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"Life Loves On" - 20 Years After 9/11/2001, Part I

September 10, 2021

When I think about the past 20 years and what has happened in that time span, memories that are happy, joyous, heart-breaking, eye-opening, self-examining, and any other adjective you can think of come to mind. The point? A lot can happen in 20 years, and it feels like a lot has. 

But when I think about one particular day that happened 20 years ago, it feels like it was only yesterday. For those that were alive (and can remember it), the phrase "9/11" is all that is needed to be said to remind us where we were on that day. But even for those that don't remember, "9/11" only refers to one day -  a Tuesday that began like any other weekday and ended unlike anything we'd ever experienced. 

The title "Life Loves On" was borrowed from an article I read in the Atlantic about a family that lost their eldest son that day. Like sadly so many, it's another tragic story, but this quote is something that's helped them over the last 20 years. It seemed pretty fitting for this blog post's theme. 

Tennessean front page from September 12th, 2001

"This Will Be the Worst Day of Our Lives..."

If you're not familiar with what took place or don't remember, here's a brief explanation...

On the morning of September 11th, 2001, 4 commercial airplanes were hijacked by members of the Islamist extremist group, Al Qaeda. Two of those planes were deliberately flown into the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center, in NYC. The 3rd plane was flown into the west side of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The 4th plane crashed in a field in western Pennsylvania, after passengers and crew attempted to overtake the cockpit. 

View of the World Trade Center in August, 2001.
View of the World Trade Center in August, 2001. Photo courtesy of Shelly Greer.
View from on top of the World Trade Center, in August 2001
View from on top of the World Trade Center in August, 2001. Photo courtesy of Shelly Greer.
View of the Pentagon building in Washington, D.C.
View of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

In total, almost 3,000 people were killed that day, spanning 93 nations of origin. 2,763 people were killed in New York City, 189 people were killed at the Pentagon, and 44 people were killed when Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania.

And because of the events of that day, so much about life as we knew it changed.  

Cover of Newsweek magazine from September 24, 2001

This book is a compilation of more than 500 oral histories collected (by the author and others) from people who lived through that day. It ranges from President Bush to people that were in the buildings when they were hit, and as Graff (the author) puts it - "...these stories capture only a single moment in time." So this book may not tell the entire story, but instead many different stories of before, during, and after the tragedy. 

Graff also provides a great quote of why it is important to collect oral histories from that day... 

"[The] passage of time makes remembering 9/11 all the more important. Indeed, to understand all that came after, we must first understand what it was like to live through the drama and tragedy that began under the crisp, clear blue skies of Tuesday, September 11, 2001.” 

So, in honor of those that died because of that day and all the family's impacted by the tragedy - using Graff's compilation of stories as an inspiration - this blog post is a collection of oral histories, mostly from Library staff plus a few other unique perspectives. Starting with my own memory of that day, here's a look back at one of the most tragic days in U.S. History. 

Looking Back on 9/11, My Memory

And sorry, I exceeded the word length I set for everyone else. 

Something that always comes to mind when I think about 9/11 is what going to an airport before that day was like. When I was a kid, my dad traveled a lot for his job, so we'd always go with him to the airport when he left. We'd go through security and straight to the gate, waiting for him to board. When he left, we'd watch the plane back out and take off. It was always a sad moment as a kid (made even sadder with some early '90's ballad playing in the airport), watching him leave, but I couldn't have realized then that this was an experience that'd be so drastically changed by one of the worst days in history.

Photo of children watching a plane take off at the airport, circa 1960's.
Children watching a plane take off at the airport, circa early 1960's.

On 9/11/2001, I was a freshman at Father Ryan High School in Nashville, in my first class of the day - a computer class. I remember very little before the announcement was made about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center. After though, I remember thinking "what's the World Trade Center?" and mistaking it with Wall Street. And also thinking, “how does a plane hit a building?” It just seemed so odd. 

So skipping school work for the day, we turned on the classroom tv and watched the news. We were watching when the second plane hit the South Tower approximately 17 minutes later. The rest of the day is a blur of thoughts I had and reactions happening; I say that with a mixed sensation of thankfulness and guilt since it means that day doesn't have the same painful impact that it does for many others.

But one memory I have is hearing that the stepdad of a student in my brother’s class was supposed to be flying one of those planes that day. Fortunately for him but not for someone else, he had switched schedules with another pilot that day and wasn’t on any of those planes, but they didn't know that until later that day since one thing that was consistent that day - communication was difficult. 

