Updated: Sep 11, 2019
My wife woke me up at around 6 am. She was already up feeding our not yet 3 month old baby girl. She walked in the bedroom and said "someone just flew a plane into the "World Trade Center." I said, "What, like a Cesna?" "No," she replied "like a 747". Thinking there was NO WAY she was right I got up to see the TV broadcast and to say "See? You heard them wrong. That's not what happened."
I walked into the living room to live footage of a smoking WTC North Tower and talking heads off camera speaking of a passenger jet hitting the building. My father had worked for LAPD for 25 years spending the last decade or so in Emergency Management and Terrorism Preparedness and now worked for the State of California as an instructor in that field. I was not uninformed or naive. I knew this was deliberate.
I called my father and woke him up to tell him what had happened. Whether he remembers this or not I do not know but I will never forget the first words from his groggy and hoarse throat at that early hour: "They finally did it." You see, in anti-terrorism circles this wasn't news. They viewed it not as a question of if but when. In 1994, Tom Clancy published Debt of Honor and (spoiler alert) had one of the characters fly a fully fueled jet airliner into a government building. This was not a new concept.
We spoke for a few minutes and hung up both knowing the United States and the rest of the world had just received a huge wake up call... and Law Enforcement had known it would happen. I was in my early 20's working in TV and Film building sets and playing guitar in nightclubs around L.A. trying to start a family and soon after that, the entertainment industry came to a slow crawl forcing me to reevaluate how to provide for this new family I had. After many conversations with my father and my wife and some soul searching about leaving behind my dreams of a career in music I was in the police academy in less than one year.
Everyone old enough to remember 9/11 has a story like that but even those who don't remember 9/11, like my baby girl, had their paths permanently altered by that day. If I don't leave the music business maybe I make it and end up divorced raising my kids as a Disneyland Dad. If I don't become a police officer maybe this podcast doesn't exist. If I don't give up on showbiz maybe Derek Green would have escaped the DUI crash he was driving in where he disfigured his 19 year old passenger permanently. If 9/11 doesn't happen maybe Jon doesn't sign up to go to combat in Afghanistan and become the police officer he is. Maybe people in that McDonald's parking lot at 2 am are murdered by a maniac with a knife because Jon wasn't there.
At the risk of getting all "Harry Bailey" here, these are real sliding doors moments. Moments that alter the course of not just your life but the lives of everyone around you. But these moments don't always happen with 2 planes flying into a building. Sometimes they happen subtly because you walk back in to your house and grab something you forgot thus delaying you just long enough to miss being struck by an out of control semi-truck that caught fire carrying rubber chickens to the joke store and becoming a horribly comical headline of click-bait on the internet like "Rubber Chickens Fry Man!"
As a first responder we see horrific little things everyday. We have a one person atrocity happen during a shift and chalk it up to getting screwed by the jinx with all the weird calls. One thing to remember is that those moments you call "Wednesday" are sliding doors moments for the people you help. You alter the course of their lives permanently. Life taught me that lesson in it's own enigmatic way it has of sneaking up on you and lovingly tapping you on the back of the head at full speed with a two-by-four the night I pulled over a young woman driving in a bad part of town late at night.
There was a brief moment when I was looking at her hands and body language for threats before I looked at her face. Then I saw the scars. The lightning bolts emanating from lips that had been previously shredded and the semicircle scar where a hole the size of a quarter had been punched in her face. I looked at the name on her license and knew this was the young woman I had assured would be OK while holding a towel to her mangled face as I swore I would catch the bastard that had been driving this once beautiful young girl around and driven her through a wrought iron fence into a tree 11 feet above the ground. Here she was, albeit scarred, a beautiful young lady again.
I asked her if she remembered me. A puzzled look flashed across her face until she looked at my name-tag. A wave of recognition followed immediately by wide-eyed surprise and followed but a thin shrink wrap of tears on her eyes before the wrapping became too heavy and formed an actual tear. She asked if I was the officer who had saved her that night. Aside from the savior part, I said I was and she asked if she could exit the car and hug me. This was, under normal circumstances, out of the question but I made an exception.
She told me she never got the chance to say thank you (Derek had plead out to avoid a LONG prison sentence) and so we had been spared seeing the inside of a courtroom and a reunion at trial. I had known she survived but had not seen her to know if she had thrived after. The traffic stop lasted 5 minutes. She didn't get a ticket, just a warning about being in a bad neighborhood late at night. While she got a warning I got something that would carry me through a few more vile, horrific calls. I received a boost to my spirit that reminded me that what I did mattered and while that may seem trivial to some, it is one of th hardest things to do when you see human beings on what is often times their worst day of their lives.
That is my 9/11 story. Everyone was impacted. If you work in public safety, remember that you are there at someone's personal 9/11 moment everyday. You make a difference. Admin be damned, news media be damned and that inner voice that tells you that you might as well be bailing out the Titanic with a Dixie Cup be damned. If you don't find ways to realize you made a difference in someone's own personal 9/11... you'll never survive the job.