The events of Sept. 11, 2001, are what brought me to Oklahoma from New York City. On Oct. 23, 2001, I clutched the hands of my two small children as we landed at the Tulsa International Airport to begin our new lives. I'll never forget that flight or all that led up to it.
When we left New York City, I was running. There is not a nicer way to frame it. I believed in my heart of hearts that we were on the brink of world war. The loss and suffering at the center of my home city had also proved to be too much. I was a shell of my former self. We had to go. I needed to go. Sometimes I still feel guilty about that, but I also have no idea what I could have done if we had stayed.
Part of the shock of 9/11 was how it began as such an ordinary day. I went from shuttling my kids onto their school bus to watching people jump from the burning World Trade Center Towers within an hour. I wish I could say it was a surreal experience. It was not. It was all devastatingly clear.
My son and daughter had made it to school safely that morning, but once it had become clear that the planes were not an accident, the schools were put on lockdown. It was several gut-wrenching hours before many NYC children were released back to their parents.
I remember linking arms with neighbors as we waited at the district designated bus stop for our children to be returned. At that point, both towers had already collapsed. As we stood there, my mind struggled to grasp the loss of so many. When the buses finally arrived, most of the kids had no idea what had happened and ran happily into the arms of their caretakers blissful at the thought of a free day. I scooped my children into my arms and prayed silently over their heads, bargaining with the whole universe to please keep them safe. To keep all the children safe.
The apartment we lived in was on the 14th floor at the edge of the Bronx. From the large picture windows in our living room, I could see the remnant smoke curling up from the Manhattan skyline. I stood there watching but kept the television off once the kids were home safely. I still had no idea how I was going to explain what had happened and, worse, I still did not know who we might have lost.
I set the stand for our wireless phone on the coffee table and stood staring out the window while willing someone, anyone, to call me back. While cell phones were not entirely uncommon back then, many of the people I feared for were still using company issued pagers. My chest still tightens when I remember how I had dialed number after number in a panic, then realizing suddenly they might not call back. Some of them never did.
There was the first three days post 9/11 where I thought everything might be alright. Then I had to travel into the heart of Manhattan for work. As I exited the subway the first thing I saw was the dozens of homemade missing person posters pasted to every fence, bare wall, and light pole. People were still searching for their loved ones. We all knew their likely fate, but the posters still needed to be hung. The gravity of who and what we suffered hit me like a hammer. I had been trying to cope with what I knew was the likely loss of friends and colleagues, but those leaflets broke me. There was no denying how many of us had someone stolen in an attack motivated by a pointless and destructive ideology.
It was that day I made my mind up to leave. To take my children far away from the rat race and global target that was New York City before it was too late. It was also the day that I determined I would not and could not ever call myself an advocate of war. I was forced to realize that the faces lining the streets of my home were no different than the ones lining the alleyways, shops, and fences of war-torn nations all over the world. How could I pray for my children and ignore all others? I couldn't and I won't.
The fallout of 9/11 has touched my family in a myriad of ways. My oldest son Daniel has gone on to be a paramedic in New York City, while my oldest daughter Amber has opted to stay in Oklahoma, building her family in Jenks. Our middle son Vince is working his way through a pre-engineering program and welding training here in Ottawa County. My past work centered on research and journalism for the energy industry, so many of our talks center around using the skills he's earning to be part of finding better ways to utilize the resources that set nations to war. Our youngest Anja has just begun middle school, and for her 9/11 is intimate because of the pain that lingers in the memories I share. It is hard for her to imagine something so terrible happening here in the U.S. For her it is the beginning shapes of a moment in history. I almost hope it stays that way.
We must be mindful in our zealousness to protect that we do not set ourselves up to lose what is most precious in the process. There is no forgetting. There is also no greater path than to learn from the past and do better than those that have harmed us.
Dorothy Ballard is the managing news editor of the Miami News-Record. Contact her at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @dm_ballard.