School was let out at some point that day, before noon I think. All events, including band practice that I was supposed to have that day, were canceled. I’m sure I went home and the news was on the rest of the day, but I know I wasn’t old enough to understand the long-lasting impact that day would have on our lives. 

My mom's memory of that day is that when we went to church that week, it had never been more crowded. 

When I asked my dad about what he remembers from that day, he sent me back some notes to which I put into paragraph form...

My dad’s job in 2001 involved frequent trips to his company’s out-of-state plant in Richlands, Virginia. This is where he was on 9/11/2001. He found out about what happened through the Plant Manager’s wife, who had called and told the staff to get to a tv. After that, he went to the company apartment and watched the news until both towers fell.

His reflection on how he felt: “all of those souls screaming out at the same time and then silence! I have never felt so useless and then violated. A total let down by the covert systems in place to protect us. [I was] hurt, scared, [felt] sorrow, and mad. [Also] so awestruck by the FDNY & NYPD for their selfless acts that cost them dearly.”

I knew he’d flown up there in the small, company plane as well and asked about how he got home. He said the company plane was grounded for 2 weeks, so they had to drive home in the company car.

Ground zero in NYC, in 2008
Ground zero in NYC, in November, 2008.
View of the 9/11 memorial at the Pentagon in 2008
The Pentagon memorial in 2008.

From Former Mayor, Bill Purcell 

As the Mayor of Nashville in 2001, Bill Purcell reflected back on that day as the leader of this city, and provided his memory... 

Remembering September 11, 2001.

I was speaking at a 7:00 am meeting of the Dickerson Road Merchant’s Association at Jack’s Barbecue on Trinity Lane when the first video from New York appeared on a muted television across the room. Leaving immediately for the Courthouse, it was quickly apparent that we did not know the extent of the damage or the risk, here or anywhere. With all of our emergency management and safety services on high alert, the first priority was determining the risk to our city. 

Once we felt we had a clear understanding of the safety of Nashville, the work of a Mayor is to reassure and provide as much information and comfort as the facts and the time allow. A public statement was issued: “Our first thought is for the victims of this tragedy and their families. Nashville will respond to their needs with our faith, energy, and aid….It is important for the people of Nashville to know that we have every reason to believe our city is safe….While this is a far greater national tragedy than anyone could imagine, it is important that we all stay level headed and calm…Now is the time when Nashville must show its resolve and determination to move ahead and heal the wounds of this tragedy for ourselves and this country.” 

Throughout our faith community was a guide and our comfort. Christ Church Cathedral was made available early in the day, and like many I went there for personal prayer. At 4:30 pm, a formal media availability was held at Blakemore United Methodist Church, with a prayer service following. A community wide prayer service was offered by The Temple and we gathered as a community there as the sun set.  

In the days and weeks that followed, there were emergency management reviews and assessments, and continual visits to firehalls and police precincts for thanks and condolences, with a formal memorial service for those lost. We reassessed the strengths and the weaknesses in our systems of protection and communication. We drew closer as a region realizing these new risks were shared by us all. We understood in a new and enduring way that the front lines of homeland security are in the cities of our nation. And we knew, each in our own way, that the work was just beginning and likely would never end. 

Staff Memories

I received quite a response from staff, so this will continue into Part II. But the memories are listed alphabetically by last name, starting with former Library security guard, Vic Appleton...

Victor Appleton, Former NPL Security Guard 

In 2001, Vic worked as a State Trooper in Dignitary Protection for the Governor's security details. 

My memory of 9/11/2001 events are limited because I had worked a 12-14 shift overnight manning the Governor’s Mansion. I had reported at 5 p.m. on 9/10 and wasn’t relieved of duty until 6 a.m. on 9/11. I returned home the morning of 9/11 and was asleep to the world by 7:30-8:00 AM. I awoke around 2 p.m., turned the TV on and was informed of the unfortunate incident. So much changed from that day as far as security to all government buildings, including our own State Capitol, which now requires limited access into the building, security scanners, emptying of pockets. Bollards were later added to prevent direct access to Capitol Hill by motor vehicle. Prior to 9/11, the State Capitol was open to all public access without security searches of individuals.

Rachel Bouley, Limitless Libraries

When 9/11 happened and the twin towers became ash, I was 8 years old at Pennington Elementary in the 4th grade. I just got back from lunch when I was called to the office, naturally thinking I was in trouble; I wasn’t though. My mother was there to pick me up. When we got in the car she told me that we were under attack as a nation. She then went on to explain that terrorists had hit the twin towers in NYC. I was scared, confused and most of all concerned. I had no idea that such a horrible event could happen to such a blessed nation.

