Posted by: Richard Bergstrom | September 11, 2011

Online on 9/11

I was online that morning. I’d actually been online all night, a 25 year old kinda-hippieish guy in Corvallis, Oregon that had just returned from a camping trip where we had talked about the end-of-the-world mythologies of various religions on the night of September 9th. On the morning of the 10th, I watched as my friends ridiculed and demeaned a guy who thought our camping space was vacant and thought about how unnecessary all the drama and negative energy was. Still recovering from the bad vibes and the booze, I was lingering on Yahoo the morning of the 11th, well before the bots invaded the chatrooms, listening to people yell and scream over the audio about how this room was “Their” chat room and hating on anyone who treaded wrong in their little worlds. So I tried to be a little voice of reason and humor to help defuse things, thinking that I was changing people by getting them to pause and think. I felt pretty educated though I still hadn’t finished my college degree and I felt I was intelligent and “socially active” even if, in retrospect, my activity was limited to chats at coffee tables outside of Starbucks, reading the first chapter of books like “How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic” and little quips on Yahoo about how others (not me, of course…) waste their time over nothing important on the internet. Hey, I’d been on the internet since the mid 90s and liked to brag that my high school was one of the first schools wired onto the net. I was hip, I knew a lot, I was “in tune”.

Then a message came through that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

Even then, I was capable of flashbacks. Comes with being self-aware and world-wise as a partially employed 25 year old wanting to save the world through education while conveniently forgetting I didn’t have a degree nor the money to actually save for more than a cup of Starbucks coffee. I flashed back to November 4th 1995. Didn’t remember the exact date at the time, but I can thank wikipedia for helping me to look at that up as I write this. So, I was playing an online game called a dikuMUD (which can also be looked up on wikipedia) and news came across that Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister of Israel had been assassinated. Even in those days, news traveled fast on the internet and the immediate response was “At least the killer wasn’t a Palestinian.” In fact, the news traveled so fast that you couldn’t find out details on it for another twenty minutes.

Flashback over, I flip to CNN because I’m sure television has hopped on the internet superhighway because every news broadcast instructed viewers how to use the “at” symbol.

There’s a reporter in front of a camera, a rooftop shot, with the World Trade Center framed nicely, smoke and fire in the background. The reporter’s not sure yet what hit the tower besides “a plane”. The ticker beneath the footage backed up that amorphous tidbit. Probably just an accident, nothing more, but gosh, I rarely see this kind of thing on television and I start wondering who goofed up and some fresh face just hopped on Yahoo Chat to give her a/s/l well before the days when people actually maintained their profiles and then like a bad video game a plane limped slowly through the sky and looked like it was flying behind the smoke and fire until the glass exploded and a second ball of flame erupted. It looked so fake, so unlike the movies, that it was hard to believe it was real until papers joined the falling debris.

What the hell? This was no accident.

My hunger for information started. I mean, it’s one thing to hear something on TV, but to be able to read and absorb it, at a pace I was comfortable with and could safely digest, that’s what I needed. Too much was happening too quick. Yahoo chat discarded, I head to Offline. WTF? Rumors of a car bomb near the White House blare from the TV. No go. A plane headed towards the White House flips the camera off the Trade Center to a quiet looking marble building. I hopped on IRC, one of the few, though sometimes disjointed, bastions of intelligent public chat on the internet at that time. I wasn’t the only one who wanted to know more and people shared what information they had or were hearing. Rumors of planes heading towards Seattle and Los Angeles. Seattle sounded scary. For some reason, the hot Y2K rumor was that radicals (there was no such thing as terrorists in America at that time) would take out the Space Needle for no real reason other than it was there. Without any online news working (though we kept checking) and as of yet, no public statement issued by the government (who probably had their hands full at the time), anything and everything seemed possible.

“…when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower at 8:46 A.M. Within minutes, major online news sites were struggling to serve between 3 and 10 times their normal load as Internet users sought details. One news Web site estimated that traffic to its Web servers was doubling every 7 minutes, beginning around 8:50 A.M., until about 9:30 A.M.

By just after 9 A.M., when United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the World Trade Center’s South Tower, the Web sites of CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, Yahoo! News, and others were observed to be slowing significantly. The cause would later be reported to have been the loads on these sites’ servers, not connectivity problems in reaching servers across the Internet. Then the South Tower collapsed, damaging equipment and circuits in the Trade Center complex.”


