These are stories of 9/11.
Here you will read memories, remembrances of what happened two decades ago on one day in American history that anyone alive then will never forget. These are stories about that day, told by everyday people from across America and the world. Some people will tell of running through the streets of Manhattan, covered in dust and debris from the fallen World Trade Center towers, or of crawling from the rubble of the Pentagon. Others describe the day as they experienced it in places as far flung as rural Tennessee, Charlotte, or in Beijing.
Everyone has a story to tell and the goal of this project was to simply ask good questions, listen, and make a contribution to the historical record. Gathered here also are reflections on where people were in their lives and their thoughts at the time of their interviews in the 2010s or early 2020s. In other words, in subtle and sometimes less subtle ways, the storytellers here talk about how 9/11 has shaped their lives and their thinking over time. There are discussions here about anxiety and depression, career changes, TSA, and cross-country moves (just to name a few topics) that were a result of the events on one fateful day. There are quite a few narratives, as might be expected, that express one political view or another. Since Dr. Richey began this project, America has had three different presidents. You will hear mention of those presidents and other political figures, and you will see discussions about race, ethnicity, and religion. You will also hear time and again about how cell phones and the internet have changed how we consume news since 2001.
The stories here are presented for educational purposes as primary documents useful for anyone interested in studying 9/11. The interviews have been gathered over the course of the last 8 years by students in the Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) course at The McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tennessee. These were students like us, and from the start, Dr. Richey told us that his intention was to publish some of our oral histories on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. This website, therefore, represents the work of a wide range of former students, some of whom are now well beyond college and actively building their careers. We thank all of them for their hard work, whether it was last year, or in 2014.
With the launch of the website on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we present twenty stories from across the years of the project. Each successive week, we will publish a story on Tuesday mornings at 8:46 am, the time of day when American Airlines Flight 11 hit the North Tower on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
Since Dr. Richey began this project, he has taught APUSH to nearly 500 young men here at McCallie, and while all of their stories did not make this website (some very good ones involved interviewees who did not agree to publication), they all contributed to it in one way or another. We are hopeful that the world these young men and the rest of us inhabit going forward will be a place without the horrors of another 9/11.
Daniel Cui '19 and Vihaal Vellanki '22
Project Assistants to Dr. Richey
Thinking Like A Historian
On the morning of September 11, 2001, my wife and I were living in Boulder, Colorado, where I was completing a doctorate in American history. We had a precious newborn son, not yet four months old. Between the constant work of graduate school and baby feedings, there were many late nights.
I was awakened early that morning by a phone call from my brother. He was two time zones away from me, calling from Charleston, South Carolina. Something was clearly wrong.
“Are you watching TV?”
He was animated, breathless, almost as if he had been out jogging on the beach.
“No, man,” I replied. “You just woke me up. It's ten after seven here. What’s going on?”
“Someone just outdid Timothy McVeigh.”
This was all I needed to hear to know that something awful had just occurred. And in fact, as I was soon to learn, an airplane had just been flown deliberately into the World Trade Center’s South Tower. Roughly twenty minutes earlier, a first plane had crashed into the North Tower. America was under attack.
I tell this story to my students today and immediately have to give them the context: namely, who was Timothy McVeigh? The answer weaves from the militia movements of the 1990s, to the Branch Davidians in Waco, to McVeigh’s pulling a Ryder rental truck full of ammonium nitrate in front of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, where his homemade bomb killed 168 men, women, and children. That’s part of the story I tell in a lesson that often concludes with the message that, throughout that day on 9/11, I vividly recall thinking like a historian and saying aloud to my oblivious 4 month old: “How are you going to tell this story...and process it... ten, twenty, fifty, and maybe one hundred years from now?”
The stories here will bring out all of the human emotions possible. You will laugh, and you will cry. And there will be moments, dear reader, where you will feel absolute anger. There will be moments where you think, wow, I can't believe a student found this person to interview...what an amazing story. The people here who have so generously allowed us to publish their stories may have a different perspective than you. They may think that America's response to 9/11, which included military action in Afghanistan, was right, or wrong. They may think that the invasion of Iraq was wholly and completely necessary, or perhaps they will present it as a terrible blunder. They may draw connections between 9/11 and current events in a way that makes them sound like they recorded your very words, or they may draw connections that you completely disagree with and that upset you greatly. Allow me to suggest to you what I tell my students every day: Even when we think like historians and sift through sources from the past with what we think is an objective eye, we bring significant baggage to the table. It's clearly the case when we deal with events that are recent to our memory and to a collective political consciousness. Regardless, we need to listen to every voice and treat each other with respect and dignity. Learning does not happen if we yell and scream or stomp out of the room. In other words, I encourage you to read every word whether you disagree with the person or not.
