As the old chestnut goes, there are a few indelible memories in life that so sear you that you always recall where you were when they happened: good ones like a child's birth, a wedding, a graduation – and the ones you wish hadn't happened – like JFK's assassination for those old enough to remember.
I was in a seat in Chelmsford, Mass. High School, 15 years old that Nov. 22, 1963 when a student in the back of the room, who had sneaked in a transistor radio raised his head to yell, “JFK is dead!”
Cut to Sept. 11, 2001.
I had gone to my daughter's apartment in Boston to wait for a utility company repairman while she was out, watching TV on the couch when on came the images from New York of the first plane that hit the World Trade Center.
A few days earlier, I was at Logan Airport to see off my partner, Yianna, on her way back to Greece, not knowing that the terrorists who would hijack United Flight 175 may have been scouting.
In what was then more than 30 years in the news business as a journalist I had seen a lot of stories come and go, even if it's said there are really only 15 that keep repeating themselves.
Like a homicide detective who's been to the scene of too many murders and has to keep emotions in rein, even the worst of news stories – horrible killings, terrorist acts, natural disasters – come so often and fast they are forgotten.
Not this one.
Not the deaths of 265 people on four planes, two that crashed into the two World Trade Center buildings, at the Pentagon and crashed in a field in Pennsylvania where brave passengers foiled a plot by terrorists to dive into the Capitol or the White House.
Not the deaths of 125 people at the Pentagon.
Nor the 2,606 people in the World Trade Center's two buildings from the initial explosions of the planes hitting, the buildings pancaking and collapsing, taking 344 firefighters (the eerie scene of one's face captured in cold fear and duty even as he ascended the stairs while others were coming down), and 71 brave law enforcement officers.
You can't forget the fear and the smoke pouring out of the upper floors of the World two buildings, the photos of 200 who fell or jumped to their deaths instead of being roasted inside, wondering about the horror in the thumping hearts of those who survived the impact only to realize they would not get out alive.
The ones who jumped or fell were traveling at almost 150 miles per hour, having at most 10 seconds to contemplate what was coming.
Edouard Pierre Goubert, who worked for a trading firm on a lower floor will always remember what he saw and heard.
He and his colleagues – some had to be pulled away from their chairs because they were still trading shares to make money – barely got out, only to see the huge gray plume of smoke in the North Tower, he told the site The Print.
It got worse.
“The shock happened when I got out of the building and started walking in the courtyard. It was the sound of bodies being smashed to the ground. I’ll never forget that,” Goubert said.
Then, later, was the befuddlement on the face of President George Bush who was reading stories to children in a classroom in Sarasota, Florida when his Chief of Staff Andy Card – whom I knew well, covering his time in the Massachusetts Legislature while at the Boston Globe – whispered the news into his ear.
I remember that Garnet ‘Ace’ Bailey, who played professional hockey, including for the Boston Bruins, and a companion, Mark Bavis, who played for Boston University, just sat in their seats when United Flight 175 was hijacked that crisp, clear morning.
The five hijackers had four-inch knives and a multi-tool. The knives were used to kill the pilots and stab the flight crew, which should have shown the intent of the terrorists.
So why didn't the tough guys on the plane try to stop them? They never realized, of course, that it was a suicide mission and didn't suspect what was coming.
The passengers on United Flight 93 that fell in Pennsylvania had heard by cell phone from their friends, family, and loved ones, however, what happened and they weren't going down easy, and saved a lot of lives by giving their own.
A group of them, including Todd Beamer, who sold software for Oracle, formed a plan to storm the hijackers and get into the cockpit, even to take it down before it could reach its target.
Beamer told GTE airphone supervisor Lisa Jefferson: "If I don't make it, please call my family and let them know how much I love them."
She said she then heard muffled voices and Beamer clearly answering, "αre you ready? Okay. Let's roll.” There were heroes.