When I look back in my memory bank of watching the live footage and the reactions of the people running in the smoke, it breaks my heart. Still today when I look at the pictures of 9/11, I get upset. So many innocent people died. So many words unsaid and so many families hurt. I can’t imagine calling my husband from a plane and saying “I love you” for the last time.

I remember watching this video of something falling from one of the buildings and thinking what is that? Later on, I found [out] it was a man jumping from the burning building. I often wonder what his last thoughts were and how cool the wind was blowing on his face as he fell to this death. Behind that day, there were evil forces at hand. You can see that from the pictures taken. I wish we had the answers we deserve to why and who was behind that horrible event in history. 

Syreeta Butler, Thompson Lane Branch Manager

I was a student at the University of Memphis in a statistics class when the first plane hit. As I walked out of my class, the multiple televisions in the Fogelman College of Business building were all tuned to CNN. I stood with classmates and watched as the second plane flew into the building. There were people on phones reaching out to family members in NYC asking their whereabouts. There were students on the floor crying and speaking about family working in those buildings. I remember clenching my chest and holding on to 2 people that I didn’t even know as we watched the horror unfold. That day I lost sense of race and embraced being an American. 

Liz Coleman, Main Library Adult Services

I remember my parents' generation talking about how everyone knew where they were when they heard that President Kennedy was shot. I feel like 9/11 is the same type of event for our generation.  

In my case, I was on the express bus coming in from Bellevue to work at the Main Library. For some reason the driver had decided to take us on surface streets rather than the usual route on the interstate, although it didn't seem like there was traffic that we'd be avoiding. So the ride was longer than normal and we were all a little edgy. As we neared Nashville another passenger got a call from her husband saying that a plane had flown into one of the Twin Towers. By the time I got into work, news had spread.

Before we opened we had a meeting of Reference staff in the public computer area, which is now Archives' closed storage. It all felt really surreal and working near the state capitol felt a little scary. The mother of one of our homework helpers called to tell us that she wouldn't let her come downtown. We set up a television in one of the study rooms in the teen area for anyone who wanted to watch the news. 
What I remember the best is what a beautiful fall day it was and how blue the sky was. It seemed impossible that such terrible events could happen on such a lovely day.

Amanda Dembiec, Interlibrary Loan

On that Tuesday morning, I was a senior at IU in Bloomington, IN. I woke up in my apartment with the radio on around 9 am (EST) and the DJ’s were talking about a plane that had just hit the World Trade Center. They were kind of laughing and joking about it, saying it must have been some small plane pilot who didn’t know what he was doing. About that time, the second plane hit and they sobered up pretty quickly. I got up and turned the TV on and the story was on every channel. My roommate came home from her early student teaching and I told her what happened, then I went to class. 

My first class was a painting class and I remember that one of my classmates spent the entire hour going in and out of class with his cell phone trying to get ahold of friends/relatives that worked in New York. I have the still life I was working on that day hanging in my bedroom now. I stayed on campus in between classes to practice and get some work done, so I didn’t get much news – remember life before smart phones? I was sitting in the basement of one of the music buildings waiting for my Music Theory class to start, around lunch, when I found out that both towers had fallen. 

I don’t remember how I got home – I think I might have walked because I didn’t want to take the bus at that point. I was supposed to go to class that night, but I told my professor I wasn’t coming and he understood. Instead, I went to church and then went home and watched the animated movie Anastasia because everything on TV was about the attacks and it was too overwhelming to keep watching at that point.

Jenny Ellis, Library Web Team

On the morning of 9/11, I had a job interview at the Frist Center. The interview was really early, so I was driving before the planes hit the towers. I know that I had the interview, but all I remember was that after the interview we walked out into an open area and staff were looking for a TV. I left the interview to go to the fairgrounds where I had a job helping out accepting photography entries. I still didn't know what was going on and heard confusing radio coverage on my drive to the fairgrounds. When I got to the fairgrounds it was surreal. I asked around and no one at the fairgrounds seemed aware that anything was happening. It’s before we all had news on our phones and not everyone there even had a phone. I still don’t remember when on that day I found out exactly what happened. I just remember everything felt tense, panicked, and so uncertain. 

