On Sept. 11, 2001, my roommate and I had just started our senior year at NYU; we were about five days into classes. [When American Airlines Flight 11 hit the North Tower] it sounded like a giant truck running over a construction site — we called them the metal Band-Aids they put on the street — and it woke me up. We lived on the 33rd floor of a high-rise in downtown Manhattan, on the east side of the island. I looked down, and there was nothing, and then I looked up and saw the smoke billowing out of the World Trade Center.
I had gotten a video camera as a gift, and I had it already plugged in because I was learning how to use it the night before. So, it happened to be right there, and I started recording.
As a kid back then we didn’t have access to camera the way we do now, so there was a novelty to recording your friends and yourself at parties and your dorm room and all of those stupid things that made up home videos. I just recorded from the window. We had a very specific vantage point [but] it didn’t feel special in any way at the time. I wouldn’t have released it if my mom hadn’t gone and told the Milwaukee local news that I had it.
The first thing I saw looked like confetti flowing out of the building. It felt like a Yankees parade with confetti flying through the streets. So, my very first millisecond thought was, “It’s a party.” And then my brain took over and I saw the smoke and said, “Oh no, it’s a bomb.”
All through the morning, I kept thinking there were mistakes that kept happening. Seeing the second plane that crashed into the building, my literal first thought was, “There must be a Bermuda triangle happening in the sky.” It didn’t occur to me that someone had taken over a plane and purposely flown it into the building. The emotion I take away from that morning is the absolute resistance to think that this was a terrorist attack.
Those moments are ultimately what I think made the footage [which went viral about 15 years after the events] more relatable to people. I was actually very young, and that’s the mindset of somebody who’s pure and being destroyed, and having that captured on film is what I think makes the footage so interesting.
In the footage, I watch the plane crash and I know that 300 people just died, but I zoom out. I’m processing what I’m seeing and processing it to make it better to fit into the frame. There were two things happening, and the camera allowed it to be safe.
It did open my mind to people’s ability to empathize. I had a supervisor at work watch the footage and say, “I just want to come hug you.” It was the first time somebody had felt bad for me, but then I had that experience many times and the feeling of empathy struck me.
What I really learned from it was the aftermath of what it meant for how awful the Muslim community was treated. That world was not part of my personal life in any capacity, good or bad. I was educating myself about xenophobia and racism and all of those things, and I think that part is overlooked by the actual horror of that morning. But really the fallout was ultimately years of war that literally just ended this [month]. That, to me, is what we can’t forget.
Caroline Dries is a writer and producer best known for The CW’s “Batwoman,” which she created and on which she serves as showrunner. Her other credits include “The Vampire Diaries,” “Smallville” and the “Melrose Place” revival.