The anniversary of the terrorists’ attacks on September 11, 2001, brought us another round of conversation about that day.

Those of us old enough at the time to understand what was happening will never forget the disbelief. I have to sigh when I see a meme showing images of flames and smoke billowing from those towers with the caption, “Never Forget” — as if I could ever forget that day’s events, even if I wanted to.

I don’t understand America’s fascination with anniversaries. I also don’t disparage such fascination, because I’m as obsessed with anniversaries as anyone.

It’s common for those of us who were alive that day to repeat our stories. It doesn’t matter whether we were walking on a sidewalk beneath the twin towers of the World Trade Center, or flying in an airplane that had to divert to the nearest airport, or just watching our favorite television show on a Tuesday morning. Each of us has a story.

Eighteen years later, a generation of Americans who were not yet born on September 11, 2001, is coming to adulthood. Some of those men and women are volunteering for military service and will be sent into the same war zones that members of our armed forces found themselves soon after those attacks. They don’t remember these events, but they continue fighting the war that Septmber 11 touched off.

For most of us, the heroism we saw on our television screens that day and in the days that followed left us with a newfound appreciation for the work that all first responders perform, wherever they serve. Firefighters especially continue to be beneficiaries of such admiration.

Today, the debris has been cleared. Our dead have been buried. Memorials have been built. But the dust has not settled, and perhaps it never will.

Many who found themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time may have survived the attacks, but their lives were changed forever. What’s more, many courageous rescuers began to suffer life-threatening health issues because of the toxic fumes they breathed. Witnesses at the scenes remain haunted by the horror they experienced. Family and friends of innocent victims lost in the attacks have spent almost two decades mourning them.

Indeed, each of us who watched the events of September 11 transpire has a story. Some stories are more compelling than others, but we all have a story.

Allow me to confess: I don’t read as much as I could or should, but as part of this week’s anniversary news coverage, I learned about a book that appears incredibly insightful. After reviewing portions online, I’m about five computer clicks away from ordering the bound volume. The book’s title is, “The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11.”

This research by journalist and historian Garrett M. Graff is a compilation of first-person accounts by people who were at or near the scene of the attacks, or who were otherwise directly affected by them.

Perhaps they survived because they decided to go back to their hotel after breakfast to change shirts, or because a clerk typed the wrong time to catch an airline flight, or because — in the smoke and chaos of being caught in a crumbling skyscraper — they became separated from their group and turned left instead of right.

Many similar books are available, and I’m confident each has important information to share. We can learn much by reading survivors’ stories.

In a society where it seems public safety is increasing at risk while simply going about our day-to-day activities, it’s difficult to reflect on the apparent randomness — or maybe it’s more accurately described as providence — that too often spells the difference between life and death.


Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at