On the morning of September 11, 2001, my phone just kept ringing. After working until 2 am the night before, I was exhausted and was trying to sleep just another hour or two. But the phone would not stop ringing.

Finally, I gave up. I got up, I wandered around my apartment for a bit, I made some breakfast. Finally, I turned to my answering machine and was surprised to see four blinking messages. Who was calling me now?

The first message was from my best friend Kellie. Her call was frantic. “Wen, it’s Kell. Something is going on in New York and I was making sure your father is ok. Give me a call when you get a chance.”

The second message was from my mother. “Hi, it’s me. Something is happening in New York. Call me.”

The third and fourth messages were Kellie again. Her calls were getting increasingly frantic. “Wen, I don’t know if you know what’s happening. New York is under attack! Is your dad ok? They’re letting us out of work early. Call me.”

Since moms beat best friends out, I called Mom first. She answered the phone right away. “Do you know what’s happening?”

“Uh, no, I just woke up. Kellie said something about New York being attacked?”

“Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center.”

It was then when I turned on the television and saw the smoke.  “Oh my God,” I whispered into the phone.

“Yeah. And you were asleep.”

“Dad?” was my next question. My father had worked on Fifth Avenue, right across the street from the New York Public Library Main Branch.

My mother assured me that my father was perfectly fine but since the cell towers were knocked out, it was nearly impossible to contact him. She was only able to speak to him once before the other plane hit the South Tower. Since then, the phones were out and she couldn’t reach him again.

I later learned that my father, whose building was uptown and nowhere near Ground Zero, had gone up to the roof of the office building in time to see the towers fall. Since he was a volunteer emergency medical technician, I had asked him if he had considered going down to help with the rescue efforts. He said it was utter chaos at the time and he was technically quarantined in the building until everything was sorted out. He was forced to stay in the city for three days before he was able to return home.

The rest of the day was a blur to me. The Pentagon goes up in smoke. A plane crashes into a field in Pennsylvania. The world is falling apart. Friends I haven’t spoken to in years calling me to make sure I was ok and to check on my father. I couldn’t get ahold of my father. My mother goes out and gets a tattoo.

(Yeah, that part is true. Her theory was that the world was falling apart, Dad wasn’t going to be home so might as well get a tattoo.)

And then I had to go to work.

Talk about chaos.

In 2001, I was a copy editor at a mid-sized newspaper in West Chester, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia. I was still a little green on the job and the biggest thing I dealt with up to that time was the mess that was the 2000 election. So this was an eye-opening experience for me.

I can’t remember everything that happened that night, only bits and pieces. However, there were lessons I learned on that day at work, the lessons that I kept with me 17 years later:

  • It was a day of unity and teamwork. The staff of the newspaper had banded together to make sure we put out the best product we could. This was the story of the decade, maybe of the century, and we had to get it right. The reporters, copy editors, designers, even the advertising department, were all on hand to lend a helping hand. The newsroom was still buzzing when I left that night at 3 am.
  • It was a great example of leadership. My bosses steered the ship smoothly, keeping level-headed and made sure everyone kept theirs. Thanks to their leadership, deadlines were met, everyone worked to the best of their ability, and it was reflected in that paper.
  • Emotions cannot play a part in your work. I had to push my own anxieties aside that day to do my job. You can’t be besieged by your emotions, you need to keep a calm and collected head. You can’t crumble when you’re needed; you have to be part of the team. This lesson I still have trouble with at times but I’m getting there.
  • In times of tragedy and chaos, get a tattoo.

September 11 is an important day that we should never forget. But let’s be honest. It will eventually fade into history like many important events. What I feel about this day is not the same as those a generation or three below me. My 9-year-old and 10-year-old nieces will never have the same feelings for this day that I do whenever this date rolls around. They won’t know of the chaos of that day, the fear we all felt as the world crashed around our heads, the sense of community and American spirit that erupted in the following days, and the knowledge that the terrorists took away our safety blankets. Just like I don’t understand the horrors that my grandparents’ generation must have felt during the bombing of Pearl Harbor, or the incredible sadness and anger my parents’ generation felt when President Kennedy was assassinated.

Maybe it’s easier to never forget the good that came out of that day rather than the bad: The bravery exhibited by the firefighters and police officers who went into those towers, knowing they may lose their lives to help others. The passengers on Flight 93 who stood up to the terrorists, knowing the consequences of their actions. The American people who gave blood, signed up for service, helped dig through the wreckage, came together in a time of tragedy to become one nation.

Never forget these lessons, America.