Young Americans Who Watched 9/11 Attacks Share Vivid Memories, Lasting Impacts

Twenty years after 9/11, we asked some of the youngest witnesses — people who were school and college-age in 2001— what stands out in their memories from that day, and how it changed them

by Sophia Barnes and Mariela Patron

Moira Bohannon was sitting down on her balcony with a coffee and bagel the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when she saw a plane crash into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia.

The memories come in flashes — motion, chaos and sound, Bohannon recalls.

“I don’t know that I can ever really process what I saw,” she said. "It took me a while to not jump at every noise."

Bohannon, at the time a college student, felt like she was in danger, but channeled her anxiety into "helper mode" — she spent part of that day handing out water bottles to people stuck in gridlock traffic as they tried to flee the Pentagon.

Fred Rogers' famous advice — "look for the helpers" during tragedy — was also comforting a high school teenager miles away in Fairfax County, Virginia, whose father was preparing to help recovery efforts in the immediate aftermath.

yvonne wood
Yvonne Wood (right)

"I've always been raised to be a helper, and I immediately understood," Yvonne Wood said. "Although I was upset and nervous for him, I knew that it needed to be done."

Arial Coates, who was 10 years old at the time of the attacks, remembers she and her classmates in nearby Prince George’s County, Maryland, worrying about their parents.

Her mom was a D.C. public school teacher, now retired.

“In fifth grade, I don't know the proximity between the Pentagon and where she teaches. I just know something happened in D.C. and I can't get to my mom,” she recalled.

arial coates
Arial Coates (left)

The Sept. 11 attacks challenged the United States’ and Washington, D.C.'s, sense of security, and that’s particularly true for people who were young — children in school or young adults in college.

"I think you can point to it potentially as a sort of a loss of innocence moment for a lot of Americans who hadn't had their lives really touched by this issue," said Alexander Powell, a counterterrorism expert with Virginia research nonprofit CNA.

Powell had just entered middle school on 9/11, and the attacks and their aftermath strongly influenced his career path.

Two decades after the September 11th attacks, Muslim Americans are still facing hate. News4's Cory Smith spoke with local Muslims about the outreach that's helping them heal.

Almost every American alive on 9/11 witnessed the cataclysm. Millennials, those born from 1981 to 1996, are the last generation united in carrying a living memory of that day.

Twenty years after 9/11, we asked some of the youngest witnesses — people who were school- and college-age in 2001— what stands out in their memories from that day, and how it changed them.

The interviews below have been edited for length and clarity.

Moira Bohannon

I saw the plane hit the Pentagon... I don't know that I can ever really process what I saw then.

Moira Bohannon

Bohannon was 21 years old and living in Crystal City on the day of the attacks.

“It feels one hundred years ago and a day ago at the same time,” she said.  “It's cliché to say never forget. I don't think we ever will forget. And I hope that we remember all of it.”

Where were you when the attacks happened and how did you find out what happened on 9/11?

I was a senior at George Washington University at the time, and Tuesdays were my late class day, so I didn't have to get into the city until 11 a.m.

I was living in Crystal City and our balcony looked over at the Pentagon complex. My roommate and I were up and just sort of milling about when we turned on a morning show covering the first plane that hit the World Trade Center.

We watched the second one hit. It was just chaos. We ended up turning off the TV for a little bit because nobody knew anything, and we were beginning to really panic. I decided to take my coffee and a bagel out to the balcony.

I was just about sitting down when I saw the plane hit the Pentagon. I don't know that my brain has ever fully processed that I was there on the balcony. I remember motion and chaos and sound. I don't know that I can ever really process what I saw then.

Moira Bohannon (right) in Washington, D.C. as a George Washington University student.

Did you feel like you were in danger?

I did feel that initially. A little while later when we realized we couldn't go anywhere. There's no Metro; there were no cars available to get anywhere.

We then switched to helper mode, which I still — all these years later — I'm so happy that we did.

When the Pentagon started evacuating all of the entrances, not all of the entrances were open for cars to leave. They were just corralling everyone down one or two exits onto our street. It was just absolute gridlock. There were buses full of people packed like sardines. Men and women in business suits in the bed of a pickup truck, just trying to leave the Pentagon.

My roommate and I walked over to Pentagon City and got a big shopping cart, and the stores filled it with water bottles.