Let me discuss briefly the process for creating these oral histories. Traditionally, my students have worked on this project after an entire year of studying American history with me. Typically, we complete the project in the weeks following the AP exam in May. The exception to this was this semester, the Fall semester of 2021. Because of the 20th anniversary, I felt that it was necessary to have the students begin the year with 9/11. Prior to the interviews, students read selections from the historian Ernest May's abridged The 9/11 Commission Report, part of the wonderful Bedford/St. Martin's series of short histories, with documents, known as The Bedford Series in History and Culture. That series covers just about any topic imaginable in the American experience. The students also read parts of Garrett M. Graff's excellent book The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11. We also often read selections from various works by the late Studs Terkel, who, in addition to having one of the best names known to man, was the greatest practitioner of oral history this country has produced. I also ask the students to watch two incredible documentaries (among many) on 9/11. One is The Falling Man (2006) and the other is the ESPN short, The Man in the Red Bandana (2017). For my students, especially the ones in recent years who were not yet alive on 9/11, these two films capture the horror and the heroism of the day perfectly.
The simple instructions for the students were and are to do an interview in person, either face to face, or via phone, Skype, or now, Zoom. The students are then allowed to follow up with email. The end result is to be distilled and edited from those conversations into a readable story that reads in the first person. Some of the standard questions are:
Tell me about 9/11. Where were you? How did you learn of what was happening around the country that morning?
How did you contextualize it? What were your first thoughts?
How did your understanding of the events change as time unfolded?
Did your life change in any tangible way because of 9/11? Did you as a person change in any way?
What did America learn from 9/11? How did the country change?
Close readers will note that there are factual errors in some of these stories. I have found, actually, that the vast majority of people don't really recall, for example, that only 17 minutes separated American Flight 11's crash into the North Tower from United Flight 175's crash into the South Tower. My guess is that many people, like me, were not pulled into the news until after the second crash, when it became obvious to anyone watching that this was not a Cessna, a news helicopter, or some other small aircraft, that had flown off course. Some of the things people describe doing in those seventeen minutes are likely impossible. But we all remember what it felt like to see that second plane fly into the building on TV, whether we saw it live, or on the loop of tape we have all seen now countless times. Memory is a tricky thing, and a lot of people claim to have seen the second plane live on TV. I used to think that I had seen it live, too, but in conversations over the years with my wife and brother, I realize now that I only got that phone call when it was obvious that the U.S. was under attack. Many people have also forgotten that the South Tower, the second to be hit, collapsed first. Ultimately, these facts are not what the students were seeking, or why we as readers should read the interviews. The details of some of the stories, even if they are factually off a bit, still capture the essence of that chaotic day and the days that followed. Ultimately, it is peoples' perspectives about everything in and around 9/11 that are most interesting.
For clarity's sake, I have done minor edits here and there where a student did not use a comma, a semi-colon, or some other necessary punctuation in their written interview. I have also changed some words in a few interviews, in particular the F word, which was used occasionally. Although that word carries a certain emphatic vivacity at times, I felt, given that this site will be read by many middle school students, that those few edited interviews don't lose any of their weight in a more PG-13 version.
Eight years ago, I began asking my students to interview someone, anyone who was alive on 9/11 and who would be willing to share their own story about the day. In the school year of 2018-19, my four month old son back in 2001 was then 17 and a student in my APUSH class. When I looked at him on 9/11 and wondered how he would tell the story of and make sense of that awful day, I could never have imagined that twenty years later, I would share his interview with the world on a web page. In his oral history (his name is also Duke Richey), with former NFL coach Ricky Thomas, we are reminded that everything stopped for awhile after 9/11 as professional sports leagues cancelled games. When Thomas's team, the Tampa Bay Bucs, returned in week three at Minnesota, before the coin toss the coaches and officials joined members of the military in holding a huge flag that covered the field. Many people, including Thomas, talk here about how there was this moment of great unity in America after 9/11. And that unity was so palpable in the wake of the attacks by outsiders, because before 9/11, as my brother's comment about Timothy McVeigh that morning reminds us, America was terribly torn and divided within.
I am hopeful, as you read these narratives, that in remembering 9/11, we not only honor all of those people who died, as well as the families who lost loved ones, but that we recall--or understand anew--what Coach Thomas meant in his interview with my son when he said that "after 9/11, I had a greater appreciation of how precious life is." As the US has recently left Afghanistan, dramatically after 20 years, with many unfortunate deaths and tragedy, we are reminded again of what we all felt and what Ricky articulated so well in his interview: All life is precious.
