them by phone proved futile. That left the alternative of driving across the country by car — a daunting proposition for a seventy-year old stroke survivor like me.
We did it. On Sunday, your dad drove Grandma and me to the San Francisco Airport where we rented a compact car from the thousands available. With no planes arriving there were no passengers in need of rental cars. We took leave of your family and headed east across California to Reno, Nevada, and then further east through Utah; Wyoming; Nebraska; Illinois; Ohio, where we stayed in Maumee with the Parkers, friends from my US Army service; then on to New York State and, finally to Massachusetts, home to Groton, The journey took six days; we traveled roughly 500 miles a day, slept in motels, and ate in highway rest stops. After reaching home I drove to Boston’s Logan Airport to drop off the rental car.
There is much that could be said about this journey across our land, but that’s another story.
Mia and Julian, this is your American grandparents’ personal story of 9/11. There are millions of 9/11 stories throughout the world, each different in detail. Nearly three thousand people perished that day; for untold others, including us, 9/11 is a date that changed everything.