Twenty years ago, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, fundamentally reshaped the United States. The impact of the blasts reverberated across the country and beyond, touching peoples’ lives in uncountable ways.
The question “Where were you on 9/11?” continues to evoke deeply personal, visceral responses. The Washington Post posed this question to our Instagram followers and heard from more than 350 people. Women recounted it as their first memory or told stories of being interns in New York City at the time. Some, in the days and weeks following, chose or had to forge forward with entirely new lives.
We spoke with five women who count 9/11 as redefining their lives. Here are their stories.
On Sept. 11, Stacey Stone, then 40, was walking out the door of her home in Bellmore, N.Y., to go make a deposit at the bank when the phone began to ring. She let it go and continued out the door.
On her drive, as she was listening to the radio, she heard that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Stone knew immediately that something was wrong, she said: “I had this sense we were going to be in trouble.”
Her husband, Lonny Jay Stone, 43, worked for Carr Futures on the 92nd floor of the North Tower, two floors below where the plane hit at 8:46 a.m.
Instead of going to work, she returned home and turned on the TV. “I’ll never forget what I saw. … They were showing the building, his building,” she recalled.
A friend and her husband came over and were there to witness the second plane hit the South Tower. The phone in her kitchen began to ring and did not stop, she said. All the while, friends and family arrived at the house, waiting for news of Lonny.
At 5 p.m., Stone sat down with their two sons, Alex, 12, and Josh, 8, and told them, “I don’t think he’s going to be coming home.” That night, the two boys slept with their mother. For days after, every time the phone rang, they wondered if it might be news of Lonny.
On Dec. 27, officials confirmed they had found his remains. Over the course of several years, Stone said she received multiple calls as more of his remains were identified.
The couple had met through a pair of mutual friends when she was 18 and he was 21. They celebrated their 15th wedding anniversary in August 2001. As a gift, Lonny spent his train commute writing a love letter to Stacey, documenting the good and the bad and the love between them, she said.
“The letter is filled with love, and it’s funny,” Stone said. “And with his handwriting, it’s the most amazing gift that he gave me, that he left me with.”
For Stone, the tragic loss made her a different person: “It made me a much stronger person. They say there’s always some good that comes out of tragedy, and I would say that’s the good thing. I found my strength and raised two wonderful children.”
Stone’s granddaughter, who will turn 5 on Sept. 7, is named Lola Jane, in honor of her grandfather, Lonny Jay.
“I think Lonny sent her,” Stone said, as a source of comfort and joy in the days before the anniversary of his death.
In 1994, at 17, Mikki Chacon, now 44, boarded her first airplane from Pocatello, Idaho, to Seattle. And in those 566 miles, she discovered her new dream career. “I watched those flight attendants like they were movie stars,” Chacon said.
Chacon made it happen: She enrolled in flight attendant training after college and started working for the now-defunct Atlantic Coast Airlines, a regional carrier that operated under United Airlines.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Chacon was a year into the job and had fallen asleep in a Raleigh hotel room with the TV still playing from the night before. She woke to the sound of the news blasting and her phone, an old Nokia that was charging across the room, ringing endlessly. As she was registering the voice mails from her father and mother and brother and friends, her hotel phone rang, too.
“Turn on your TV, call your family and tell them you’re alive,” her crew captain said. Confused, she turned her attention to the screen in time to watch the second plane make contact with the South Tower.
Days later, after flights were cleared to return home, hers was one of the first to return to Dulles International Airport in Virginia. During the flight, she powered off the Nokia that had been charging in her hotel room. When she turned it back on again, she was met with a flood of voice mails that hadn’t been able to get through previously while phone lines had been jammed.
Chacon listened as she heard her mother’s calls begin with a hint of worry (“Hey, I heard something was going on with the plane…”) and devolved as fear and confusion and grief took over. The final voice mail, she said, was a goodbye to her daughter. “She told me how much she loved me and how proud she was of me,” Chacon remembered.
She didn’t listen to the entire voice mail; she’d gotten the gist. She deleted it immediately and continued on with work.
Economically, airlines suffered a major loss as travelers reeled from the tragic loss of life and security, and Chacon was permanently furloughed in October 2001.
Forced to find a new career, she moved to Las Vegas, where her parents were living at the time. She began working as a masseuse.
Chacon may have not been in immediate danger, but for her, the trauma of the day still feels real. “We need to tell that story. … We did survive it, scared maybe, but survived,” she said.
Naiomi Gunaratne-Breaux, then 9, said she arrived at school in Lisle, a suburb of Chicago, on Sept. 11 around the time the second tower was hit. She remembers the buzzing of teachers floating in and out of rooms stirring concern in her. Finally, one teacher turned on the TV, where images of the towers’ smoke filled the screen and students responded with enough tears and anguish that the screen was turned off.
