September 11, 2001 — a day that will live in infamy. A day that every American saw an attack on our own soil the likes of something never before seen in this country. It was an act that, as Alan Jackson put it in song, stopped the world from turning.
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In the words of Alan Jackson, Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day? / Were you in the yard with your wife and children / Or working on some stage in L.A.? Did you stand there in shock / At the sight of that black smoke / Risin’ against that blue sky? / Did you shout out in anger / In fear for your neighbor / Or did you just sit down and cry?
Every one of us has a story and will forever remember where we were on September 11, 2001. The President of the United States’ Chris Ballew, Malina Moye, The Black Tones’ Eva Walker, Melvins’ King Walker, Heart’s Nancy Wilson, Polyrhytmics Ben Bloom, Ednah Holt, Lynn Mabry, and George Birge tells American Songwriter in their own words, how they remember the tragic events of 9/11.
1. Chris Ballew, PUSA: I was in New York City with my friends Tad and Kurt, who are both members of the Seattle band the Young Fresh Fellows. Tad and I were doing film scoring and commercial music and we were in New York to have some meetings with music supervisors and play a couple of shows and Tad had an art opening in New Jersey. On Monday, September 10 we stayed out late at night having drinks with Kevin Davis, who was Serena Williams’ lawyer. He had watched her at the US Open all day and was super stressed out and needed to get some drinks, so Tad and I obliged. The next morning was September 11 and we slept in late because we’d been out late the night before. When the second plane hit the towers our phone rang in our upper West Side apartment we were borrowing from Steve Higgins, the producer of Saturday Night Live and Jimmy Fallon’s current wingman. Tad and Steve had gone to school together and Steve kept this apartment in New York for when he was working late and didn’t want to go back to Long Island. Steve’s voice was on the other end of the phone telling me, ‘Wake up, we are being attacked!’ We turned on the television and spent the next three days in a suspended state of disbelief waiting for the other shoe to drop. Even though we were in the 80s on the upper west side, we could smell the devastation and dust and burning. Cash machines did not work. Cell phones did not work. We sat around for three days making up songs and watching TV. All three of us were supposed to fly home to Seattle on September 12th in the morning and sometimes I think that I missed possible doom by only 24 hours. I thought about buying a car just to get home to Seattle, but eventually, I rented a car at Newark International airport at 5:30 PM on Friday, September 14th, and Kurt and I drove across the country in record time, arriving home in Seattle on Monday the 16th at 3:30 pm. Tad decided to stay and wait for a flight, but I had to get home to my family. Kurt and I listened to NPR member stations all the way across the country on I-90 and tried to make sense of it all. When I finally got home to my wife and small children, I was able to breathe a sigh of relief after a very stressful and intense time.
2. Malina Moye: I was 17 years old and in New York City, away from my family the morning of September 11. I remember seeing people walking from the train station covered in debris and feeling scared and confused about what was happening. I couldn’t believe that war was actually on American turf. But I had never seen a city come together so beautifully. I’ll never forget that day. I was young (in my first production deal) but I realized the world would never be the same.
3. Eva Walker, The Black Tones: I remember being in New York City when Aaliyah died. That was August 25, 2001. I was there visiting from Seattle with my dance group, Tap Central. We stayed in New York for a week-and-a-half, or so. I remember my middle school had started already—people were asking my twin brother back home, “Does Eva still go here?” We got back to Seattle sometime after Labor Day, so we just missed 9/11 by a week. The last memory I have of the Twin Towers is from sitting on a bus with my dance company and just looking at them. I had my little disposable drug store camera with me, snapping pictures of things. And I remember sitting on the bus, honestly not thinking much—certainly not that they were going to be gone a week later. I think of all that whenever the anniversary comes around each year.
