How 9/11 Changed Our Lives (and not just how you think)

2019-01-27T17:27:53+00:00September 9, 2011   ||   Posted in: About Us - ||   14 Comments

We should be in Africa right now. Instead, we’re in the Americas in the midst of our Trans-Americas Journey road trip. What does that have to do with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001–a series of tragedies that changed so many people’s lives and which we can hardly believe took place more than 10 years ago? Everything.

How 9/11 changed our lives

On September 10, 2001 we were living in lower Manhattan less than three blocks from the World Trade Center, happily in the throes of planning our next big trip, an overland exploration of Africa. The next day we, like millions of others, were forced to re-think many things.

We never for a minute considered giving up our next big trip. We know that more travel equals more understanding which equals less hatred and violence. Previous trips through Islamic countries (Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt, Turkey) gave us a modicum of perspective in the often perspective-less aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and we valued that.

This photo was taken from the roof of our apartment building minutes after the second plane went into the South (nearest to us) tower.

Who are “they”? Who are “us”?

Suddenly, going to Africa as we’d been planning seemed random. Haphazard. Not of the moment. Why, we wondered, are we always traveling so far from home (Europe, Asia, Australia)? And what’s home all about now anyway? And while we’re on the subject, what’s our role in the world personally and as citizens of the United States? Do “they” really hate “us” like the President says? Who are they? Who are us? And when did the United States become blue or red?

As citizens of so many terror-stricken countries around the world know, being attacked makes you ask questions like that.

Not only did our home, or own backyard no longer make sense to us as we watched citizen after citizen squander their 15 seconds of fame ranting about “us” getting “them”, we were also homeless. For three months after 9/11 we could not return to our apartment building, less than three blocks south of the Twin Towers, because it was well within the primary crime scene.

Investigators were busy looking for clues in the landing gear which ended up in front of our building, the chilling shreds of human remains that seemed to be everywhere, the thick layer of dust on everything and God knows what else. There was no room for residents hungry for something normal like the familiar drip of the shower or the bark of the dog across the hall.

Eric spent the morning of the attacks on our roof taking pictures of the increasingly confusing and horrifying events and experiencing the collapse of both buildings before eventually evacuating lower Manhattan by ferry to New Jersey.

This photo was taken from in front of our apartment building (the green awning was our building) about a minute before the second tower collapsed. The yellow police tape marks where part of the landing gear from one of the planes fell.

Most of Eric’s photographs from that day are back in New York and no one needs another post full of horrific images (they’re seared into our brains anyway). We’ve included a chaste few here. In a disturbing bit of coincidence, a picture of Eric, waiting to evacuate from our apartment building on that terrible day, was recently published on the Time-Life website.

Eric in the lobby of our apartment building minutes after the first tower collapsed. The picture, taken by Hiro Oshima, was published in a LIFE photo gallery captioned “Residents flee their apartment building near the scene of the World Trade Center Attack.”

Unable to return home (that word again), we were soon living in the Soho Grand hotel with other neighborhood refugees (eternal thanks to the hotel for its generosity and understanding and to our insurance company State Farm). We had time to think and pretty soon we realized that what we needed as much as our apartment back were answers to the big questions we’d started asking as a reaction to the political spin on the attacks and the non-stop and often simplistic media coverage.

This photo, of lower Manhattan about an hour after the second tower fell, was taken from a tug boat on which Eric was evacuated to New Jersey. The location of our building and where the towers stood is noted in yellow.

How 9/11 helped create the Trans-Americas Journey

Our answer was to completely re-think our trip, shifting gears to focus on really seeing and understanding America. The Trans-Americas Journey was born. Since a road trip through just the United States was not nearly ambitious enough we expanded the plan to include all of the Americas with an emphasis on the plural nature of that term.

This felt right. Part of the problem, it seems to us, is the fact that some people act like they’re solely from one place or one ideology when, in truth, we’re all from right here on this planet and we’re all connected as our route (from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego) is meant to demonstrate.

As the calendar tells us that more than 10 years have passed since the September 11th terrorist attacks that changed so much, we urge you to think honestly about how your life was changed for better, for worse, forever.

