I remember waiting for the bus to go to work that morning. It was warm, muggy but otherwise agreeable weather that is typical for a September day in Houston. I lived close to downtown so the bus trip was fairly quick, and buses rolled through every ten minutes or so to transport the hordes who preferred not to drive cars to work. This morning, however, more than 30 minutes passed without a sign of a single bus. Quite odd, but I didn’t really worry. I just read my book and waited while several others pondered among themselves as to why the buses may be late.

Finally, I heard the distant rumble of a diesel engine and the hiss of air brakes. Several buses arrived in quick succession and lined up at the stop, making it easy for the large crowd that had gathered to board and be conveyed to downtown. The bus driver said they were altering the routes that morning, so my stop wound up being a few blocks further than usual. As I walked to Enron, I realized there was little to no traffic in the city streets, which was unusual for Houston, especially at the start of a work day. Even more odd, however, were the large groups of people gathered in the courtyards of downtown office buildings. They were just standing, talking.

I found the same situation at Enron, one of the taller and more distinctive skyscrapers in Houston. Employees were standing outside the building, milling around and waiting, but waiting for what? A few people had no answers as to what was happening, including most of my co-workers when I eventually located them. People with radios started passing along what they’d heard on the news. Whispers and gasps rippled across the crowd about a passenger jet that had flown into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City. At first the reporters had suspected it was a bizarre accident, but then a second plane had hit the other tower, and a third plane had hit the Pentagon. The cloud of confusion before us had suddenly cleared to reveal malevolent designs… dark minds had perverted planes filled with innocent people into fiery bombs aimed at prominent buildings bearing symbolic importance to the United States. Our nation was being attacked.

We were told to go home.

On the bus ride back home, I tried calling my parents, but my cell phone consistently buzzed back a busy signal. Phone lines were flooded across the nation. Eventually I got a hold of my family and confirmed they were okay, but that gave little comfort in light of what was happening across the nation. Though the morning had already shed horrific news, I was not prepared for what I saw as I turned on the television. One of the World Trade Center buildings had just collapsed. The reporters mentioned people jumping out of high windows because they couldn’t escape through the stairs engulfed in an inferno below them. Then, before my eyes on the news, the second tower collapsed. Shock. Silence. Tears. Rage. Sorrow. Too many states of being to recognize. The world spun about me beneath the weight of what I still have trouble comprehending. It seemed like the second-hand rotating on my watch had loudly clicked to a halt. Even now, I can’t take a full breath when I think about how I felt staring in disbelief at the television, and I grieve to this day for people I’ve never met.

As time slowly began to move forward again, something beautiful had started to rise from the horrible tragedy. As a nation, we mourned for the victims of the September 11 attacks. THe TV, the radio, going out into public, I witnessed people commiserating with one another, unified by a renewed sense of patriotism and love for our country. It didn’t matter what walk of life we were from, what economic status anyone held, what music people preferred, or if people were friends with one another or complete strangers, we were all brothers and sisters uniting under the banner of our nation. People traveled across the country to help sift through the rubble of ground zero in New York City. Rescue workers toiled alongside fast food employees, CEOs, bakers, Hollywood celebrities and so on, all working together to help in any way they could. It was a time when the United States truly felt united, something I’d never really felt before the shockwaves of September 11, 2001 had spread across the world.

Two decades later, a memorial stands at the site of the World Trade Center, serving as a reminder for those we lost that day, for the bravery of unsung heroes who banded together, but most importantly, it was a time when our nation set aside differences and found accord.

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Stephen Dornbos

50th Public Affairs Detachment, 3rd Infantry Division

Fort Stewart, Georgia