On the morning of 9/11, I was working from home as PR & Marketing Director for the local zoo on Florida’s Space Coast (Brevard County). I lived in Cape Canaveral at the time – minutes from Kennedy Space Center and right by Patrick Air Force Base.
I had been working away in my office, with the television tuned to the TODAY show but muted. In the next room. I walked by the television to let the dog outside and saw the images. After turning on the volume right as the first tower came down, I was horrified by the images of the ash covered people running for their lives in the streets.
Not long after the second tower came down and reports started coming in about missing planes, I started to see a scroll along the bottom of the screen with local closures. Being situated less than an hour from all of the Orlando theme parks, there was immediate hysteria that another plane might crash into Disney World. I called my boss to see if we were going to close our park as it seemed everyone else in the area, perhaps the country, was doing. She had to consult our board of directors and said she would call me back.
I called my husband, at his office down the road near the Atlantic Ocean, and urged him to come home. His office had decided to remain open and he could not.
My boss called back and said she had decided to jeep the park open since the likelihood of attacks on small parks seemed very remote and people might need a place to take children to get away from the images on every station. I set about writing a press release announcing our decision and emailed it off as quickly as possible. Within moments our decision to stay open was also scrolling along the bottom of the screen filled with horrifying images, now being replayed again and again.
As I recall, we were one of the few public attractions of any kind in Central Florida to remain open that day. But, I could be remembering that incorrectly.
I was just getting ready to head in to the park, when local news broke into the national coverage to report that a tornado had touched down in nearby Historic Cocoa Village, where my mother was at work as an Economic Development Planner for the city. I started calling but could not reach her.
It seems it was about that time the fighter jets and helicopters started patrolling the beach, less than two blocks from my home. The sound was unnerving coming on top of the television reports. The patrols lasted for months.
The rest of the day is a blur. I remember that there was some kind of threat to my neighborhood – terror or tornado – that caused me to decide to stay home instead of going into work. I finally talked to my mother, who had been helping people impacted by the tornado, and my husband was finally able to leave his engineering office a little earlier than normal.
The next few months saw changes to our area that I had never dreamed of. Growing up by the heart of America’s space program had always felt so romantic and patriotism-inspiring, but now it made us all feel we had a big red target on our homes. Government buildings facings the ocean were retrofitted with metal/concrete coverings for all of the windows to make the building spy and bomb proof. An I was interviewed more than once about our decision to stay open and how natural spaces made people feel safer, the impact of giving to 9/11 charities on giving to other nonprofits such as our zoo, and our own efforts to raise money to help animals displaced at zoos around the world as a result of the attacks and ensuing warfare.
I remember how the attitudes changed overnight about questioning any federal government actions – and those of us uncomfortable with certain choices felt great pressure to keep our mouths shut to avoid being labeled as unpatriotic traitors who “didn’t support our troops,” regardless of the fact our brothers and friends were among them and it was the decisions of our elected officials we questioned, not the heart and soul of our armed forces. I remember trying in vain to explain that to my father, still scarred from his experience returning from Vietnam and being spat at by protesters. We, at least I, supported our troops and had learned from that 1960’s history lesson.
I also remember trying to explain to a friend’s husband when he said, “We need to kill (or lock up) all the Muslims before they can kill us,” that one of our oldest friends from high school had immigrated from one of “those countries” and had been raised Muslim – and that talk like this just led to incredible acts of racism and hatred against Jim and anyone who looked like him.
But, on 9/11 and in the days after before the shock and saddness wore off and were replaced with something that felt like a national lynch mob of angry hysteria, we were all united in a way I had only experienced once before – after the Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded in front of my eyes, a few months after I moved to the Space Coast in the fifth grade. That tragedy had united the people of my community in saddness and determination to rebuild. It had frightened us and made us resolved to find safety and security again for our parents and neighbors, almost all of whom worked at, or were connected to, the space program. It could have shuttered the program, but the determination of the space workers didn’t let it. It had changed everything but we were united to conquer the fear of repeat and supportive of one another – knowing we had all been affected. That was the closest thing I had ever felt to the national unity after Sept. 11th – but it was nothing in comparison.
Eventually the military stopped the beach patrols and attendance and fundraising at the zoo returned to normal, and life returned to something akin to what it had been. But I know I am not alone in my dread every time I hear helicopters or jets fly overhead, nor am I alone in feeling like that day was the end of a simpler time when we all felt more secure in our confidence that we are protected and untouchable here in the U.S. from the types of tragedy we used to only see snippets of on the news reports from countries far away.