At 13, attacks delivered jolt of lasting reality

Blade crimes reporter Taylor Dungjen was a 13-year-old student in Cleveland suburb school when news came that terrorists had attacked buildings in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.
Blade crimes reporter Taylor Dungjen was a 13-year-old student in Cleveland suburb school when news came that terrorists had attacked buildings in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.

I don't get it. Even 10 years later, 10 years wiser, and I still don't get it. I don't know that I will ever understand -- I'm not sure that I should.

I tried really hard, for a lot of hours, to write an introspective account of my life in the post-Sept. 11 world from the perspective of being the youngest reporter in The Blade's newsroom. I thought it would be so easy.

But it's not.

There isn't a lot I remember about that year, about being 13.

But I remember that day.

When I woke up on Sept. 11, 2001, I had never used, probably never even heard, words like "terrorist" or "terrorism." I would have thought al-Qaeda was a comedian's stage name.

About 9:30 a.m. I found out that something really, really bad happened in New York. People were dead. It wasn't an accident.

And then my friend and classmate Kaylee started to cry. I didn't get it. Not at first, not while we were in Miss Egan's English class that morning. It wasn't until lunch -- people crowded her but she just needed room to breathe. Kaylee's dad is a pilot. Her family wasn't sure where he was, if he was OK, could he, possibly, have been on one of the planes that flew into the twin towers?

He wasn't. He was safe, just without any reliable form of communication while chaos was consuming the world.

Wadsworth is a small town in Medina County, a suburb about 40 miles south of Cleveland, 15 miles southwest of Akron. If something dangerous was happening, no way it would ever find its way to where we lived. That's what my friends and I wrote to one another, anyway, in notes scrawled in Gelly Roller pens on pieces of notebook paper with ragged edges.

In the library, my friend Heather and I passed notes after we found out that a plane that was rumored to be hijacked was spotted over Akron. I don't remember exactly what our notes said, but I know we sat there, staring out the big windows, crying. For a minute we thought the terror would find its way to our neighborhood, to our safe haven. We were terrified.

Some of my classmates left school early -- it was an option, though not encouraged. As I recall, teachers were asked to let our parents explain to us what was happening and carry on as normal. Most ignored the request, turning on a radio or television. Whatever I didn't know by the day's end, I assumed, my dad would be able to tell me. Mom, I thought, was on a plane headed to Florida for a week-long business trip.

But first, before asking Dad about the towers, I would have to wish him a happy birthday.

Dad didn't want to talk when my three siblings and I came home from school that day. Didn't want to talk about his birthday and certainly didn't want to talk about the destruction. I didn't get it -- and, being the oldest of four children, was sure Kevyn, Tim, and Kasey didn't get it either.

I felt really sad for my dad. He wasn't enjoying his birthday. He was 47 -- only kind of old.

It took me a long time to realize it wasn't his birthday that he was upset about.

I was angry, but not at those who plotted and carried out the attacks, not right away at least. Probably because I had no idea who to be angry with. I was angry at Americans, people just like me. I remember, so clearly, watching the news and hearing about a cab driver who was pulled from his car and beaten just because he was Arab. Even then, hardly a teenager, in a town surrounded by whiteness, I knew that was wrong.

I have been to New York once, prior to Sept. 11. Mom and Dad asked if we wanted to go inside the World Trade Center. "Why?" we asked. Sure the twin towers were really tall but certainly didn't look that cool from the outside. Not as cool as FAO Schwartz.

Funny how you remember stuff like that, the moments that seem so insignificant until, well, until they're not. I kick myself every single year since the attacks for not being more curious about those skyscrapers.

I don't remember ever having an easy time at the airport, not having to show up hours early just to stand in line for what feels like an eternity. I don't remember not having to meticulously check the ounces of toiletries before boarding a plane. I was never afraid to get on a plane -- not before the attacks, not after. Although more than half of my life so far was lived in a pre-Sept. 11 world, all of my memories, my major life experiences, happened after. This world is all I know.

And I still don't get it.

Contact Taylor Dungjen at: or 419-724-6054.