‘Mom, sorry it’s so early. But you have to turn on your TV. This is beyond words.”
It was sometime after 8:45 a.m. on that bright morning — a moment I will never forget. I immediately called my parents in Arizona where it was three hours earlier. Together we watched news reports of a jet that crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers.
The three of us, connected by 2,000 miles of telephone wire, were stunned.
“I can’t believe they got this on camera,” my mother mused, watching the explosion on TV.
“It was an accident, how can there be video?” I chided her, staring at the gaping hole on my screen.
Incredulously, my parents in Arizona learned of the second plane moments before I did, sitting in my cubicle across the street from the nation’s capitol.
I was 22 and three months out of college — my journalism degree was fresh but my political acumen was being sharpened while working at the National Republican Congressional Committee. It was an off year, but we were a young team so we were drilled incessantly. We worked long hours and lots of weekends — but I loved it.
What I remember most is how strikingly beautiful it was that morning. The sun was rising, the sky was pink and, right where the highway crests by the Pentagon, the view took my breath away. The entire city was bathed in that warm light. Like so many others before me, it sent a tiny shiver down my spine as I crossed the Potomac into the city and thought to myself, “I am so lucky to live here and see sights like this every day.”
The second plane signaled something else — attack. My desk was next to the executive director’s office. His windows faced southwest, and it was from his office that we watched thick black smoke rise up from that direction. The Pentagon.
There were reports of a fire on the National Mall. A bomb at the State Department. Nobody knew what to believe. All of it would have seemed implausible if the morning’s events hadn’t been so surreal.
We evacuated. I went with a colleague to his friend’s family house in McLean. I had never met them before — and haven’t seen them since — but I remember thinking it was comforting being with parents, anyone’s parents.
We spent the day watching the news, unable to tear ourselves away. One tower fell. Then the other. Flight 93 crashed.
The next couple of days were a blur. I know I showed up at work the next day. I know I considered moving back home. It seemed safer.
But President Bush’s leadership at that time changed me, gave me determination. His speech on the floor of Congress on Sept. 21 was electrifying, solemn, healing and rallying. He brought the nation together with his words, at a time when we’ve never needed it more. I stayed in Washington and was never prouder than when I served as an appointee in his administration.
Undoubtedly, 9/11 affected all Americans in profoundly different ways. A brave many were inspired to enlist in the military. Others were shown the path of civil or social service. And some were steered, perhaps even unknowingly, by their personal experiences that day.
I was forever changed by what my eyes saw and my heart felt on 9/11, and it unquestionably influenced the course of my life. More than anything, I knew I had to be involved in some way in the institution that makes the United States the best country in the world — the process of democracy.
Today, those lessons should not be forgotten. It’s not what makes us different — it’s about embracing our differences. It’s about being Americans. About democracy. About supporting our troops and those who risk their lives every day to protect our beloved freedom.
The 10th anniversary of the attacks will be painful and solemn. I know my story pales in comparison to what those in NYC endured that day — or to what those who lost loved ones that day are still enduring.
But our stories — wherever we were that day — serve as powerful reminders that freedom is far from free but worth the fight. One day, I will tell my 2-year-old daughter my story and encourage her to listen and learn from the stories of others. In this way, not only will we never forget, but future generations won’t either.
• Melissa M. DeLaney is a resident of Tempe and the Communications Director at the Greater Phoenix Economic Council