On Sept., 11, 2001, 19 men forever altered the fabric of American history. In the span of two hours and three minutes, members of the group al-Qaida, a militant Islamic terrorist organization, hijacked four airplanes, crashing two into the World Trade Center in New York City and one into the Pentagon, located just 30 miles east of Loudoun County. The fourth plane was downed in Shanksville, Pa. after passengers tried to seize control of the aircraft from the hijackers.
Including the terrorists, the attacks resulted in the deaths of 2,996 people. Of the victims, 2,606 were in New York City, 246 were on the planes and 125 were in the Pentagon. Victims represented 90 different countries and ranged in age from 2 to 70. Two of the victims, Dong Chul Lee and Christopher Newton, hailed from Loudoun; their names are memorialized in Newton-Lee Elementary School in Ashburn.
But for those who were alive and cognizant during the 9/11 attacks, most of this is common knowledge already. The Sept. 11 attacks have solidified themselves as a monumental moment in American history, one in which people will always remember where they were and what they were doing when they found out the planes hit the towers.
For this week's issue of the Loudoun Times-Mirror, which falls on the 12th anniversary of the attacks, our reporters spoke with members of four generations – the Greatest Generation, the Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y – to talk about both the defining moments in history they remember and the 9/11 attacks.
Christopher Belin was just an elementary school student when four planes were hijacked on a September morning.
Just shy of his ninth birthday, Belin was in fourth grade at Horizon Elementary. Because of the age of the students, teachers at the Sterling school didn't speak of the unfolding tragedy. But there was no denying something was amiss.
“By lunchtime, half the class is gone. On a normal day, you're jealous when kids get to leave school early. But when half the class is gone, you know not everyone has a dentist appointment,” Belin said. “I was thinking 'is there a party going on? Why am I still in school?'”
When Belin returned home from school, he, his parents and his older brother, Josh, sat glued to the television.
Had Belin, now a 20-year-old senior at George Mason University, watched the event unfold live, rather than be insulated from the event by his school, he anticipates he would have been more aware and more frightened.
“Had we followed it out, we'd be thinking, when is it going to stop?” he said.
But Belin noted that he didn't understand the severity of the event or the building that was hit for years to come. All he knew was that the world wasn't nearly as safe as he expected.
“As a kid you think about growing up into this world, you think you're growing up in this perfect place,” Belin said. “But as you grow up, that world starts to even out with reality.”
Belin said the realization hit home during middle school history and civics classes when he opened his textbooks and a moment he remembered was splashed across the pages.
The repercussions of the 9/11 attacks continued to melt away the security blanket for Belin and the members of his generation. The United States has had boots on the ground in Afghanistan for 12 years, more than half of Belin's life, and in high school, people he knew began to enlist with the United States military.
And while Belin is still aware that the country could once again face another grand-scale tragedy, he and his peers felt some relief on May 2, 2011, when Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan.
“When Osama bin Laden died, the campus [GMU] was crazy. Everyone was jammed onto the Metro to get to D.C. I had something where I was unable to go, otherwise I would have,” Belin said. “It felt like the circle was closed, even if it wasn’t. But it felt more complete.”
And even though terrorism has been the buzzword of the last decade, Belin refuses to be scared.
“I'm not threatened. The only time I felt threatened was a few years after it happened,” Belin said. “I'm not going to call them terrorists. They're not terrorizing me.”
It's unfortunate, Paige Roderick says, but people tend to vividly remember the bad events in their lives more so than the good.
That's why Roderick, a 37-year-old Leesburg resident, lists the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as the most impressionable world event of her life.
It's also why Roderick points only to the D.C. sniper terror of 2002 as a comparable occasion she recalls with such devastating clarity.
On that clear September morning in 2001, Roderick arrived at work in Alexandria around 10 a.m. She had been briefed about the events on the radio on her drive in – first of the Pentagon crash and, soon after, the attacks in New York City.
Almost immediately, Roderick's office was closed for the day and she returned to her Loudoun home. For the rest of the day, she and her husband were glued to the news.
“It was just such a surreal kind of thing,” Roderick said. “ … The first thought was, 'how could this be happening?'”
Home, she said, was the only place people felt safe as paralyzing images of planes and fire and massive, crumbling structures flashed across the TV.
"If they could fly planes into these buildings, what else could they do?”
Fortunately, no one Roderick knew was killed or injured in the Pentagon arm of the 9/11 attacks. One-hundred eighty-nine people, including the hijackers, died at the Pentagon, including 125 employees, 59 flight passengers and the hijackers.
