So often on the morning of 9/11, I I find myself thinking about the first 17 minutes. More than the horror and the fear and the utter helplessness and hopelessness of the day as a whole, those first 17 minutes are jumping out at me and reminding me what life used to be like.
At the time, we didn’t know they were the first 17 minutes. At the time, they were just minutes after something surprising had happened; something we all learned quickly we didn’t really understand. At the time, there was confusion, a sadness and even a little humor. Toward the end, the humor was fading and something darker was taking its place, and those 17 minutes marked the last of a particular kind of innocence.
I remember my first reaction to the plane hitting Tower 1. I stood up to talk to one of my cubicle neighbors who was a private pilot. Stagg had just gotten his own private pilot’s license, so we had talked about flying and planes quite a bit. We looked at each other, horrified for a moment, the shook our heads and laughed a little. “Silly private pilots, gotta keep your eyes on the horizon.” It took a moment to consider that someone, anyone, could have been hurt with a small plane hitting a big building.
It took long enough to figure out this wasn’t a small plane that by the time we knew, it was hard to get more information from the internet. And as we learned this was not a little 2 or 4 seater, but a full-sized commercial jet, it stopped being funny and started being horrible. Still, those minutes were more confusing than anything else. Was the pilot drunk? Did he (or she) have a heart attack and the co-pilot didn’t notice? Did the auto-pilot fail? How could this possibly happen?
I remember being sad, and confused and horrified that something so unthinkable could have happened. It was flabbergasting to consider that an actual plane could have somehow hit such a giant landmark. How could anyone not see the Twin Towers? While I know the thought that it could have been intentional crossed my mind, it was quickly dismissed. Things like that simply did not happen in real life– only in far-fetched movie plots.
I have noticed, during the replays of news broadcasts from that morning, that I was not alone in my assumption of innocence. In those first minutes, broadcasters sound like they did not truly consider that this could have been intentional. The idea was put forth, but sounded like some bizarre conspiracy theory, out of sync with what we all knew to be true and right. Surely, there was an explanation that would make sense.
In those first 17 minutes, it was almost entirely unthinkable that the horrible accident of a plane hitting the Twin Towers was anything other than an accident. That it was anything other than a simple tragedy that would eventually become a footnote in the history of New York, like the Hindenburg or the Coconut Grove fire. Horrible, yes. Devastating, certainly. But isolated. Something that would become an anecdote over cocktails for a certain group of New Yorkers, “hey, you remember that plane that his the towers? Yeah, my new office is on that floor!”
During those 17 minutes, it all seemed fixable. The tower was strong, and would recover. The people inside would get out and find new office space. The sun would continue to shine and all would be well once again.
And then, the 17 minutes were up.