If you feel inclined to mark the date with a donation we would like to suggest giving to the Peter C. Alderman Foundation. We did not know Peter, who lost his life at age 25 in the Twin Towers on 9/11. We did have the honor of meeting his parents and sister and learning about the remarkable foundation these remarkable people have created and nurtured in honor of their remarkable son.

Unique among 9/11-inspired foundations, the Peter C. Alderman Foundation harnesses monetary donations and medical and psychological expertise to empower in-country health providers to bring healing to trauma victims around the world.

Victims of violence, war and terrorism in Cambodia, Rwanda, Haiti and Uganda have received counseling and support from the foundation. More than 200 doctors and health care professionals in Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe have received advanced training in the treatment of traumatic depression and PTSD. In the past 10 years the foundation has changed the game for 100,000 people struggling with the kind of debilitating emotions Peter’s family can relate to so well.

We applaud the foundation’s sleek effectiveness and its human acknowledgment that suffering is not the sole domain of one tragedy or one people. It’s something inflicted on all of us in the world we share and you can either be part of the suffering or part of the solution.

It’s up to you.

Tribute in Lights shot by Francisco Diez.



  1. Nicole September 9, 2011 at 10:35 am - Reply

    Karen & Eric,
    What an incredible account of the events and aftermath of that day. I appreciate all of us New Yorkers speaking out about how it really affected us, and continues to do so. Your photos are incredible. The two of you continue to inspire me with the life you’ve created for yourselves. Much love from up north. ~Nicole

  2. Abi September 9, 2011 at 2:34 pm - Reply

    It’s so difficult to write about an event like this – and so inspiring to read your final thoughts on the matter. If only more of the coverage was this thoughtful and balanced…

  3. Erica September 11, 2011 at 3:17 pm - Reply

    It is so bizarre how that event changed EVERYONE’S plans. I know I would not be the same person today. I don’t even think I would be on this trip.

  4. Andrea September 11, 2011 at 3:20 pm - Reply

    Wow – you guys were really close to the towers…incredibly moving post – it’s always good to hear about the positive actions that resulted from such a horrible day.

  5. Phil September 11, 2011 at 6:28 pm - Reply

    Wow. What a thoughtful and moving first hand account. Thanks for sharing this.

  6. Suzy September 11, 2011 at 7:52 pm - Reply

    I had no idea you guys were so close to the towers. I’m glad you were safe and were able to find the positive in the extreme negative. Your photographs are particularly moving.

  7. Sabrina September 12, 2011 at 2:50 pm - Reply

    I just followed your link over here from Suzy’s stumbles and wanted to say that I really liked your post. It’s such a difficult topic and I’m so appreciative of people who don’t just follow the “them”/”us” terminology. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Michael Hodson September 13, 2011 at 1:28 am - Reply

    I also had no idea you were that close. Amazing story and glad you were able and willing to share it with us.

  9. Michael Lewis September 21, 2011 at 12:18 pm - Reply

    I was on a plane to DC on 9/11/01 for a week of events that surrounded the publication of the NGS book, “Africa”, which I had spent two years photographing. Interesting that we both had our own Africa stories affected by that day. I didn’t make it to DC and all of the Africa events were cancelled.

  10. Brooke, WhyGo Australia September 21, 2011 at 11:03 pm - Reply

    I’m late getting to this post, but I’m glad I read it. Had no idea this was part of your reasoning for doing this trip.

  11. Laurence September 12, 2012 at 2:52 am - Reply

    Wow, I had no idea this was the catalyst for your trip being trans america, nor that you were so close to the tragic events of 9/11. Fabulous piece of writing, really moving stuff.

  12. Cole September 12, 2012 at 6:43 am - Reply

    Very moving post guys. Well done on changing your plans and starting what has been one amazing journey. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Turtle September 13, 2012 at 11:29 am - Reply

    Such an awful event but it’s nice to see something as wonderful as your trip come from it. While the attacks made some people even more divisive and intolerant, it’s refreshing to hear how it made others want to understand the world and their neighbours more. I hope you’ve inspired others to do the same.

  14. Interview with Trans-Americas Blogger Karen Catchpole July 17, 2014 at 12:49 pm - Reply

    […] living less than three blocks from the World Trade Center and at the time they were planning an overland journey in Africa.  They canceled their trip. Catchpole and Mohl questioned their way of life and their […]

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