How 9/11 hit home

That September morning air was so crisp, so crystal clear, but we were all choking.

American soil had been hit by terrorists, killing thousands, and our nation's foundation had been rocked, sending up a cloud of grief and disbelief that we couldn't help but inhale.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the world changed — for all of us at once.

The reality hit us in waves, pulsing in concentric circles south from the World Trade Center, north from the Pentagon and east from a field in Pennsylvania, catching the Baltimore region in its crosshairs.

At once, the destruction felt all too close, in our backyards, and all too far away, with loved ones unreachable.

Some stood arms crossed, others sat palms sweating, staring in shock at television screens. Some darted out the door, racing to their children's schools, unsure of the nation's security. Still others grabbed phones, more land lines back then, and fought through jammed signals to reach those caught up in the chaos, which included many Marylanders.

According to one tally, Maryland had the sixth highest number of victims of all 50 states, with 50 Marylanders killed. The 9/11 Memorial of Maryland, which counts connections to the state rather than residence here, honors 68 victims from 13 counties and Baltimore City.

Plenty of other Marylanders escaped death but were badly scarred, and 10 years later, they still carry harrowing stories of what they saw that day — of ash and fire raining down, of metal shards and low-flying planes, of grieving faces and people weeping.

Still others who responded from the Baltimore region to the disaster scenes at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have stories, too, of digging through rubble, of bits of clothing strewn about, of the smell of petroleum and burning plastic.

They pushed ahead like the rest of us.

Gas masks, flags

In the days following Sept. 11, local stores sold out of gas masks and American flags, as people countered fear with patriotism.

Flags went up on car antennas, and homes and business fronts.

Attendance at area churches, synagogues and mosques spiked; and congregations sang patriotic songs together.

Communities closed ranks, sometimes excluding Muslim neighbors, other times embracing them.

People feared "fear itself," for sure, but they also feared many other things —including travel abroad and trips to local tourist attractions.

Event planners and car rental companies took a hit in business. At least one local gun shop reported an increase in the sale of ammunition and weapons.

College students and others held vigils and moments of silence, and blood drives. Girl Scouts and local firefighters raised money for New York City firefighters. Kids sold lemonade for relief aid.

People waved flags on highway overpasses, in shifts.

As time rolled on, the effects of Sept. 11 continued.

Local kids fresh out of high school joined the military. So did older men and women.

Anthrax became a household term. Two wars began.

Parents wondered whether it was safe for kids to trick-or-treat onHalloween.

During the winter holidays, people feared malls and other gathering places, while economic experts urged people to shop, shop, shop.

Don't let the terrorists paralyze the economy, they said. That's just what they want.

Fear, camaraderie wane

As the years passed, the fear and the camaraderie of the early days waned.

But emergency preparedness improved in counties, on university campuses and at local businesses.

States like Maryland pursued funding for memorials.

Special occasions brought people with flags back to highway overpasses. In some locations, the flags became permanent fixtures.

The Sept. 11 bond has remained, in its own way, if frayed a bit as people go about their daily lives and debate our government's resulting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It remains a largely unifying factor, shapes how we see the world.

For older people, the attacks of Sept. 11 are in a list of events they'll never forget — like the JFK and MLK assassinations, and landing on the moon.

For younger people, Sept. 11 is the list – or at least it was until May of this year, when President Barack Obama announced Navy Seals had killed Osama bin Laden, and college students from around the region flocked to the White House to celebrate the demise of their age-group's boogie man.

For them and those younger, Sept. 11 has defined the world. And it redefined it for the rest of us.

The term "post-9/11" has entered our national lexicon and even our law. We surrender our water bottles and remove our shoes at airport security, submit to body scans. People think less about World War III, and more about the "next 9/11."

For area residents who lost loved ones that September morning, all these commonalities mean little next to that singular smile they miss, that sense of humor, or that big-brother charm.

Anniversaries are hard. The whole thing gets drummed up again, rehashed, analyzed once more.

Ten years later, that's still the case. And perhaps it always will be.

Reporting for this essay came from archived Patuxent Publishing stories dating back to Sept. 11, 2001.

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