I’m a thank you note writer. My mother seared this into me very early in life – always letting me pick out any stationary I wanted as an incentive to send notes that: mentioned the gift, what my plans were to use it and thank the sender for thinking of me. Those were the critical parts of any good thank you note according to my mom. I still follow those rules today.

There are 40 people that I have never written a note to. But I should. I am finally ready to do it.

It’s hard to imagine that twenty years has passed since that bright September day when the whole world changed before our very eyes. This was a time before Congressional staffers were trained to look for unattended bags, before we were accustomed to barricades and bomb sniffing dogs, and before we opened office mail wearing gloves because we were scared of white powders.

Twenty years ago, I was a House staffer to Congressman Earl Pomeroy living a fun and exciting life in Washington, D.C. I had wonderful co-workers who were also my friends. We worked hard, we took trips together on our off time, we knew each other’s families. We really liked each other.

Back on September 11, 2001, the Congressman’s morning meetings were already running long when we received word that something hit the World Trade Center. We thought it must have been a small plane — an accident. It seemed impossible to comprehend when we watched the second plane hit the building, screaming at our televisions, that this was not a mistake. I will never forget the words my dear friend, Julianne Fisher (a native of Queens, NY) said to me the moment that second plane hit, “This is not an accident. Oh no. The number of people who works in these buildings is probably 3 times the size of Jamestown.”

By 9:30 am, before some had finished their coffee, we had been hit three times when the Pentagon shook just across the river from our office building.  Our small, close-knit staff started calling family, reassuring them that we were okay, but it was time to leave our office, which sat just across the street from the U.S. Capitol.  With little in our hands, we left so quickly that no one paused to turn off the coffee pot or televisions.

No sooner did we get outside than an explosion sounded – a noise so loud it seemed like it was just around the corner and caused us to drop to the ground to duck for cover.  It was days later before we learned it was the sound of a secondary explosion from the Pentagon that ricocheted across the city.

This was before Facebook and Twitter helped spread information like wildfire. There were no camera phones providing us visuals of places where news cameras were not yet available.  The technology we did have failed us as phone lines were overloaded and busy signals sounded.

Instead, we huddled together in a colleague’s home, watching the news in disbelief – crying, praying, and waiting.  Julianne and I walked to a church just near the Capitol for a moment of peace and a break from the overwhelming news.  My baby sister was starting her second week of college as a freshman at Georgetown University, just across the river from the Pentagon.  It was four days before the bridges were opened for residents to travel across to meet loved ones.  Julianne’s brother was a police officer with the New York Police Department at that time.  He had called her family before the second plane hit to say the NYPD thought it was terrorism and that he was heading to the scene.  It was hours before we learned that her brother had survived the dust cloud of the falling towers.  I kept thinking about both of our mother’s and how scared and worried they must be.

And we learned about the heroes aboard Flight 93, the United Airlines flight which was intended to hit Washington, likely the U.S. Capitol or the White House. But instead of hitting its intended target, the jet went down in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania after a heroic struggle planned and executed by the 33 passengers and 7 crew on board who selflessly undertook the effort after learning what was happening in New York and DC. These are the heroes who I believe saved my life, my sister’s life, my colleagues’ lives, and the lives of countless others living and working in Washington, DC.

I drive by Shanksville, PA every summer and fall to spend time at home for the August recess.  I’ve never felt ready to stop, pay my respects and say thank you.  It just doesn’t seem like enough and maybe it was just too overwhelming. But I lost my own mother to cancer over a year ago and there will never be anything more difficult than that experience for me. I know now I can face any difficulty having come out of that darkness. And so, I’ve spent time learning about each of the 40 people on that flight who gave up their lives to save mine and even though it’s 20 years late, I’ve written a thank you note to each of them, and I followed my mom’s rules: mention the gift, what my plans were to use it and thank the sender for thinking of me. I’ll stop at the Memorial this fall and deliver them.

I will forever be grateful for the first responders that ran into buildings as others were running away, for the men and women in uniform who defend our country, to my old boss Earl Pomeroy for leading his staff through those dark days and to victims of the attacks of September 11th like Ann Nelson, of Stanley ND who remind us that life is a sweet, beautiful, fleeting gift to be treasured. And to the crew and passengers of Flight 93, thank you.