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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Where Were You on 9/11?

Ten years ago this Sunday, Sept. 11, 2001, America was rocked by terrorist attacks in New York City, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.

9/11 is one of those days that will be forever etched in the minds of those who lived through it, much like the 1964 assassination or President John F. Kennedy for those old enough to remember.

I was driving to work at a joint NASA/military installation in the San Francisco Bay area on that beautiful autumn morning. Traffic was at a standstill as I got within a mile or so of the main gate, so I decided to enter by a second, smaller gate. To my surprise, the gate was closed. Then the awful news of the attacks on the World Trade Center came across the radio. That explained the traffic jam. As the deputy director of public affairs, I knew the media would be clamoring for 'reaction' from our NASA center's leadership, so I called my office to let people know I would be at work as quickly as I could get there.

Security was extremely tight. Every car was inspected inside and out before being allowed on site. Every badge was closely inspected, and every driver was questioned about where he/she was going. No one without a NASA 'hard' badge was allowed access.

Every television in our offices was on as we tried to keep up to date with breaking news, stay in frequent contact with NASA Headquarters, respond to news media calls for interviews and remain in touch with our senior management. We developed a statement for the news media and updated the center's Web site. Then word came down that all but essential personnel were to be sent home. So my supervisor and good friend David and I sent everybody home. We stayed at work.

For the next few days, we worked on a facility that was eerily deserted and quiet. Guards checked the names of incoming employees against a list of essential personnel. No one else was allowed through the gates. We were so busy there was no time to process what had happened, or to grieve the loss of so many innocent lives.

One day I decided to take a break and go for a walk. My route took me past the airfield used by NASA and military aircraft. All commercial flights had been grounded, and the usually busy skies near San Francisco International Airport were strangely quiet. I had heard during a meeting that a NASA plane was expected to land at our facility that day. But when I heard the aircraft approaching as I walked near the runway, my first reaction was panic. My heart was racing, even though I knew the plane was expected.

Finally, after several long and very stressful days, I got a day off work. As I watched the endless replays on television of the airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center and the buildings collapse, I broke down and cried for the first time since the attacks happened. I couldn't stop crying for a long time. I sat in my favorite chair and let the grief wash over me.

People across the country and around the world came together then. Canadians opened their homes and their hearts to passengers whose flights had been diverted to Canada, stranding them for several days. Citizens and leaders of countries with which America was often at odds set aside their differences, setting up impromptu memorials and signing books of condolence. Americans lined up to donate blood; they donated money in unprecedented amounts to help the victims and their families. The country came together. Partisan politics didn't exist. Patriotism swelled. American flags sold out in every store. American pride and determination were on display everywhere.

These cowardly attacks changed our country forever. Airline travel will never be the same. Two new wars have cost the lives of thousands of American military, and irreparably altered the lives of many others who survived, but now must face traumatic brain injuries, lost limbs and post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite the loss of several of terrorism's top leaders, those who would destroy us still present a threat to us and our way of life.

Our country is more divided than I can ever remember. Partisan politics are seriously impeding the ability of our elected officials to carry out the nation's business.There seems to be no middle ground, no willingness to compromise, no interest in doing what is best for the country. Focus is simply on getting reelected, slamming the other party, and serving those who donate the most money. We have a record deficit that our so-called leaders seem unwilling or unable to confront. Citizens are fed up with Congress, whose approval level is tied at an historic low of 13%.

I hope that as we solemnly mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11/01, we will use this as an opportunity to renew the focus on what we share in common rather than on what divides us. I hope we will be inspired to set aside partisan rancor and to work together to return our country to greatness. Those who died as a result of the attacks of 9/11 deserve no less.