Cloreace Eppenger, North Branch Manager 

I Remember 9/11…Oh how vividly I remember that unforgettable moment when it seemed as if time literally stood still.

I was working at a local Child Care Center, and one of my responsibilities as Co-Interim Director was to gather the statistics from each classroom by 9:00 a.m. so that the cook would know how many plates to prepare for each class.

At exactly 8:57 a.m., Tuesday, September 11, 2001, one of the staff members ran down the hallway and in a loud voice, cried out that the United States was under attack! A few minutes later we all stood and watched yet another unbelievable attack take place on the World Trade Center‘s [South] Tower. From that moment and throughout the day, frightened staff gathered around TVs witnessing this horrific event with silent prayers, fears, and tears. Parents rushed back to school to retrieve their child or didn’t come at all; the phone was a chaotic ringing noise all day long.

After work, a few faithful and dedicated members of our congregation gathered at our church for what was normally our regular Prayer Meeting and Sunday School Teachers’ Meeting night. However, this night our hearts were heavy, and our eyes were cast down in fear, pain, trembling and uncertainty. Instead of carrying on our regular services, we gathered in the center of the Sanctuary, held hands, and fervently prayed for the families of the lost, wounded and hurting; for Firefighters, First Responders, Policeman, and all who were impacted by the senseless terrorism; for those we knew, and for those we didn’t know. Yes, we even prayed and cried for the ones who committed this horrible act of terrorism…for them and their families. But most of all we prayed for our Nation to heal, survive, and continue to thrive.

Ever since Tuesday, September 11, 2001, our congregation has continued to honor the month of September with dedicated and fervent prayers. We have gone from one night, to one week out of the month, to now the entire month of September in special prayers for all who stand in need, but especially for our Nation and National Leaders. During this time of dedicated and consecrated prayers, each year we have witnessed many miracles and wonders. 

As I look back on Tuesday, September 11, 2001…I remember to never forget how far God has brought us, and yet continuing to pray for peace, healing, and closure for so many who were more personally impacted by that day. I also remember to never forget, that America showed her true colors during that time…she was so much kinder and compassionate toward her fellow Americans; but how soon some of us forget.

Ken Fieth, Metro Archivist

I was working with a Sheriff’s Crew at the Elm Hill Pike building. Walked out to my car with a load of books. I was walking back when a Sheriff’s Deputy came running up to me with his law enforcement radio in hand and said, “A plane has just hit the World Trade Center.” Okay, I thought. Some pilot made a fatal mistake, just like the Empire State Building in 1945. Things happen. I was thinking about the similarities and suddenly his radio crackled again with the news that a plane had hit the second tower. About that time, my wife called to tell me a plane had hit the Pentagon. Distinctly I remember telling her, “we’re under attack." Then my cell phone quit working. Went back to our Green Hills building to check on staff there. 

I rigged up the old television, too beat up to sell, that someone donated to Archives. Watched with the other two staff members.  My wife picked up our daughter at school and went home. After work, I went out to Houston Barracks to check on friends in the Tennessee National Guard. The gate guards knew me so I figured I could go right in - wasn’t happening. The Armory was not allowing any visitors. I wasn’t getting in. I went home to be with family and watched as the whole drama played out on television. One of the most moving images for me was the Congress assembled on the steps of the Capitol, Speaker Daschle stating that “WE stand behind our President” and then sang God Bless America.

Quite a day to take in for sure. 

Natalie Flammia, Bringing Books to Life

I was a 9-year-old kid in school on Long Island, NY, the morning of 9/11. It lives in my memories in snippets: A friend’s mom showing up in tears to pull him from class before we knew what had happened. My mom passing an extra rosary to another mother in the pickup line. A neighboring kid on my block telling me we were at war. The image of an ash and blood covered woman on the front page of a newspaper at a friend’s house. My mother on the phone with family who couldn’t reach loved ones in the city. Smoke over the water. 

Dr. Raymond Kinzounza, Pruitt Branch Manager

On 9/11/2001, I was at work at Looby library. I came to the U.S. after surviving five civil wars in the Republic of Congo. I spent one year in Kpomassè Refugee Camp, in Benin. When we got in the U.S. in September 2000 as refugees, my wife and I felt safer. We felt unsafe on the refugee camp.

During the 4th of July 2001, our first celebration of American independence, the fireworks reminded us of the last war we escaped. Our daughter who was 3 years old, asked me: “Dad, are we going to flee again?” My answer was: “Not at all. We are safe here. We won’t have to flee again!” I remember having written a note saying, “no more Kalashnikovs, no more Stalin’s organs sound, no more Sukhoi Su-24’s insane tricky music, no more war music!” I was in the U.S. and away from such moral torture! 

