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Where were you on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001?
It's a question that instantly draws a vivid memory for anyone who lived through that horrific day. For some, it feels like yesterday when they were sitting on their couch watching Katie Couric or Charlie Gibson deliver breaking news on their favorite morning show. Others recall looking out their windows and spotting smoke and flames coming from the iconic World Trade Center towers. Others still recall simply a surreal sense of disbelief.
Regardless of where you were and who you were with, that morning 20 years ago is one that no American will ever forget.
After learning about the four coordinated terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda against the United States at the Pentagon, two World Trade Center towers and a Pennsylvania field, producer and journalist Karen Stolman-Firsel immediately got to work for MSNBC's documentary unit. What came next was a shift in her way of life.
"I changed from Sept. 10 to Sept. 11—instantaneous," she told E! News. "There was a shift from pure innocence to realizing that the world contains pure evil. I will forever remember that pivot. I will remember the rain on Sept. 10 and the horror I witnessed on New Yorker's faces on Sept. 11. The emotional tug of war—between wanting to do my job well and literally wanting to curl up in a fetal position and not move—both so very different —is something that I'll struggle with my whole life."
Karen added, "On Sept. 10, I was an American. A Jewish American. A woman. A daughter. Sister. Cousin. Niece. Best Friend. But, on that morning of Sept. 11, I was a journalist first and not much else mattered. I wanted to be part of the storytelling so that we could honor everyone's stories. It was imperative that all of those who were killed will forever be part of the fabric of American history—and we had to honor them."
As the country honors the victims and survivors, E! News spoke to 20 extraordinary Americans who took us back to the morning of 9/11. From a New Jersey teacher who struggled to calm her nervous students to a New York City high school student who was told to get out of class and "run north," every memory reminds us to never forget the events that unfolded 20 years ago today.
David McNew/Getty ImagesChristine M Rohleder
Flight Attendant for United Airlines
"I was scheduled to work a 4-day trip from Chicago O'Hare International Airport to Hong Kong on that day. As my husband and I approached the airport parking lot, there was security everywhere and two security police came running up saying the airport is closed. I said, 'I have a flight to work on.' They said again, 'The airport is closed.' I told my husband to take me upstairs and I would try to get to work. He said 'no' in that we don't know if this airport will be the next to be hit. So we headed back home.
Later, we lit a candle for each of the crew members killed that day. We put them on our front porch until they burned out. I have been lighting these candles for the last 20 years no matter where I am. I returned to work five days later when the skies opened again. I flew to Japan with most of my friends for support as I was the lead flight attendant. The planes were empty. People were afraid.
I would like people to know that the flight attendants that died that day were our heroes because the pilots were already dead. The flight attendants did their best to notify the people on the ground what was happening on the planes. Some on Flight 93 helped in the breaching of the cockpit. I think all flight attendants that were working around that time are still traumatized. It could have been us."
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty ImagesHeather Schatz
Associate Producer for CBS The Early Show
"I saw the second plane hit from our backyard in Jersey City. I was home at the time because I had worked the late shift the night before and hadn't gotten home till 3 a.m. My husband worked in the third building, which fell later that afternoon. CBS kept calling me to come back in, but I refused, until my husband came home.
I went back in at 5 a.m. the next morning and worked what felt like around the clock for several days, at the Broadcast Center, Ground Zero and Union Square, where the vigils were. I continued to cover it for weeks and years after that. I can't believe it's been 20 years. It still feels just like yesterday. I will never forget the sights, sounds or smells from that day—no matter how hard I wish I could some days."
Jose Jimenez/Primera Hora/Getty ImagesLila Nordstrom
Senior at New York's Stuyvesant High School
"As a student three blocks from the World Trade Center, we were given only one instruction as the Twin Towers fell: 'Run north.' We had no meeting spot or check-in planned. Three thousand high school students were simply released onto a Hudson River path and told to get as far from downtown Manhattan as possible. I walked all the way to Queens, 10 miles, because I was afraid to go to my own home, which was also downtown.
Our school was out of session for about a week. We attended school in a temporary location for another couple weeks but were back in the middle of the Ground Zero clean-up on Oct. 9. Many of my classmates have since fallen ill from the dangerous air downtown at that time and for the last 20 years, I've been an advocate for the young people poisoned by the World Trade Center cleanup. In 2006, I founded an advocacy organization called StuyHealth that advocates for health services for 9/11 survivors since many of my classmates have, like first responders, gotten sick from the World Trade Center cleanup."