First, we were just handing out water to people just stuck on that street because it was going to be hours before they were going to get home.

There was nothing else to do. And I needed to do something. I couldn't sit all day watching TV. I needed to be out.

Moira Bohannon handing out water on Sept. 11, 2001.
Andrew Engblom
Moira Bohannon handing out water on Sept. 11, 2001. (photo credit: Andrew Engblom)

How did you feel the day after and the weeks after?

The night of Sept. 11, the wind shifted and the smoke from the Pentagon was coming directly into our apartment building. So, a friend who was still living on campus invited us to spend the night. We had air mattresses on the floor.

The next morning in her alleyway, the trash picked up the dumpster and dropped it down. I woke up screaming at that bang, the noise ... I thought that was another incident.

It took me a while to not jump at every noise.

How did 9/11 change your perspective of the world?

I think there are two different answers to that.

One is that it definitely shattered any sort of safety and security that I thought that we had here. I think the optimism pre-9/11, we will probably never get it back. And it really opened my eyes to what’s happening globally. It really put me in a position to learn and understand how interconnected the world is.

It definitely got me more interested in trying to help solve problems wherever I can.

GWU 9/11 memorial
Andrew Engblom
Sept. 11 vigil at Kogan Plaza at George Washington University. (photo credit: Andrew Engblom)

How do you view that day now, 20 years after?

I still try to tell my story, but I also limit my exposure. We were just in New York this summer and we walked past the 9/11 memorial there and started to go in it. And I said, “I just, I can't.”

And 9/11 wasn't the end for D.C. — a few months later, we had anthrax, which a lot of my friends were affected by because they were interns on Capitol Hill. And the next summer was the D.C. sniper. So, I remember, like, zigzagging down streets to get lunch at work because you didn't know what was going to happen next.

My son thinks I'm a little jumpy when there's a loud noise or something unexpected, and it's definitely a result of that.

How do you explain these events to young people in your life?

I want them to know the truth, that it wasn't something that we knew the answers to right away; we didn't know exactly what had happened. Even the steps that we took afterward might not have been the best steps.

I have a 15-year-old and I'm honest about the negative stuff that happened after that to the increase in hate crimes, not just against Muslims, but against anyone who somebody thought might be Muslim. You know, it wasn't just it brought us together as a country, but it also started divisions I think we're still feeling today.

Arial Coates

When we got to lunch, they put on the TVs in the cafeteria so we could watch the news. We ended up watching the second tower fall. I still get chills thinking about it.

Arial Coates, who was a fifth grader in Prince George's County on 9/11

Arial Coates was 10 and in the fifth grade at Grace Brethren Christian School in Prince George’s County on the day of the attacks. She shared how her class watched the second tower fall on TV.

arial coates

Where were you when the attacks happened and how did you find out what happened on 9/11?

All the teachers were outside kind of huddling and talking. And so, we can kind of see something going on, but we don't know what's really happening.

We heard there was an attack, but they were kind of trying to keep things under wraps. Then, they decided to send everybody to lunch, which we all thought was also weird because it wasn't time for us to go to lunch.

When we got to lunch, they put on the TVs in the cafeteria so we could watch the news. We ended up watching the second tower fall. I still get chills thinking about it.

Then, we found out that there was another attack in D.C., which is kind of what started the inner panic in us and everyone there. We're so close to D.C.; we're so close to the Pentagon; so many parents worked for the government, worked at the Pentagon.

My mom is retired, but she was a D.C. public school teacher. And to me, in fifth grade, I don't know the proximity between the Pentagon and where she teaches. I just know something happened in D.C. and I can't get to my mom and I can't get to my parents. It was kind of scary. Very scary.

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How did the adults around you try to explain what was happening?

At first, they weren't really telling us anything. And I think as they were trying to help, I don't know if it was helping in the situation, because we wanted to know.

As an adult now and as a teacher, I see why they kept that information to themselves. They didn't want us to panic.

You’re a teacher, and your students weren’t yet born in 2001. How do they think of the attacks?

It's weird because I don't see myself as old. I'm only 30. But, to them, I'm a boomer. They don't have any relation to 9/11.

We'll talk about it and we do the moments of silence. And the kids don't really fully grasp the importance or the seriousness of that day. Sometimes I just have to tell them from my experience. But that's not something I would want anyone to experience, a national tragedy such as that.

