Editor’s Note: The essay below was written in 2001 and appears in the self-published book, Through Our Eyes: A Tapestry of Words and Images in Response to September 11. Printed and distributed in 2002, the book was the result of an independent, volunteer documentary project organized by a journalist and several friends. The author’s bio was written in 2002 and has not been updated.
When it comes to her work at The Herald Bulletin, nothing gets Amy Elizabeth Cahill more excited than breaking a hard news story. The 27-year-old journalist was born in the Detroit area and today lives in Lebanon, Indiana. She and her husband, Shawn, have one dog and two cats. Her interests include reading, gardening, hiking and exercising. Amy, a Lutheran, also volunteers to help lead her church’s youth group. She has traveled throughout the United States and studied in England for a semester. Amy and her husband were camping on Sept. 11. She submitted her essay Nov. 30.
The sound of airplanes taking off and landing one after another woke me about 9 a.m. September 11. My husband, Shawn, and I were camping at P.J. Hoffmaster State Park on the west coast of Michigan. Half-awake and unaware of the events taking place in New York and Washington, I thought, “That’s a lot of air traffic for an airport the size a city like Muskegon would have – how strange.” As I cuddled closer to Shawn and put off facing the chilly morning air, I concentrated instead on the sound of the waves breaking on the beach and eventually the sounds of aircraft stopped. Now, the sound of those airplanes haunts me. It had to have been either commercial airliners making emergency landings, or fighters taking off to protect American airspace. But, I wasn’t listening carefully enough to know which it was.
The first indication something was wrong came more than an hour later when Shawn was in the bathroom. A man with a ponytail asked him if he had heard the news. When Shawn said, “No,” the man replied, “Dude, terrorists dude. They flew an airplane into the World Trade Center and they collapsed, dude. And, they got the Pentagon too, man.” Shawn seriously thought he’d been smoking something funny and reading Tom Clancy in his tent. As we shared a shower, he told me about the weird guy he’d encountered in the bathroom. I remember him saying, “It doesn’t make any sense. It’s like he was talking about a Tom Clancy novel, but the facts are all messed up.”
As we were walking back to our campsite, an older gentleman – the type who hauls all the conveniences of home, including his pet cat, in a monster RV to get away from it all – asked if we’d heard the news. As he told us terrorists had hijacked airplanes and flown them into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, goose bumps rose on my arms and I started to shake. We didn’t say anything, we just stood there staring at him. Then he started to smile, that nervous smile people get when they are telling the truth, but know the person they are talking to thinks they’re lying. Shawn and I both broke into relieved grins thinking we’d nearly fallen for the campground joke. His next words wiped our relief away: “It’s not a joke, I saw it on television, both towers of the World Trade Center collapsed and the FAA has grounded all planes.”
Suddenly our planned trip to Meijer so Shawn could price air mattresses became an overwhelming mission. We had to get to a television to see it for ourselves. We rushed back to our campsite, grabbed toothbrushes and a hairdryer and raced back to the bathhouse. As I frantically tried to get ready to go, I was hampered by the nervous trembling I couldn’t control and the terror that wrapped itself around my heart. My family travels for work a lot and I was terrified somebody I loved could have been on one of those planes. A woman about my age came in as I was fumbling around trying to brush my teeth. I wondered if she had heard the news, but couldn’t bring myself to tell her, which is totally unlike me. As a journalist, I will frequently scoop my own stories telling friends and co-workers the details of a juicy trial, just so I can be the first to tell. But, that news was too terrible to share.
As we drove to Meijer, we listened to sketchy reports on National Public Radio about the attack. Normally unflappable reporters babbled almost incoherently as they described what it looked like as the towers collapsed. Already the speculation that Osama bin Laden was responsible for the attacks was out there. I remember turning to my husband and saying, “This is it, we just have to hunt him down and kill him. Because he won’t stop until he’s dead and next time it will be even worse.” But at the same time, I was terribly scared about the possibility of war and what effect it might have on my life. I prayed silently for the people of New York and that our leaders would make wise decisions. Ironically, we heard a live interview with Tom Clancy as we drove.
Once at Meijer, we looked at air mattresses before heading to the electronics department, giving ourselves just a few more minutes before the horror became our new reality. Surprisingly, most of the televisions were tuned to a Scooby Doo rerun, but it did not take long to find the television showing the attack – it was the one with all the people grouped around it. We stood there and watched the dizzying array of images as the plane flew into the second tower, one tower collapsed, then the other, and survivors ran from the wreckage of the Pentagon. We left when they began broadcasting the plane flying into the tower for the second time. Shawn did not want to see it again. I was mesmerized and would have stood there all day if he had let me.
As we listened to the conflicting stories on the radio on the way back to our campsite, some reports making it sound like five planes had crashed, I wanted to be at work. I knew in the newsroom I’d be surrounded by televisions and able to read the most up-to-date information as it was broadcast on the Associated Press wire. Mostly, I wanted to know what the worst-case scenario was, how many people worked at the World Trade Center. I feared it could be as many as a million people. I thought about calling the newsroom, but knew they’d be too busy to talk. I thought about breaking camp and driving straight to work, but knew I wouldn’t be able to get there until after 7 p.m. – too late to be of any help. Shawn works at a chemical weapons demilitarization facility so we were also worried about what was happening there and how the attack on the Pentagon might affect his job.
In the end, we decided to stay and enjoy our vacation. It was the most beautiful day. The skies were a brilliant blue and the 70-degree weather was perfect for hiking in the sand dunes. As we stood at the top of one of the dunes gazing in the direction of Chicago but seeing only where the water met the sky, it was hard to believe that in another part of the country people were enduring unspeakable horror. There were no exhaust trails from airplanes to mar our view.