I remember as a young child watching a mockumentary news broadcast called “Special Bulletin”. Shot as a fake news broadcast and with constant reminders in the “War of the Worlds” type vein, there were reminders that what you were seeing wasn’t real even as journalists and hostages died in gunbattles and as another reporter on a Navy ship “safely out in the Atlantic” with Charleston in the background talked about the radicals with a nuclear weapon until, in midsentence, that background exploded in a flash of light and blew the fake journalist not just halfway, but all the way across the room and past the camera. No warning, no inside scoop to see what the radicals were doing. Just a big fake boom that felt all too real. Myself and others felt blind on 9/11. People on IRC confirmed that they couldn’t reach their friends in New York City, either because the cellphones were jammed or because of a media blackout. The only way we knew New York was still there was that we could still see it on television.

We weren’t sure what would happen next. We were told the towers were built to withstand the impact of a plane. They were wrong. Again, no warning. Just an ominous rumbling and a live shot of people on the streets starting to run away without really seeing in the background what was going on besides a tsunami-high cloud of dust coming. We weren’t even sure if people could survive the dust or if it would just touch them and kill them like something out of Steven King’s “The Fog”. We knew something had happened at the Pentagon but we weren’t sure what or why or more importantly how. I mean, don’t they have a military to defend it? If the Pentagon could be hit, what’s next? Rumors of another plane coming towards Washington… and a guilty sigh of relief at the aftermath of Flight 93.

Things slowed down. We could tell. We were on alert and “the worst” was over though the estimated casualties counts crept into the tens of thousands. The television broadcasters started sounding more like broadcasters and less like people. The internet sites were still down but information was flowing more regularly through the television. Both towers had collapsed, the search and cleanup began. Someone set up a website and started posting facts, vetted by others and overheard on broadcasts of what had happened. Attached to that website were phone numbers for blood banks and charity organizations. Others posted to these impromptu news sites, offering to drive people to New York City to volunteer or offering up a spare room or even a couch for stranded travelers. I did my best to forward information along, let people know on my chat networks where lists of the missing and the found and the alive were posted. Truth be told, I couldn’t do all that much. I didn’t even own a couch and I lived in my parents’ house. Around 4pm, things seemed settled, if not safe and I felt I had done what little I could. I fell asleep.


The next morning I woke up. The house was quiet. My friends online were staying inside, calling in sick from work, staying with their families. I did, for awhile. I eventually had to get out. I went to Starbucks, my home away from home. It was open, but none of my friends besides the baristas were there. I got my mocha and sat down in the sun. The town sounded so quiet I thought I was in the farmlands of southern Illinois. Hearing a single car drive a few blocks away jolted me out of my thoughts. I didn’t know if we deserved this. I did know we didn’t expect this. I knew more people died each day in other countries abroad from wars or suicide bombings and other forms of violence, most of those stories never making more than a byline in a newspaper or a blip on a CNN ticker. I had no idea how we would react to this. More violence? More war and hate? I felt like I didn’t know anything except how I felt, and how I felt was numb.

A pickup truck drove by slowly, a hundred American flags embedded on flagpoles lying solemnly in its bed. I didn’t know the driver but I _knew_ he was going to pass them around to his friends, his neighbors, to strangers. Probably paid for out of his own pocket, taking action to do what he felt needed to be done. That nobility, that action amazed me. There could be, would be some benefit, some opportunity for action that might salvage some good from this tragedy. And then, I decided to take part. No more quips or words without actions, I got off my ass and called the Red Cross to donate some of my meager blood and even more meager coffee money. I got a real job and, in time, a real degree. Not solely because of the events of 9/11, though, but because I needed to act. I needed to improve myself, not putting into words what I have thought about those days until now. Now, the next time reality blinds me, confuses me, scares me, I can produce something more in return than a silent nod of respect to a passing truck. I can get offline and get things done in the real world. And for that, unlike others on that tragic day and on other days since, I am grateful to be alive.


For baseball-related reactions to 9/11, please check


For a touching tribute done by one of my friend’s bands, please check out “Yesterday” by The Silent Still



  1. […] Online on 9/11 (Richard Bergstrom) […]

  2. Thanks for the link!

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