As chaos reigned in New York on September 11, 2001, I was still asleep.
In Maui, Hawaii.
My best friend from high school and I were on vacation, escaping the stress of work and school. On September 10, we attended the Old Lahaina Luau, engaging in small talk with tablemates while chowing down on Kalua Pua’a, or roasted pork. A photo from that night shows my friend and I donning leis and clutching mai tais, while two grinning male employees flashing the “hang loose” sign flank us. Looking at that frozen moment in time, I see the innocence, the naivete, the ignorance of what would transpire in just a matter of hours.
When Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower at 8:46 AM, it was 2:46 AM in Maui. Thus my friend and I slept unaware until around eight in the morning, when I happened to awaken. Noticing a sheet of paper nestled under our hotel room door, I stumbled over, thinking it was our bill. But more questions arose as I read the letter, stating that the Hyatt had set up computers in the lobby for our convenience, that they had slashed prices 50% on any extra days we would need to stay over, and that their “thoughts are with everyone during this difficult time.” Was trouble brewing at the Maui airport? Since the note failed to mention precisely what had happened, I remained puzzled. Then my friend’s cell phone rang, startling her out of a deep slumber. Thinking there had been a death in the family or another emergency, she warily answered. “Turn on the TV right now,” her mom instructed. She flipped it on, and we quickly learned just what had transpired while we were sleeping.
Dumbfounded, we stared at the horrific images on the screen. Watching the planes spectacularly crash into the World Trade Center towers, eventually bringing down the vast structures, was simply surreal. It seemed like something out of the Die Hard films, but of course these scenes were sickeningly real. Fear crept through me as I realized that, unlike what I had been taught in countless history classes, America was hardly invincible. Teachers mentioned terrorism in my 1980s courses, but that was something that occurred in far-away countries. No one would dare attack us on our soil, they told us. Now these statements appeared naive at best, hopelessly uniformed at worst. Those days of innocence had ended on a single morning. I phoned my parents back in Chicago, and we commiserated over the tragic events. They assured me that my friend and I were quite safe in Maui, and to just remain calm until we found out the status of our flights.
When we finally generated the energy, we dressed and staggered to the elevator. A couple stood with us in the car; we just stared at each other and shook our heads. No words needed to be exchanged to express our disbelief. Finally the husband of the couple spoke: “They’re actually celebrating in other countries,” he stated quietly Sure enough, we would later see disturbing footage of people dancing in the streets, honking their car horns to commemorate the mass destruction. We ate breakfast, the restaurant eerily quiet as patrons stared at their plates, unsure of what to do. Here we all sat in paradise, where we would normally engage in pleasant, if inconsequential, chatter, indulge ourselves in pure relaxation, and simply absorb the sun, sand, and surf. All of these things had instantly become superfluous.
After phoning our travel agent—who stated she had no idea when we’d be able to fly home—we decided to make the best of the extraordinary circumstances. We halfheartedly donned our bathing suits and headed to the pool—ironically, the weather was pleasantly warm and sunny that day. But fellow vacationers hardly felt the warmth, instead finding some comfort in talking in small groups. Who is responsible for such a horrific act? Will we go to war immediately? Are more attacks in store? People stood in the pool, discussing these issues, desperately trying to hide their anxiety and fright by maintaining a certain cool air. At the nearby poolside cafe, others stared at the heartbreaking tableau playing on the bar’s television screens. Members of Congress stood upon the Capitol steps, singing an apparently spontaneous rendition of “God Bless America”; frantic New Yorkers stood near Ground Zero, clasping wrinkled photos of their missing loved ones, pleading for any information. Suddenly I heard a sob from a nearby table; glancing behind me, I espied a woman breaking down, her hands covering her face, while her companion patted her back. Seeing someone cry for total strangers—and for our country—made me think that perhaps something positive could come from the day’s tragic events. Despite our differences, we could unite over a shared sense of grief and pride for America.
That night, my friend and I dined at a restaurant in Lahaina, one of Maui’s major tourist destinations. The name of the place is lost in the fog of memory, but I will always remember one moment from that evening. After placing our dinner orders, our server again approached our table. She explained that the island had planned a silent vigil that night, in memory of all the lives lost that day. Everyone was to stand in a line outside, holding candles, for ten minutes of silence. As soon as she told us, we asked for our candles, and walked outside with the other employees and customers. As we stood there, facing the road, the ocean waves gently lapping against the shore in the distance, the sun gradually descended from the sky. Cars passed us, sounding their horns, sometimes shouting “USA” or flashing the peace sign. It may have seemed a small gesture, but strangers banding together for just a few minutes over a shared sense of grief represented something positive that came out of that otherwise horrific day: pure humanity.
Five days later, my friend and I finally returned home. The day before we left, the Maui airport was evacuated due to a bomb scare; when we landed at 2 AM in Dallas, we saw a long line of armed policemen watching us walk from one gate to another. Stopping for an early breakfast, we innocently asked for plastic knives for cutting our cinnamon buns. When the clerk behind the food counter looked at us curiously, we realized all knives had been removed from the airport. Ultimately landing at O’Hare Airport, we navigated through the eerily empty gates and luggage claim. Welcome to the new normal, I thought.
Over the years, when I’ve told my story, people have chuckled and said “oh, poor you, stuck in Maui!” But 9/11 was a day you wanted to be with your close family and friends, gathering strength from one another. Still, my friend and I, along with fellow tourists and restaurant employees, found comfort by standing together, refusing to be cowed by hatred.
September 11, 2001 will remain a dark day in our history, and many wounds have not healed. However, the humanity, the compassion, and the feeling of unity that surfaced that day helped us stay strong. In his book The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, President Barack Obama wrote “what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart.” Indeed, September 11 taught us that during crises, no matter what our differences, no matter where we live, we can hold each other up and heal together. As we mark the tenth anniversary of 9/11, let us remember that no matter what new challenges America may face, our humanity unites us.