A few days later, a girl in her class asked her, “One of the hijackers was from Sri Lanka, did you know them? Was that your uncle or something?” Gunaratne-Breaux’s parents had immigrated from Sri Lanka in the 1980s.
“A lot of the news was talking about how the hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. To a 9-year-old, Saudi Arabia was a lot like Sri Lanka,” she said.
Her teacher intervened, she said, and “squashed” that line of questioning. But Gunaratne-Breaux remembers realizing that the girl who asked started avoiding her. It was the first direct bout of racism she recalls facing in her life, she said.
“I think at that point, even at 9, is when I started watching the news and I started kind of being aware of the world,” Gunaratne-Breaux said.
Now, Gunaratne-Breaux, 29, works in pediatric endocrinology and said she sees how traumatic events can reshape the way young people experience the world. Recently, she said, she has seen the impact the coronavirus pandemic is having on this younger generation.
“For our generation, [9/11] was really a tipping point for everything else,” she said. “It’s when I started watching the news and started being aware of the world. I think a lot of people in our generation feel that way.”
Gander International Airport in Newfoundland, dubbed “The Capital of Kindness,” for the actions of the community in the days after 9/11, received 38 commercial planes and four military aircrafts that were forced to land on that Tuesday morning.
More than 6,500 passengers were temporarily stalled for days. Louise Cullen Robinson was one of them.
Returning from a work conference in Brussels, Robinson was excited to get back to her husband and three children, a 10-year-old son, an 8-year-old daughter and the youngest, a girl who would turn 6 on Sept. 12, 2001. Instead of being greeted by her family upon arrival, her flight was welcomed by armed police and military personnel.
Robinson, now 64, remembers being off-boarded and taken into an ice hockey arena and watching the coverage of the day from the jumbotron above. After some time, she and the others from her flight were taken to St. Pius X, a Catholic church in the area.
“The community was incredible,” Robinson said. She described five days of an endless line of community members offering a place to have a bath, or a cup of tea, or to drive people to the local Walmart.
When they were able to return to the plane, Robinson said she felt uniquely bonded to everyone on the aircraft. But what began as an unusually chatty and jovial return to their same seats and left-behind belongings hushed into a quiet stillness. “The gravity of flying over U.S. airspace hit everybody, and everybody got really quiet,” she remembered.
Robinson said that despite the tragedy of the day, the response she witnessed in Canada restored her faith in humanity.
This year, she hopes that while people acknowledge the pain and conflict pervasive in the world, they will come together and remember the good: a time when people united to support one another.
The morning of Sept. 11 was supposed to be the start of Kay Kensington’s freshman year at West Valley College in Saratoga, Calif. Kensington, now 38, had woken up early to orient herself and study the campus map, wanting to avoid getting lost on her way to class but found herself instead watching the events unfold live on television.
“I saw the second plane hit, and it just really, really fundamentally shifted something inside me,” Kensington said. “I had decided before nightfall on that day that I would be suspending my college studies and hoping to enlist instead.”
Kensington, then newly 18, enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, joining 181,510 other Americans who joined the active-duty armed services in the three weeks that followed. Service was a way to give back to a country that she says gave a lot to her family.
“I remember on that day, it just felt like the axis of my earth shifted and I thought to myself, ‘There must be something I can do to help,’” Kensington said.
Originally born in Greece, Kensington’s family came to the United States in 1987 when she was just 3 ½, and settled in the San Jose area. Her father worked two full-time jobs, and her mother stayed at home to raise her and her brother.
Her service took her to Iraq in 2003, where she worked as an air transport specialist, tasked with transporting equipment, personnel and, at times, fallen soldiers. “As we recently saw, what happened in Afghanistan, that was part of [my] same career field,” she said.
Her path set in motion, and after being disabled in combat, Kensington’s public service continued after her military career ended. She moved on to the Department of Veterans Affairs, where she works with other disabled veterans to gain access to health benefits, compensation and medical care.
Watching the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Kensington said, “it’s easy to feel like those sacrifices were really, really, fundamentally life-changing and this week has made me ask, ‘Was it worth it?’”
To commemorate the 20th anniversary, Kensington said, she will be visiting her fiance, Elizabeth Forster, in Colorado, where Forster lives, to spend time together and get away from her thoughts.
But now is a time for everyone to reflect, not just service members, Kensington said. “We live in a really polarized sort of world,” she said. “When I think of how best to honor the people we lost in 9/11 and my friends and my battle buddies, it would be to do the things they can’t do any longer and to try to build bridges in the ways that we always said. Because our commonalities far outweigh our differences.”