4. King Buzzo, Melvins: Fantomas had played Vancouver the night before and thankfully we drove over the border that night. Had we not done it that night, I have no idea what would have happened. The next morning we were in a hotel on this side of the border and I saw the second one hit, they still didn’t know what happened with the first one. I thought the first one was an accident. We played Denver two nights later and people were ready to party, they were drunk and crazy. Two weeks later we were in NYC and the site was still smoking. Then we saw a hole in the side of the Pentagon when we headed to DC.
5. Nancy Wilson, Heart: Twenty years ago on the morning of September 11, I was hurrying downstairs to the frantic cries of my helper, who was serving breakfast. My two babies, 8-month-old twin boys, were in their high chairs looking confused and afraid. The live footage of the second plane plowing into the twin towers was on replay, and in such breathless disbelief, it was impossible to begin to fathom. Shock is the only way you can feel about such a violent and horrifying death in your own family. And having come from a military family spanning two World Wars, I was instantly in tears looking at my two baby boys. I was right in the sudden grip of my greatest fear that World War Three had just begun. And that my two babies would be sucked into the heinous vortex of some massive new pointless endless war. Just like my dad, his dad, his brother, and my uncle, and all of our Marine Corps family, they had all seen enough war and all the death and trauma that comes from it. It injures people’s hearts and bones and echoes for generations. It’s not a video game or a Marvel movie. It’s not a belief system. It’s all too real. Unfortunately, 20 years later it’s still just as real today.
6. Ben Bloom, Polyrhythmics: Growing up my whole life in New York, I knew that if I wanted to start a career as a professional musician, I needed to find a cheaper and less cut-throat place to start, and I was drawn to Seattle by some very inspirational artists I’d met when they came through on tours. I arrived in Seattle on Sept 10, 2001, and was woken up early the next morning by a good friend telling me to turn on the TV, that the Towers had been hit by an airplane. I didn’t have a TV yet, so I walked out of my apt on 1st Ave. and saw through the window of the restaurant, El Gaucho, a bunch of staff watching the news around the bar. I walked in and said something like, “I’m a New Yorker can I watch the news with you?” The staff ushered me in and I learned that the entire kitchen staff was all from New York too. We watched, gasping as the second tower was hit. And then they fell. I tried to call my family in the city but the phone lines were down. At that moment I knew my world was changed forever and there was no going back to New York for me. There was no fallback plan. In some ways, I feel like my entire musical experience here in Seattle has been a reaction to that moment where everything I knew was no longer relevant. “Once a New Yorker, always a New Yorker” is what they say, but that day I became a Seattleite, and 20 years later I’m no closer to having a fallback plan.
7. George Birge: I was in 7th-grade social studies class, we had a TV mounted in the corner of the classroom and I will never forget our teacher rushing to turn it on. I can still hear the shock in the reporter’s voices and the silence in the classroom. I also remember the unity that followed, the resilience of all those affected, and how we came together as a Nation. It was a tragedy the likes of which I pray we never see again but I also remember the pride of seeing America come together in such a terrible situation.
8. Ednah Holt: I was there! I saw the buildings fall and the black smoke raced up to the performing arts school where I was the choir teacher for students majoring in voice. My school became a Red Cross center because my students could not go home. It’s something I will never forget, and I have not visited the World Trade Center since that horrible day!
9. Lynn Mabry: Watching the local news I remember the commentator saying, “There’s fire at one of the twin towers in New York.” The smoke and flames caught my attention as I’d seen the structure many times over the years. I watched thinking one of the offices must have caught fire, and it was spreading. And then, with disbelief in his voice, he said, “Oh my, a plane just crashed into the second tower!” I stood watching in disbelief. Moving closer to the TV, thinking, THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING!!! I went from shock, seeing the flames, to sadness, watching people jump to their deaths. Then it was a bit of anger upon realizing this was done on purpose and we were being attacked! In my lifetime I never would’ve imagined witnessing terrorism in my backyard. Yet, here we are, today, still releasing the hate amongst our fellow citizens and those abroad. Terrorism, either foreign or domestic, will always remain until love and humanity are experienced and shared by all!
Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images