Fifteen years ago, America stood still. Many of us recall the exacting seconds of watching the World Trade Center towers shatter under the impact of airline jets driven by suicide bombers. Those first two hours following brought the violence to catastrophic levels with the impending collapses of the stricken towers, as well as the immediate deaths of firefighters and other responders reacting to the first incident. That day could have easily felt like an eternity to any American, no matter where they stood in the midst of it.
Four attacks occurred that day. The victim count is in the thousands and includes citizens in the towers, firefighters, police officers, military personnel and those trapped on the hijacked planes. The count rises when including those who died after the initial attacks from injuries or disaster-related illness. The families of all victims will forever feel the loss of their loved ones. Countless more Americans will have a sore spot in their heart, knowing that such an awful concentration of violence struck their nation.
Beyond remembering the victims and their loved ones, we should also reflect on those who are now facing long-term physical and psychological effects. Respiratory symptoms are still an issue for first responders today, 15 years after contact. Exposure to dust, smoke and chemicals have caused chronic breathing problems, gastrointestinal upset and cancer. It is all too easy to focus on the single day of Sept. 11 and forget that workers continued to clear debris for months following. That prolonged interaction has severely damaged the bodies and minds of our emergency responders. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a reality for many who survived the attacks, whether they were directly involved or remotely affected by exposure to footage and survivor stories.
Incoming high school students nationwide this year were largely born after this tragedy struck our country. This generation has no memories of it as it happened. To so many of us, this is hardly history, but something that can feel like it happened just a few years ago. The trauma is so deep that time distorts and makes the wound seem much fresher than it really is. Many undergraduate students were alive then, but young — mostly 5 to 7 years old. We may remember getting out of school early and being confused or upset over the footage playing on the news channel.
We are old enough now to understand the significance of the events that occurred. We experience new tragedies at an alarming pace, from shootings to bombings all over the world. Though simply being older does not guarantee that we know how to react in the face of extreme violence, we are more autonomous than our kindergarten selves. We have more words and a finer emotional range to explain how these events impact us. We can remember the finer details and pass stories on to others. Violence is unavoidable in the world, but it is the duty of the nation to remember, rebuild and learn from disaster.