The morning began with a quick shower and hopes to be ready with enough time for breakfast. The private tour van was scheduled to pick us up promptly at 9:00 a.m. at the lobby of our hotel on the beautiful Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City. Today’s tour included the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the pyramids of Teotihuacan. The date: September 11, 2001.
The TV turned on mainly for background noise, was tuned to a Mexican morning news program covering the breaking news from New York City. While tying my shoelaces, I noticed images of smoke coming out of one of the twin towers and assumed it must be from a new movie. Oh, the innocence of those days! When the world was a safe and happy place and when our involvement with terrorism was inside a movie theater while eating popcorn. Then, just before heading out of the room, I heard one of the reporters say it could have been an accident involving a private jet. Things were starting to get real.
If you’ve ever traveled to Mexico, you’ll know about the amazing breakfast buffets. Ours was just as good and plentiful. We must have been hungry, rushed for sure, for we did not notice anything different among the crowd. We would notice the silence much later that day. Gobbling our coffee, we hesitatingly put our cups down and rushed out to the lobby. The van was waiting for us. A driver and a tour guide, Amalia, were on the vehicle. Amalia was talking on a cell phone. She looked serious and not like the jolly tourist guide we expected. Once we buckled up, the driver took off. We were on our way to visit one of Mexico’s most venerated sites: Our Lady of Guadalupe Basilica.
Amalia said a few words. She mostly listened to the other person on the phone. We kept hearing the words American Airlines mentioned. We soon realized this was a major accident and not one involving a private jet. Just a few minutes before arriving at the basilica, Amalia hung up and turned to look at us sitting on the back seat. She knew we were from the United States and in hindsight, she was trying to come up with the right words to break the news. “It appears this is a terrorist attack,” she said. Terrorist attack? Where? What is she talking about? I remember thinking of a thousand things at a time; my kids back home, my family, people in NYC, so many things. But to be honest, I did not really understand the implications. Wasn’t this supposed to be an accident? Someone having a heart attack and losing control of a plane? Unfortunateness turned to horror in a split second. What do you mean “attack”?
We got off the van trying to make sense of things. We went inside the basilica in a daze. Terrorist attack. We had time to say our prayers and meet with a priest who had plenty of time for us for there was hardly anybody there which is highly unusual. We joined him in prayer for our families and loved ones. We weren’t sure how to pray for this terrorist incident unfolding as the world watched, the news was slowly and painfully sinking. Fear has a way of keeping information dangling in the subconscious like a wrecking ball; slowly drawing power before the blow.
By the time we left the basilica, Amalia had more news for us. It had been confirmed. Terrorists planned the attack on the twin towers. I turned to look at my husband, an air force veteran, he looked pale and distant; dazed. That scared me and feelings I’ve never felt before crept through my spine. Terrorism. Should I fear for my kids back home in the U.S.? Should I drop everything and go home? For some reason, we decided to continue with our tour and wait to find out more. Act normal and enjoy these amazing places and maybe we would soon hear it was all an unfortunate mistake. We will hear that it was an accident after all. These are days without smartphones or affordable international data. Days of no texting on WhatsApp or anything remotely similar. Cell phones were for calling people and international calls were expensive and why would anyone want to make calls every minute of the day when visiting such beautiful sites? Remember those days?
A short time later, we arrived at the gift shop outside the entrance to the pyramids. Again, we noticed how empty the place was, but did not pursue trying to make sense of the situation. My husband was still quiet and noticeably discerning deep thoughts when suddenly a woman comes out running, crying, holding her hands against the sides of her head. She approached the vehicle, the only one in the parking lot, and crying yelled “Oh my God! Oh my God!” We rushed into the shop only to watch footage of the second plane hitting the towers.
What followed I will never forget. Mexico City was quiet. Everywhere we went people were glued to freshly published newspapers – yes, newspapers- or TV screens. I can honestly say it felt like the attack had been perpetrated in Mexico. The shock, the sadness, empathy, and camaraderie were palpable. Mexico was the United States on that day. The neighbor’s pain was their pain. Both nations were attacked; we were in this together. This love-hate relationship has much love. It hit me so hard that I will never forget this day. We returned to our hotel early in the afternoon. We turned on the TV in our room just in time to see images of the collapse of the twin towers. Images of people running in panic, images of ground zero and images of the brave first responders who we know now did not survive. As that day in Mexico City progressed, I began to get a grip on my feelings; I felt like a boxer who was just knocked out with a powerful punch to the stomach.
We had booked a domestic flight from Reynosa to Mexico City, so it was not canceled. All domestic flights in the US were grounded. We were scheduled to fly home on September 12! Today I realize the only reason I managed to put aside my fears of flying one day after watching the horrible images of planes crashing into buildings was the strong desire to get home to my family in the Rio Grande Valley as soon as it was possible.
September 11, 2001, will forever live like a permanent tattoo on our soul. Indelible, like the lives of those who perished, forever in our hearts. Let us not forget that we are a great nation and that we have amazing neighbors. Let us not forget that we are not alone and that we have moved on thanks to friendships and alliances forged throughout the years. But most of all, let us not forget that our nation is the leader of the world’s democracies against all those who would like to see them gone.
Blessings to all!