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Where were you 20 years ago?

Today is a solemn day in our nation’s history. For it was on this date 20 years ago terrorists attacked the United States using four hijacked airplanes.

Of course, we all know what happened to them.

Two of the planes — American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 — were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, eventually causing the iconic buildings to collapse.

A third plane — American Airlines Flight 77 — crashed into the side of the Pentagon just across the Potomac River from Washington D.C.

But the people on the fourth plane — United Airlines Flight 93 — showed what Americans are made of.

The terrorists aboard that flight intended to fly that aircraft into the U.S. Capitol or the White House, but the passengers and crew revolted and prevented the hijackers from reaching Washington. Instead, the plane crashed in a rural part of Somerset County near Shanksville. Everyone aboard that flight perished, but the heroism of the passengers and crew prevented even more innocent people from losing their lives.

In fact, no one aboard any of the four hijacked flights survived. In New York, 2,606 people died from the crash and the resulting collapse of buildings. At the Pentagon, 125 people were killed. In total, 2,977 innocent Americans lost their lives due to the events of that day.

Now, moving memorials exist at all three locations, dedicated to the memory of those lost.

It is one of the most harrowing days in American history and anyone old enough to know what was happening remembers exactly what they were doing and where they were when they first received word of the attack.

I was a junior at Mount Union Area High School at the time and was probably among the last people at my school to learn of what had happened.

Our first-period phys. ed. class was outside playing flag football on what was an absolutely stunning day weather-wise. While all my classmates were inside the building in classrooms watching TV news coverage unfolding, the 20 or so of us young men who were in that gym class were blissfully unaware that America had been forever changed.

It wasn’t until the class change from first to second periods that I realized something was different. People were somber and subdued and as I walked down the hallway, I noticed every room had its TV on — something I could never remember happening before.

As I arrived in my second-period English class, I naively asked what was going on. My classmates and teacher seemed dumbfounded that I was unaware of the attack and quickly explained what had transpired. The period wouldn’t be over before we’d watch the South tower crumble on live television. Less than a half-hour later, this time in a different classroom, my classmates and I looked on in horror as the North tower also fell.

The rest of the day felt surreal. Teachers didn’t teach any of the previously-planned lessons that day. Instead, we discussed what had happened.

Presciently, the prior year, a history teacher — a man named Mark Sieber, who was one of my favorites — had said to our class that while his generation had the JFK assassination and his father’s generation had the attack at Pearl Harbor, our generation had not yet had that “where were you when?” moment.

Sept. 11, 2001 became that moment for us.

So, as we reflect on what happened on that day two decades ago, we’re sure just about everyone who was around then can remember exactly what they were doing when they first learned of what was happening.

Remember how you felt in the moment. Remember the overwhelming patriotism that you felt in the days, weeks and months to follow. Remember that spirit of Americans giving blood, donating supplies and money and doing whatever else was needed to help complete strangers in their time of need.

To those who lost someone they cared about that horrible day, my sincerest condolences to you. Observing an anniversary such as this cannot be easy or enjoyable.

But if our nation is to learn anything from 9/11, let it be that it shouldn’t take a generational disaster for us all to be kind to one another, generous when we can and grateful we live in a country that allows us to do those things freely.

Perhaps that message is needed now more than it has been at any point in the past 20 years.

¯¯¯

Managing editor Brian Cox can be reached at bcox@lewistownsentinel.com.

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