Knowing our history, and thinking like a historian is a privilege I get to take part in every day as my job, and it gives me the greatest pleasure to now share with you the work of my amazing students.
Duke Richey '86
Sen. Howard Baker Jr. ’43 Chair of American History
“For all of us, it changed our expectations for what American life might be like.”
- Lynn Brindell
- New York
- New York City
“In the years after 9/11, I have felt like I need to be an even better Muslim. I have to show, through my actions, what Islam really teaches.”
- Khola Humayun
“I’ve got this one-and-a-half year old baby that I have every hope for in the world, and I’m watching the world crumble.”
- Ben Wiley
“That’s the most vivid memory for me. It was a yellow necktie. The force of what happened was just sending whatever was in the office building down to the ground. You’re standing there thinking, ‘that’s somebody’s necktie, or daily planner, or coffee cup.’ It’s the personal stuff.”
- New York
- Paul Murdock
- Staten Island
“I was just telling people what to do immediately: let’s get together, make sure you’ve got your stuff, grab your things, let’s go. Because, obviously, you’re going to get out of a burning building.”
- Cate Mueller
“At that moment it was flight or fight, and my body decided flight.”
- Stacy Reinhardt
“After 9/11, I had a greater appreciation of how precious life is. I made sure I said how I felt to my immediate family members and neighbors and not waiting until an appropriate time to say, hey, here’s how I feel about you, but taking advantage of the opportunity right then and there that day and saying I care about you and I love you.”
- Military Family
- Ricky Thomas
“We never feared of being attacked like most people did, but rather we feared having to be the attackers.”
- Daniel Kadwell
- High Schooler
- North Carolina
“The events of 9/11 for our school community emphasized the need more than ever for the core Quaker values of our institution.”
- Bruce Stewart
- North Carolina
“At the end of the day, all we want to do is be there for our children and keep them safe, and on that day no one really felt safe.”
- Michelle Glover
“I knew he was dead as soon as the second tower collapsed, but I did not give up hope that Rob was alive for days, months, and really even years after the attacks…”
- Patrick Lenoir
“…there was still a sense in which it wasn't happening in Chattanooga, but the scale and scope of it made it feel definitely more like this was going to matter to all of us everywhere…”
- Ice Cream
- Marshall Brock
"I remember standing there with my mouth open. And then, the thought came into my mind, “Oh my god, I hope, I pray that it’s not a Muslim who did that.” I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. I was just horrified at the situation, just horrified... and then when I learned it was Muslims, I was devastated."
- Asma Khan
"For me, the way I look at 9/11 is shaped by my background studying history."
- Cultural Jew
- New York
- New York City
- Rachel Kirsh
"I think that a lot of stuff around intolerance that we are seeing is connected to it, because people personalize it and are reactive and want to feel safe. So if you can demonize someone out there, then you can set up systems to keep the demon away and I think I see a lot of that in our world."
- Brad Whitaker
- New Jersey
“Buddy, I just crawled out of the World Trade Center; your dinner plans review with your wife is going to have to end now.”
- 59th Floor
- Jan Weaver
“Any time the sky is that color blue, I think of that morning. Everybody here does. It really was a gorgeous, gorgeous day… ”
- Jean Carsey
- Long Island
- New York
- Vivid Memory
“He sort of picked me up and swung me around and I remember that ashy, smoky smell on his coat. Then he put me down and we went about our business. That was my first moment.”
- First Responder
- Ground Zero
- New York
- New York City
- Vicky Gregg
“After 9/11, I became entirely distrustful. Knowing that they wanted to kill me, and more importantly, my family. I mean, it did what it was intended to do, which was put terror in our hearts.”
- Rebecca Parker
“Previously, I thought that only socialist nations, such as China and the USSR, were able to mobilize their civil servants, including police, firefighters and soldiers, in such a way that they would devote themselves for the greater good at any cost, irrespective of their own security. Now I learned that people in capitalist nations could do the same thing.”
- Wei Shen
“Everyone was shocked by the violence. It’s just that you could see that there was a bit of a microexpression, where you realized that they were satisfied that we finally had to deal with something difficult.”
- John Carroll
- Terrorism Analyst
“And I remember being in the shower, thinking this is so horrible: the day that my baby is born is the day the father died.”
- Barbara McGregor
- Mexico City
“I remember growing up thinking that America was the strongest nation in the world. It’s what we were all taught and it’s what we’d seen in history. I think that after 9/11 I didn’t believe that anymore.”
- Ann Caldwell
“We continued walking, and when we were about two blocks away, that’s when I heard the noise. It was a loud rumble, and as I looked back, I saw all the dust coming towards us, so we then ran like hell.”
