I can name the exact day my aerophobia, or fear of flying, began. It was Jul. 17, 1996, and my 6-year-old self was flying from my home of Sacramento, Calif. to Boston, Mass. to visit relatives on the East Coast, with a 2-hour layover at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.
But Jul. 17, 1996 isn’t just the date of one of my family’s many summer trips to the Northeast. It’s also the day that Trans World Airlines Flight 800 exploded in mid-air and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean at approximately 8:31 p.m. EST, killing all 230 people on board. I learned about the crash as we waited in Chicago. My mother thought that her uncle was on the fatal flight. Frantic calls to California fortunately revealed that he wasn’t. By the time we landed in Boston, I was convinced that one day I too would perish in a plane crash. For the next 10 years, I nearly bawled every time I had to set foot on a plane, gripping the arm of my seat every time the aircraft hit even a minor bump.
Last Thursday, I found myself at the site of a different kind of plane crash—Ground Zero. On Sept. 11, 2001, at 8:46 a.m., American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Seventeen minutes later, at 9:03 a.m., United Airlines Flight 175 flew into the South Tower. At 9:59 a.m., the South Tower fell; within 30 minutes, the North Tower followed. A total of 2,749 people were murdered just at the World Trade Center that day.
I was barely a teenager and living in California at the time of the attacks. As I got ready for another excruciating day of 8th grade, I watched the second plane crash into the South Tower in my living room, live on NBC. I don’t clearly remember my immediate feelings. I do remember that I didn’t focus on the planes crashing, as would be expected given my shaky relationship with the aeronautics industry. The devastation that that happened afterwards was too great to dwell on the jetliners.
Last Thursday changed that. I stood inside the gallery of the Tribute WTC Visitors Center, a sort of “museum” containing artifacts from the World Trade Center site and offering a variety of walking tours around the Ground Zero. Inside the main gallery, enclosed in your standard-issue glass exhibition case found in millions of museums worldwide, was a jagged fragment of a window from the side of an airplane, its glass pane long blown out. I had never thought about Sept. 11 as a plane crash before.
I’ve long overcome my aerophobia. I had to around the age of 16, for purely practical reasons: I had intentions of going to college in New York City, a place best reached from California via an Airbus A300, and a round trip ticket to Greece for that summer. When I’m on flights, I vie for the window seat. I like to pass the time by staring out blankly at the ground below me. I continued to stare, not so blankly, at the remnants of the window before me, realizing that there was an entirely new dimension to an event I previously thought I knew so well.