Here I was, watching the twin towers collapse, live, with many people dying! It was apocalyptic! Was this true? My wife did not believe her eyes! She thought America was a paradise! She got out of that thinking and realized we were just pilgrims!

Looking back on it, I wonder what my daughter thought about me. We’ve never talked about it. I hope she blindly believed me and knew we did not have to flee again. We did not flee! My final thought was, “I am human and nothing human is alien to me."

Debbie May, Special Collections

I didn’t hear about the 9/11 attacks until I got to work. The elevator was full of people and I greeted them with a cheerful good morning. They looked at me like I had lost my mind and said don’t you know what happened? Then they told me. What had been a beautiful September morning suddenly turned gloomy and dark. 

John McFarland, Donelson Branch

I was in the 5th grade in Karns Middle School, outside of Knoxville. We were the only class who watched it happen in our entire school. Our teacher said, "If this is what I think it is, you need to see it." We watched from before the 2nd Plane, to after the 1st Tower fell. My desk mate was from New York and had an Uncle in the South Tower. We didn't see her for two weeks after that day. We found out later he was running late and missed everything by chance.

Our class was locked down from the rest of the school, and the entire school was locked down because we were near Oak Ridge Laboratory. We were sworn with silence to not say anything getting on the bus home only for the bus driver to spill out everything, thinking we knew. Every parent on our block was waiting for us to get home to talk about it. My neighbors were a military family, so I was with them that night as we watched President Bush's speech.

We ended up having long conversations at home and at school about mortality, terrorism, and learning of why things happened the way they did. My memories now have a clear line of separation from that point. Before will always look completely different from the after. After that point, I became a voracious consumer of anything news related, so it became my jump start into awareness of world events. It guided me to learn and study history and information gathering, foretelling becoming a Librarian later with the desire to know and understand.

Aja Nunn, Pruitt Branch

It was my first day working as a page at Main! I was driving to the library when the first plane hit. My new boss was giving me a tour of the building when the second plane hit.

Lindsey Patrick-Wright, Southeast Branch Manager

I was a brand new children’s librarian in North St. Louis and was visiting a school to read to a Kindergarten class (oddly, the same thing the President was doing at the time it happened). While I was in the office waiting to be told where to meet the class, multiple parents came in, emotional, asking to withdraw their children from school and told the staff working in the office to turn on the news. A television on one of those tall carts was wheeled into the office and we saw the news coverage unfold. My mom was a flight attendant in NYC at the time, so I quickly called her to confirm she was on the ground and safe. Then, I offered to read to as many kids as could fit into the cafeteria at one time so the teachers and administrators could call loved ones and figure out how to approach the rest of the day. As I read my books and stalled by telling as many stories as I had in my bag of tricks, I remember thinking that I would never forget that moment. 

Mary Rose Pardales, System-Wide Programming Coordinator 

My family was living in Hawaii at the time. It was still early in the day. I was sitting in my sixth-grade social studies class, and we had already started the lesson when our teacher Mr. Masuda was interrupted by another teacher. There was confusion for a little while because we didn’t know what was going on. The teachers looked so serious.

Shortly afterwards, a teacher rolled in one of those TV’s on a tall rolling cart, plugged it in and turned it onto the news. The screen immediately lit up with explosions. People running. Fire and smoke. The reporters were speaking in barely concealed panic. Our class was quiet as we watched. 

I remember Mr. Masuda explaining what was going on, but I have no clue what he said. I had a hard time processing. I couldn’t make my brain connect what I saw onscreen with something that was happening in America. Then one of my classmates, a girl named Stormy, started yelling hysterically. She said her uncle was flying to New York that morning. 

I don’t know what happened the rest of that day. All I remember was this numb, grim feeling. My dad had already planned to leave the Army, but he wasn’t out yet. This felt like it would hurt us, even all the way out here on the island. I had no idea exactly how right I would be.

Part II continues with more staff memories...

9/11 Memorial in NYC lit up for the Anniversary.
lucille ball


Sarah is a Program Coordinator with Metro Archives. Her interests and areas of expertise are history, reading books (of any kind), music, travel, Harry Potter, and bingeing a good comedy series. When not in Archives, she is either nose-deep in a book or planning her next trip. Learn more about the fascinating materials found at Metro Archives through their website.