- Alberto McGregor
“…in the midst of shootings and bombings being synonymous with Islam, it is our duty to stand against the hate and show them the true nature of a true Muslim.”
- Abdul Basit
- South Carolina
“Well, it’s a little crazy around here, but not as messed up as it’s about to get for you in two hours. We’re relocating the President to Offutt Air Force Base. Do you have any issues with that?”
- Paul Johnson
- Secret Service
Ali Shafi graduated from McCallie in 2017, then majored in International Relations and Spanish at American University in Washington, D.C., where he was editor-in-chief of The Rival. He is currently a law student at Boston College.
Ben Caldwell graduated from McCallie in 2017, then majored in English at Davidson College, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. A talented artist, Ben lives in Charlotte, where he teaches 8th grade English.
Bennett Brock graduated from McCallie in 2020 and is currently a student at the University of Georgia.
Boden Brindell graduated from McCallie in 2020 and now lives in New York City, where he is a student at Columbia University.
Chase Hamelink graduated from McCallie in 2019 and is now majoring in Chemistry at Davidson College.
Christopher Wiley graduated from McCallie in 2021. He is a freshman at Vanderbilt University.
David Carroll graduated from McCallie in 2018. He is currently a student at Pomona College in California.
David Johnson graduated from McCallie in 2019 and enrolled at Southern Methodist University, where he is a Provost’s Scholar and is double majoring in Psychology and Economics.
Davis Little, a boarding student from Atlanta, graduated from McCallie in 2019. He is currently a student at William and Mary, where he is studying History and Public Policy.
Duke H. Richey graduated from McCallie in 2020 and is majoring in Environment and Sustainability at The University of the South in Sewanee.
Ian Campbell, recently named a National Merit Semifinalist, is a senior day student from Chattanooga.
Ibrahim Aslam graduated from McCallie in 2015, then majored in Biology and Spanish at Mercer University. He works now for the AmeriCorps VISTA program in the Cochise County School Superintendent’s office and lives in Sierra Vista, Arizona.
Jiayi Li graduated from McCallie in 2021. He is currently a student at the University of Pennsylvania.
Jiahao Guo graduated from McCallie in 2016, then received both his bachelors and masters degrees (in mechanical engineering) within four years at Northwestern University. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area and is an engineer at Neuralink.
Josh McBride graduated from McCallie in 2019. He is currently a student at the University of Georgia, where he is majoring in Business.
Luke Gilbert is a Michaels-Dickson Scholar and a senior boarding student from Charlotte, North Carolina. At McCallie, he is a member of the soccer team and is an RA in Pressly Hall, the freshman dormitory.
Mac Hunt graduated from McCallie in 2018. He is a student at Vanderbilt University, where he is majoring in African American and Diaspora Studies.
Nathan Smartt is a Michaels-Dickson Scholar and a senior boarding student from Austin, Texas. At McCallie, he is a member of the soccer team and is an RA in Pressly Hall, the freshman dormitory.
Nelson Eiselstein graduated from McCallie in 2016, then attended Vanderbilt University on a full-academic scholarship as a Cornelius Vanderbilt Scholar. Today, he is on the faculty at McCallie, where he teaches math and coaches cross-country and track and field
Riley Parker graduated from McCallie in 2020. A National Merit Semifinalist, Riley won a full scholarship to the University of Alabama, where is pursuing degrees in Computer Science and Business.
Ryan McGregor graduated from McCallie in 2016, then majored in International Relations at Princeton University. He is an analyst now with Accenture and lives in Washington DC.
Sam Bennett graduated from McCallie in 2018 and is now in his senior year at the University of Southern California, where he is double majoring in Environmental Studies and Business, and serves as a brand ambassador for Beyond Meat.
Sultan Minhas graduated from McCallie in 2018. He is a senior at Emory University, where he is majoring in Political Science and Arabic.
Turner Davidson graduated from McCallie in May, 2021, after having finished at the top of his class in APUSH and winning the Daughters of the American Revolution prize in History. He is currently studying mechanical engineering at Northwestern University.
Will Hunt graduated from McCallie in 2019 and is currently a student at Princeton University, where he is majoring in Politics and Gender and Sexuality Studies.
Will Parker graduated from McCallie in 2019. He is studying engineering at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Father Brad Whitaker serves at the rector at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in downtown Chattanooga. Twenty years ago, he was living and working in New Jersey and served as a Chaplain at Trinity Church at Ground Zero after the September 11 terrorist attacks. He spoke to Upper School students during Chapel on Friday, September 10, 2021.
Watch his talk here: