Without Television, 9/11 Was Not The Same

I have often felt like my experience on September 11, 2011 and the subsequent days were different than others. I still called friends in New York to be sure they were okay. I still was saddened and confused and eventually, strengthened in my resolve to believe in the ideals of the United States of America.

But when the attacks came the morning of 9/11, I was sleeping in my new apartment in St. Louis, Missouri. I had only moved there a week ago, and I didn’t have television. No cable. No antenna. My TV was only good for it’s ability to play VHS.

This small fact, not having television, changed everything around 9/11. I wouldn’t have known it even happened had I not received a phone call making sure that I was okay. I had September plans to be in Boston and one of the planes had departed from Boston. But I was not scheduled to travel until the end of the month and ended up flying in the space between the lifting of the air restriction and the strictest airline security. When only ten of us dared to fly and airports were quiet tombs at every hour. But I wasn’t afraid to fly. Because I had seen only the briefest of photos, and I had never seen the footage of the planes crashing in the towers.

Most September 11 stories, unless the writer was at the Pentagon or near the Twin Towers, include: “I immediately turned on CNN.” “I was glued to the television for days.” “I watched the towers fall.” “I wanted them to stop playing the footage of the World Trade Center because I couldn’t watch it one more time.” Television linked all Americans to the experience of 9/11. We watched the towers fall over and over and over again. We were all New Yorkers. Except me. I knew the tragedy, but I didn’t witness it. It was terrible but accidentally removed.

I was 23-years-old and without a television or sense of community in my new city. On September 11, 2001, I was just happy to arrive at work on time.  And when I left work at 11 p.m., our boss gave each of us a thank you note for showing up on such a difficult day. For being there for these children in the group home when so many were afraid to go anywhere.

But I would have never thought to stay home. Not because I was strong or loyal. I was not the best employee. I just wasn’t able to share the fear that gripped our nation. I had no friends in St. Louis to sit next to and grieve with in front of CNN. Once my few phone calls of reassurance were made, I went back to my tiny life only taking in bits and pieces of 9/11 on my dial-up modem and the occasional newspaper. I didn’t understand at the time that I should be more engrossed. I didn’t understand how easily television does that for Americans.

I finally sought out the footage the following year. To try and make up for this lack. To be a part of this country. But I can never watch it in the same way as everyone else did the first days and weeks. I know too much of the aftermath. The wars and lies, confusion and bravery, loss and faith.

Not to say that I have not felt the inherent tragedy. I cried for the firefighters and rescue workers who lost their lives. I cried for the victims in the planes and the towers and the Pentagon. But I was not apart of the collective experience. I have grieved in bits and pieces. As I read the yearly stories. As I watched the annual 9/11 TV specials. As I visited Ground Zero. Perhaps, I have almost caught up to those who were able to tune in for first hours and days of coverage in 2001. Perhaps, I never will.

Where were you on 9/11? What did you think when you saw the towers fall?

I was sleeping. I didn’t see the towers fall for a year.  I’m sorry.  I didn’t know how television changed things.  I didn’t know how far away from America I had been.

My heart and prayers go out to all those affected by 9/11. As our country continues to find its bearings, I invite you (again) to read an amazing piece from 2007 by David Foster Wallace, Just Asking.

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Alex Iwashyna

Alex Iwashyna went from a B.A. in philosophy to an M.D. to a SAHM, poet and writer by 30. She spends most of her writing time on LateEnough.com, a humor blog (except when it's serious) about her husband fighting zombies, awkward attempts at friendship, and dancing like everyone is watching. She also has a soft spot for culture, politics, and rude Southern people who offend her Yankee sensibilities. She parents 2 elementary-aged children, 1 foster baby, 3 cats, and 1 puppy, who are all Southern but not rude. Yet.

17 thoughts to “Without Television, 9/11 Was Not The Same”

  1. Your experience sounds strangely isolating. I was living near Washington at the time & worked in DC, so I was driving into the city when the first plane hit to the Towers. I distinctly remember thinking that driving into DC didn’t seem like a good idea, but I did it anyway. You could feel the traffic perceptibly slow on the beltway. By the time I arrived at work, it was clear that we were in the midst of a terrorist attack. Panicked co-workers & students & faculty were on multiple phones trying to get a call out & the only thing that worked was email. My husband worked at Dulles & I couldn’t reach him at all for hours. I remember driving home that day & there were no other cars on the beltway which is a nearly impossible sight. I couldn’t watch TV & don’t think I watched very much news coverage at all. It was too much. I could barely read the Washington Post without sobbing as I read profile after profile, or talked to the students at the school where I worked who had lost friends or family & drove to work in hours & hours of traffic with tanks on the streets & helicopters constantly circling. TV was too much for me. Real life was enough. Admittedly, there was something comforting and connected wherever you went for that first month because everyone in that area felt so raw. It was a very bizarre time & experience, but a lot less isolating than what you described. I would have let you borrow my TV. I wasn’t using it.

    1. I think you explained my feelings in one word. I was isolated at a time when every Anerican drew together.
      You, my friend, were living the TV coverage. Thank you so much for sharing your story. The beltway with no cars. The helicopters. The loss. {hugs}

  2. I was at work on the telephone. The person I was talking to told me about the first plane. I turned and told my supervisor who was also on the phone. In those first minutes, I assumed it was an accident. Then my supervisor turned to me and delivered the news of the second plane. We both immediately hung up and did our best to get on the internet. We were fortunate to have had high speed internet back when it was a brand new option. Even still, the internet was completely clogged up. We sat in a car and listened to the news of next two planes on the radio. I assumed we were at war of some kind. It was paralyzing. The radio reminded us that President Bush was in Sarasota, FL, just a quick drive from where were. What did the Presidents location mean, if anything, if we were at war and under attack? My mind raced as to how to get to my children who were in elementary school. We sat in the car and waited to hear news of another attack. By the time we were back in our office, a television had been accessed and turned on. I was glued to a TV for at least week. I watched the smoke billow, the people jump from the buildings, the towers fall and the rescuers dig through the rubble in search of survivors. I listened to the 911 recordings from the passengers on the planes, watched the families and friends of victims posting pictures of their loved ones all over the city, and interview after interview of survivors, victims’ families, rescue workers. I felt both very fortunate but also somehow guilty not to have personally known anyone who was in direct danger during the attacks. I could not bring myself to turn off the television. It was horrific and draining, but it seemed like my duty. It brought me a sense of connection to those who had been touched so directly. I cannot imagine going through the experience without that connection. I’d never thought about nor have I ever met an American who wasn’t able to see it all unfold on television. In a way, I envy that you got to ease into the horror of it all, but I can certainly see how that could be very isolating. Thanks for sharing your story. It provided an interesting perspective that I had never considered.

  3. So, in hindsight, are you glad to have been isolated from all the coverage, or do you regret it? I ask because I was one who wrote about remaining glued to the television in the days following 9/11… and the emotional effects it ultimately had on me, and still has today. My entire piece centers around the media’s graphic and unrelenting coverage of the event and whether it was (and still is on this 10th anniversary) truly necessary. In hindsight, I think maybe I would have been glad to have been so far removed from it like you were. But then again, it’s ingrained in our society now – one of the few things that truly binds us as Americans. So maybe not.

    1. While writing this, I felt very uncomfortable admitting that I never saw the footage that first year. Like I had done something wrong — something unAmerican. But I do think the space means that I have never grown tired or overwhelmed by the coverage, nor do I feel a need to reexperience it (which I think moments of intensity sometimes demand of us).
      I have at times regretted it and at times been self-righteous about it, but after writing this piece and understand the “why” of my removal better, I am okay with it.

  4. All perspective … but you grieve and mourn the loss none the less. 9/11 consumed us, because it was everywhere. My husband is in the airline business, it was unavoidable. But the country mourned together and continue to do so, hopefully only in sadness and not in hatred
    But today, tv magnifies everything and I think I would enjoy some isolation. The thought of the next election … makes me want to hide …

    Thanks for reading my 9/11 post, trying to explain it to my girls, one of whom wasn’t born … ack, shouldn’t have to be.
    Have a wonderful Sunday – always enjoy my visits here …

  5. For me, 9/11 was particularly hard because I was a journalist in a small town in Colombia. I was the only one crying and nobody understood why. To them it was just news. I was the “go to” girl for all things US (having grown up there) but nobody thought it would AFFECT ME. I am ashamed to say some of the other reporters laughed at some of the footage and thought it was a joke or a movie trailer. They said “wow, that looks like a good action flick”. And I just sobbed at my desk, helpless and lonely and feeling like my heart was torn between my now and my past. CNN was explicit but trust me, the raw footage sent through news wires was way, way worse.

  6. I wonder how my own experience would have changed if I hadn’t had TV to turn to for every detail. I did have to stop watching so I could come out of the deep sadness I was feeling because I needed to move on from the tragedy of 9/11.

    But even through the sadness and the failings of the government, I was heartened to see how Americans joined together, unified by an unspeakable tragedy, helping each other without conditions.

    I wish it hadn’t taken something like this for it to happen on such a large scale.

  7. my nextdoor neighbors didn’t have TV either, and that’s how i finally met them: when one of them showed up on my porch to ask if he could come in and watch mine on the morning of september 11. we introduced ourselves and sat on my sun porch, looking at my little beat-up set, trying to wrap our brains around what was happening. i was watching ABC, and i remember hearing peter jennings choke up as he speculated on how many people were still in the 2nd tower when it went down. that freaked me out. matt came home early, and we went for a walk on the downtown mall, and half the stores were closed with signs on the doors saying they went home. that night i drove over the mountain and went to an AA meeting in raphine, a tiny little village in the valley where a lot of my old friends from lexington went. i remember seeing one airplane up in the sky on the way, and the chill it sent through me; don’t know if it was a fighter jet or what, since nothing was supposed to be up there. i was never so glad to be at an AA meeting. everyone there was thinking about the same thing, and there were a lot of different political perspectives in that room, but nobody talked about it. they talked about love, service, and the 12 steps. that’s what i needed, after a day of tv.

  8. I can understand how you felt not seeing the news unfold. That happened to me when the shuttle exploded over North Texas. I was asleep and had no idea. I didn’t watch the news and it was hard to comprehend. It really is amazing how much affect the news media has on us. I’m sure the sight of it a year later was just as devastating.

  9. I was teaching middle school and we weren’t allowed to turn our TVs on and show those kids. In the high school they did, but at our age level, they didn’t want us to.

    I didn’t watch much of anything until I got home. And even then I was rushed because we had my brother’s birthday.

    To be honest I was never sad that I wasn’t glued to the TV. Even now it’s too painful for me to watch. I put myself too much into it. So I think it’s better that I was a bit naive and ignorant about what was going on.

    And if we are admitting things, when the assistant principal came in and whispered what had happened? I didn’t really know what the twin towers were.

    I was also 23.

  10. What an interesting experience. I have to say I’m a little bit jealous, if that doesn’t sound too weird. I was also 23, teaching high school, and 7-months pregnant with my first child. I was in my weekly admin. meeting with the other special ed. teachers and one of the secretaries came in and told us a plane hit the towers. We all looked at each other, confused, and went into the social studies classroom next door. It was there that we sat with 25 high school sophomores and watched the second plane hit. I remember being stunned silent and finally excused myself and went back to my own classroom and cried. I cried for the thousands of lives I knew would end that day, I cried for the families that would fear the worst and likely have it come true, and I cried for my unborn daughter.

    I co-taught an English class right after that. The seniors were working on a project and we had the tv on in the background. All of a sudden I heard “oh my God” from one of the girls, snapped my head up, and saw the first tower fall. That’s when we really knew the tragedy of the situation. There was no shame in the classroom as the tears fell from the eyes of these young adults. No shame in the hugs and the hand holding that commenced. I have never seen such an outreach of love in students before.

    Four and half years later I visited NYC with my friend. We visited Ground Zero. It was almost surreal. The gaping holes where building once stood and the scaffolding everywhere made it look like it was just a construction site. The makeshift memorial changed that instantly and I said a silent prayer to whatever is out there, truly grateful for my own life.

    My daughter is now a couple months shy of 10-years-old. She’ll grow up in the world of “oh, you were born in 2001. That was quite a year.” She knows that bad things happened that day, but she’ll never fully understand the absolute terror I felt as I held her inside of me, praying I could just keep her safe forever, knowing that her time in there was short. I decided to be thankful that my child was born in that year. Thankful that a beautiful life entered the world that December. We needed more joy in the world and she certainly brought it with her.

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