Residents in the Metropolitan D.C. region were forced to endure similar senses of horror just 13 months after 9/11 when the Beltway sniper indiscriminately shot and killed 10 people at spontaneous locations in D.C., Virginia and Maryland.
In terms of how it impacted daily life, Roderick placed the sniper attacks not far from 9/11.
“It got to the point where you didn't want to leave your house,” she said of the fall 2002 sniper attacks. “We live in D.C. The region is so connected, and you never knew where or when he was going to strike next.”
Unquestionably, 9/11 and the sniper killings were the two most terrifying world events of Roderick's life, she says.
At the time, Roderick was not a mother. Now, she has four kids.
How does she talk to her kids about 9/11?
“We try to tell them the people who attacked us were wanting to change the world as it was then, you know. They were trying to change our way of life,” she said. “But, I say, we're a strong people and we're fighters and we've been able to come back.”
It was Nov. 22, 1963, and 14-year-old Rachel Cartwright was attending a Pennsylvania boarding school.
News from a fellow student as she walked from the library to a dorm crushed her world.
President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed while riding in a motorcade in Dallas.
“... It was almost like slow motion. I was walking from the library to the dorm … and somebody came up and said it. I just kind of looked up in disbelief. It was the longest walk I've ever took,” Cartwright, 63, said.
Like many during that time, Cartwright can remember gathering around a central television with other people, watching news coverage of the first presidential assassination since 1901 when William McKinley was killed.
“For me, as a 14-year-old student, it was the most devastating event ever. It was an event that was hard to believe. Everyone was asking 'why?' instead of 'what?' and it lasted for many years.”
For Cartwright, Kennedy's death was the start of the sign of the times in her life.
By May 4, 1970, Cartwright was studying at Wilmington College in Ohio. That day is a mainstay in her memory.
Two-hundred miles northeast, in Kent, Ohio, four Kent State University students were killed and another nine were injured when Ohio National Guardsmen fired 67 rounds over 13 seconds during a protest against the Cambodia Campaign. Some of the students shot were merely walking near the protest or simply watching it.
“That was a terrible thing. There was a war going on and there was a very strong anti-war movement,” Cartwright said.
“It was devastating, but at the time students were in a state of protest anyway. It was the students … against the government. That's the way it was.”
By the time the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks happened, Cartwright was in a new stage of her life: motherhood.
The events of the time took on new meaning: protecting her child.
“The main goal was to protect and try to keep things business as usual,” she said.
Cartwright believes despite the tragic events of her generation, they still don't compare to Sept. 11, 2001.
“I think our country changed after that. It's still a horror that won't go away,” she said.
If it wasn’t for Pearl Harbor, Mariann Blasingame might have never met her husband Ralph.
Sitting on their back deck in Falcons Landing, a military retirement community in Sterling, the Blasingames remember where they were when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and what it meant for their future together.
"A fella came down from upstairs and asked if I had my radio on. I said 'no.' He said, 'Better turn it on, Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor," said Ralph Blasingame.
He was a senior at Penn State University studying for a history exam. It was mandatory at Penn State in those days for every student at the school to complete two years of ROTC training.
Ralph Blasingame voluntarily joined the program for an optional junior and senior year, which conscripted him into military service upon graduation.
He heard rumblings in the months before Pearl Harbor that the United States would ratchet up its involvement in World War II.
After the bombings he said it became clear we as a nation would become more involved.
The attacks eventually sent him to Guam, but not before spending two years in Tallahassee Fla. where he met Mariann.
"It was a major event for me because it changed my whole idea of what I was going to do," said Mariann Blasingame.
She wanted to get a degree as a medical tech. The night of the attacks she was on duty as a nurse. Someone came in and told her Pearl Harbor had been bombed.
She remembers that few people she was working with even knew where Pearl Harbor was, but after the attack she said she "more or less immediately decided to go into the service."
Like so many from the millennial generation who enrolled in the military after the attacks on the World Trade Center, a certain sense of obligation led Mariann Blasingame into action.
So she became a nurse in the armed forces at Dale Mabry Air Base in Tallahassee, Fla. where Ralph was an adjutant officer with a case of viral pneumonia.
The two started dating after Ralph accompanied his future wife to an enlisted women’s dance and the ramifications of “the day which will live in infamy” improbably are embodied 70 years later.
Ultimately the couple met because of many factors, but the inertia of a horrific incident that took place thousands of miles away, that neither of them ever saw coming propelled them into the same room.