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A Nation Forever Changed

by Charlene Paul


Sixteen years ago, our nation changed forever. Great clouds of black smoke rose up against the bright blue sky. Screams of panic, agony, and fear pierced the chaos. Firefighters, paramedics, police officers, and thousands of other first responders rushed to do what they were trained to do. Planes were diverted to nearby airports and grounded. The airspace across our nation went eerily silent. Evil was here and we were in shock.

When I awoke that morning, the day began like any other—breakfast, family prayer, kids going off to school, and husband heading to work. We hadn’t turned on the radio or television, so we weren’t aware of the horror taking place on the other side of the country.

My mom called shortly after everyone left to tell me someone had flown a plane into one of the Twin Towers in New York City. I thought it was probably a small private plane that had gone off course and crashed. The thought of it being a deliberate attack didn’t even cross my mind.

When I turned the television on, I could not comprehend what I was seeing and hearing. At 8:46 AM Eastern Standard Time, the first jet, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower. At 9:03 AM, United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower. All passengers on both planes were killed as well as hundreds in both Towers. At 9:37 AM, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the western façade of the Pentagon killing 59 passengers and 125 military and civilian personnel inside the building. At 10:03 AM, United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania killing everyone on board.

The sheer magnitude of the attacks left me in a state of shock; I couldn’t even cry. I just stood there staring at the television set hoping it was all part of a horrible nightmare from which I would soon awaken.

When I finally caught my breath, I realized my life and the lives of my family, friends, and fellow Americans had forever changed. My tears flowed and fear overtook me. I wanted to grab my kids from their schools and find my husband so we could hunker down until it was all over. But I couldn’t move. My feet were stuck to the floor and my eyes were glued to the images on the screen.

Slowly, the numbness in my soul gave way to the need to connect with the outside world. I walked out the front door and gathered with neighbors in the street. All eyes had that same hollow look. Not many words were uttered; there was no need. Tears flowed freely. No longer could we believe we were safe from outside attack.

In the days that followed, we learned that thousands of our American brothers and sisters had perished in the infernos that had once been the Twin Towers, as well as in the Pentagon, and the field in Pennsylvania. We learned about the entire battalion of firefighters who had given their lives trying to save others. We learned of the children who perished. We learned about the evil men who had perpetrated this dreadful horror.

And then we learned something about ourselves. Fierce pride for our country mobilized us. Political posturing took a backseat to the need to pull together as one nation under God. Flags flew from car windows, front porches, businesses, and churches. Families and communities pulled together. Prayers were expressed from hearts that hadn’t spoken to Heaven in years. Gun sales rose out of a heightened awareness for home and personal security. People who had never donated blood stood in lines waiting to give. Strangers became friends. Churches were filled to overflowing. Patriotism was at its shining best. In his address to the nation, President George W. Bush declared that America, its friends, and allies would “stand together to win the war against terrorism.” And America went to work to heal the wounds and drive evil from our shores.

Sixteen years later, America is still fighting forces that threaten to weaken us and defeat our way of life, both inside and outside our nation. But I refuse to listen to those who say it is too late for us. The world is on a topsy-turvy roller-coaster ride of pandemonium. But I believe there is more good than evil in this world, and when that force for good is put into motion, the world will be changed for the better.

Evil can only win if we give up. And Americans do not give up. We do not focus on the black smoke, we search out the sunlight. While we recognize there are evil people, we know that the number of good people is far greater. Although there are times of anguish, hope still lives.

As we say goodbye to the heat of summer and the crisp fall days usher in the holiday season, there will be much to be done. But while you are running from place to place making sure costumes are made, food is prepared, gifts are purchased and carefully wrapped, and decorations are in place, take a little time to look around at what really matters. Remember how you felt during that holiday season sixteen years ago, and hold your loved ones close. Gordon B. Hinckley said, “We are in a period of stress across the world. There are occasionally hard days for each of us. Do not despair. Do not give up. Look for the sunlight through the clouds.”

I pray that each and every one of you is able to enjoy the Scariest of Halloweens, the Happiest of Thanksgivings, and the Merriest of Christmases. And I pray that as the New Year approaches, each of us can find peace and joy. With a prayer in my heart, I wish you and yours the best of all life has to offer.

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