by Martin Meeker
The radio alarm was set to KCBS news radio. I never really listened to the station itself but there was something mundane and even comforting about the even-keeled voices of newscasters summoning me from sleep. That morning was different, however. In the moments between the radio alarm sounding and my hitting of the snooze button, I heard a few voices in a more fevered tone than usual. I fell asleep again but I now recall dreams filled with anxiety and then awoke again before the 10-minute snooze reprieve.
I turned the radio back on because I sensed something was wrong. It took a few minutes to unravel the breaking story, but the newscaster was speaking with then-San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. The conversation was earnest and a bit frantic. The talk was of securing bridges, tunnels, public transit, and major public sites; offices were closing for the day and air traffic was grounded at the SFO airport. Here my memory gets a little foggy but I believe all four airplanes had already gone down along with one of the towers of the World Trade Center. I quickly roused myself from bed and turned on the television and tuned it to CNN (during one of the few times in my life I had cable TV). The images remain seared in my memory. I’m quite sure that I was watching as the second tower fell. I can still summon the emotions that I was feeling (although I typically prefer not to): fear, anger, horror, confusion, despair, helplessness, etcetera. The remainder of the day was a blur. I recall not wanting to commute from my apartment in Oakland to my work in San Francisco that day, so I stayed home and, like many, remained glued to the television.
The recollection above is what oral historians called a “flashbulb memory” — and this was my flashbulb memory of learning about the attacks of September 11, 2001. The American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology defines this concept as, “a vivid, enduring memory associated with a personally significant and emotional event, often including such details as where the individual was or what he or she was doing at the time of the event.” Other common examples of when a vast number of people recall a moment with specificity include the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, and the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986. In part because these events were so memorable — and often quite traumatic — they are said to define a generation or mark the transition to a new era. While studies have shown that the recalled memories tend to be vivid, they are not always as accurate as one might expect. Still, the memories when factually recalled (or creatively reimagined) can be revealing as they demonstrate the elements of an event that people find memorable — worth maintaining in one’s active memory and often sharing with others years after the event.
We at the Oral History Center do not make a regular practice of asking our interviewees to recount their own flashbulb memories, but sometimes the question is appropriate or simply happens to come up in the course of the interview. Thanks to the excellent work of our student researcher Deborah Qu, we have below a series of recollections of that tragic day now twenty years ago.
The first selection is from Bob Swinford, who was interviewed for our project with the US Forest Service. He recalled, “I was right here on this floor [4th floor] Washington office of the Forest Service in Washington, DC, not in this office but across the way there, when the plane hit the Pentagon. This is an old building. We felt the concussion very much in this building. We felt the building quake, and we knew something bad had happened. Didn’t know where. But it didn’t take long because some folks on the fifth floor, in legislative affairs, saw right away. Obviously, we were watching the Twin Towers stuff on the television here, and then everybody said — a lot of people have taken credit for taking charge that day and sending everybody home. We didn’t hear anything. The chief just made the decision. A couple of law enforcement folks happened to be in the building for some reason, and we didn’t have a speaker system then, so they just became human speakers, and they went up and down the floors in all of the wings of the building and told everybody to go home.”
Robert Berdahl, who was Chancellor of UC Berkeley and thus living in the Pacific time zone, had a Berkeley-specific recollection: “It was a Tuesday morning. It’s one of those days that is etched in your memory, like the assassination of Kennedy or some very, very significant event where you remember exactly where you were when you learned that something happened. In this case, I was still in bed and my wife was in St. Paul, so I was home alone. The phone rang at about 7:00 or 7:15 or something like that and it was John Cummins and he said, ‘Have you seen the television?’ And I said, ‘No, what’s happening?’ And he said, ‘Well, there’s been a terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers’ And so I jumped up, turned on the television and started watching it. And then watched when the Towers came down. And we called an immediate cabinet meeting to discuss what to do. There were a number of campuses that closed. This was September 11, so we were the only UC campus where school had started, because the others were on quarter system and school started later, a week or two later. So we were the only one that was open. But there was a lot of discussion about whether to close the campus.”
Finally, another perspective comes from Bill Koenig, a former San Francisco police officer who was on holiday navigating a barge through the canals of France. “We were actually moving that day. We were moving through the canals and we were coming to a small city, Briare, which is two/three hours south of Paris by car, maybe a month south by boat. So we were coming into a mooring. We squeezed into a mooring. Right behind us was a small English boat, very small, a single man on the boat. He had a TV. We had just put our mooring lines down. We had a dish on a TV so we could watch our TV. He came running out and said that an airplane had just flown into a New York skyscraper. We quickly got our TV working. We had it in operation by the time the second plane flew into the Twin Towers. It just stopped us, of course. There are hotel boats that take people, different size hotel boats, maybe four couples on, maybe up to twenty couples. Some of them — to go through the canals, maybe ten couples. One of the hotel boats came in with many Americans on board, and of course we were glued to the TV. We were getting CNN at that time. We could follow it. When the hotel boats came in, we put up more American flags. . . . One of the things that continually stops me is the 343 New York firefighters that lost their lives on that day.”
These accounts all provide great detail into events that, in a few examples, happened years prior to the interview. Rarely do we record such precise details of everyday life into our active memories, and those typically only are retained once we’ve had the opportunity to rely on such events shortly after transpiring. In other words, it is usually as a result the retelling of an event that it is recorded into our memories. The interviewees also tend to focus on the moment of learning itself: this is the flashbulb moment, in which it seems like an imprinting happens. And in each of these examples, the narrative flows from the moment of recognition to the immediate response: what happened next? For Swinton, the next move was evacuation from a vulnerable site; for Berdahl, it was how to respond as head of a major university campus; and for Koenig, the response was to learn more and to show pride and defiance in the face of the attack.
On this solemn anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11, I invite you to connect with others and share your own memories of that date and the events that followed — and perhaps explore the memories of our flashbulb memories. What are the specific details that you remember? What are the facts that now seem a little fuzzy after twenty years? What transpired in the hours and days after the attack? Why do these memories stand out? How do your memories differ from those of friends and family? I recall one phrase heard and seen often in the wake of 9/11 was “Never Forget.” Perhaps one way of honoring those who lost their lives that day is to remember, share those memories, and explore the meaning of what we’ve recalled.
Find these and all our oral histories from the search feature on the UC Berkeley Oral History Center home page. You can search by name, keyword, and several other criteria.