When we talk about it, they always kind of relate it to being in a school shooting — those kinds of tragedies that they now deal with.

How did 9/11 change your perspective of the world?

It definitely changed my perspective in a lot of ways as far as how we responded to tragedy. I definitely saw a change in how people treat each other. Definitely.

Until that point, especially living in Prince George’s County, I probably had never noticed racism. After that point, you could see a difference in how they were treating the Muslim kids or kids of Middle Eastern descent at our school.

Everybody was on edge. We never came back from it all the way. This generation went from 9/11 and then we went into the D.C. sniper not too soon after. I had to sit on the floor of the bus and zigzag into doors.

Can you elaborate on the racism and xenophobia you noticed?

The school I went to was pretty diverse ... there was a mix of African-American, Caucasian, Asian students and we did have a lot of Muslim or Middle Eastern students. After 9/11, I just started to see a divide. We're over there. We're over here. It took me a couple of years to realize what was going on and why it was happening. Because of 9/11, you started to see the more outward, loud racism towards Middle Eastern and Islamic people, people of Islamic faith.

A record number of American Muslims ran for office in 2018 after Trump's Trump's ban on travelers from 13 countries with significant Muslim populations. That followed more than a decade of prejudice after the 9/11 attacks. NBCLX Storyteller Ngozi Ekeledo looks back at the history of how the nation treated Muslims following the attacks, and ties it to the present.

Yvonne Wood

Yvonne Wood was a student at Westfield High School in Fairfax County the day of the 9/11 attacks. Her father was in law enforcement and got involved in the recovery efforts, which made Wood both proud and scared.

[My dad] said he was forming a special team, a task force for recovery. They were heading toward the Pentagon and preparing to head up to New York ... I was concerned that he might not come back.

Yvonne Wood, who attended Westfield High School in Fairfax County on 9/11

Where were you when the attacks happened and how did you find out what happened on 9/11?

I remember that day even though it was 20 years ago. I remember it very vividly, actually. I was sitting in my biology class in the morning and it was just same old, same old. I'll never forget it. A teacher came just bursting into the room.

She said, “Why aren’t you watching your television?”

I think it was immediately after the second plane hit that we actually caught on and started watching. Everyone was just in complete silence and a lot of people were kind of crying, a little bit shocked. No one really understood what was going on.

My dad was law enforcement at the time. So, I just kept thinking about him, like, where is he right now?

You're young and all you think is “this is so scary.” You just want to contact your parents. That was the first thing that all of us wanted to do immediately.

yvonne wood high school
Yvonne Wood (right) during high school.

What did the rest of the day look like?

I was texting my parents and I really wanted them to come get me. But my dad, when I texted him, he called me. I stepped out of the classroom and he said he was forming a special team, a task force for recovery. They were heading toward the Pentagon and preparing to head up to New York. So, he unfortunately couldn't get me.

I couldn’t get a hold of my mom, and that was because her building locked down. She was closer to the Pentagon at the time. Everyone in a five-story building had to evacuate, so she got stuck in the elevator for probably about 45 minutes.

It was a long day. Pretty stressful, but eerily calm in a way as well.

How did you feel when your dad said that he was on his way to help in the recovery?

I've always been raised to be a helper, and I immediately understood. Although I was upset and nervous for him, I knew that it needed to be done.

Even as a 17-year-old, I felt like, what can I do to make this situation better? How can I help?

The recovery efforts, unfortunately, at a certain point were so grim. I was concerned that he might not come back.

I trusted my dad, and I trusted my gut. I believed in what he was doing, and to this day I'm still really proud.

It does emotionally affect me. It's a little hard to talk about, to be honest. 

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How was your anxiety in the days after? What was going through your head?

I really personally felt like I was proud to be an American, and I was really proud of what my dad was doing, what others were doing in the recovery efforts.

I was scared, a little angry, but really proud. And it just really pushed me to be there for my friends, for my community and for the armed forces and just help in whatever way I could, even as a kid.

How did your school community come together after 9/11?

It brought out a certain maturity in a lot of us immediately that we didn't know existed. And I really do feel like it brought a lot of us closer together. We were proud of our families, proud of our country.

I'll never forget, we went to [the United We Stand benefit concert]. It was just the best thing. I remember that so vividly. Backstreet Boys, Mariah Carey, Pink … anyone you could think of was there and they were donating their time to perform. So many of us, we were so proud and excited to be together and celebrate America and celebrate being young ... trying to get through it in a positive way.

yvonne wood with high school friends
Yvonne Wood with friends in high school.

Did this affect your career path in any way?

If anything, it just made me even more steadfastly supportive of our military community. As I grew older, I delved even deeper into volunteer work with the military community.

I spent a good amount of time working at the Fisher House Foundation. It gives an opportunity for families whose active-duty veteran is wounded — whether in action or training, whichever. If they're seeking medical assistance at a major medical facility or hospital on the base, families can stay at Fisher House for little to no cost.

That was probably one of the most enlightening experiences I've ever had because I saw firsthand, and met firsthand, gentlemen and women who had served and unfortunately were severely injured. It showed me the reality of war and made me more appreciative of the privileges and freedoms that I have.

Alexander Powell

Certainly, I think, [9/11] instilled in everyday Americans a newfound understanding of terrorism as a security challenge.

I think you can point to it potentially as a sort of a loss of innocence moment

Alexander Powell, counterterrorism expert for CNA

Alexander Powell is a research analyst and counterterrorism expert with CNA in Arlington, Virginia. On the day of the Sept. 11 attacks, he had just entered middle school near Boston, Massachusetts.

He says that 9/11 — and the lasting impacts on the United States — helped inspire his career path.

View of the Pentagon the night of Sept. 11, 2001.
Andrew Engblom
View of the Pentagon the night of Sept. 11, 2001.

How influential is 9/11 on conversations around counterterrorism, among experts and among regular people?

It carries a lot of weight. I think that many people consider it to be a bit of a watershed moment in the study of terrorism.

It's not necessarily to say that 9/11 changed terrorism as we know it. There were a lot of underlying dynamics that had been going on previously and continued subsequently.

Certainly, I think, it instilled in everyday Americans a newfound understanding of terrorism as a security challenge.

I think you can point to it potentially as a sort of a loss of innocence moment for a lot of Americans who hadn't had their lives really touched by this issue.

44 days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress passed the Patriot Act, expanding law enforcement's ability to track down terrorists through a slew of surveillance tools. But it also made it easier for authorities to surveil Americans without their consent, even if they hadn't been accused of a crime. NBCLX Storyteller Peter K. Hull explains the history of the controversial law and how it affects our more technologically developed world today.

How did 9/11 influence your choice to study counterterrorism? Were you aware of the broader context at the time?

I was pretty unaware of the broader context at that time. But the attacks, I would say, had a very strong impact on the trajectory of my education, my career and just my life in general.

There was a strong sense of patriotism that I felt pretty immediately and a desire to help my country.

I considered going into the military as I got older. I instead decided to go pursue a degree that would enable me to work in the field of national security, in a civilian capacity, and try and do my best to help out in that respect.

I ended up deciding to come to Washington to go to George Washington University, because this is where foreign policy is made.

It was important for me to be here in D.C.  As I was taking classes in undergraduate, I found myself being kind of drawn to learning about terrorist organizations, trying to understand them, and then trying to understand our efforts to counter them.

I decided to get a master's degree in security studies at Georgetown, focusing on terrorism and substate violence.

All of that, I think, can be traced back to the September 11 attacks and my interest in this area.

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How did the attacks change your perspective of the world?

I had always been interested in traveling and learning about other people's cultures. That didn't change with the September 11 attacks.

I would say it changed my understanding of the way that certain other groups of people viewed the U.S. I didn't have an appreciation before that there were groups of people that really did not like the United States.

The attacks really hammered that home for me — that there are people who really don't like the United States, don't like things that the U.S. stands for and are willing to kill and be killed themselves in support of those beliefs. And that was, I think, a big realization for me.

Where were you when the attacks happened and how did you find out what happened on 9/11?

I remember the day very well, even though I was relatively young. I was 12 at the time. I had just come back to school. I was in sixth grade, so I just made the transition to middle school.

I was in class during the actual morning of the attacks. I think we were one of the few classrooms that actually had a TV at that point.

Our teacher wheeled out the TV and we sat there and we watched the coverage live on the news.  We were, I believe, sent home early that day.

The rest of my memory from that age is not super clear, but I very vividly remember that day itself.

News4 is working for you, covering remembrances of 9/11 two decades after the attacks. View all our coverage here.

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