I was only 4 months old when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, the day many historians believe America lost its innocence. To this day, Americans who were old enough to comprehend the horrible events of that day can immediately recall where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news that the president was shot. Those images of former CBS News television anchor Walter Cronkite, weary and emotionally drained as he announced the time of the president's death are permanently etched in our minds.

Sept. 11, 2001, is another date that I and millions of other Americans will never forget, for it has altered forever our view of the world. I was on my way to work here in Atlanta at 8:50 a.m., listening to the radio when I heard that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center (WTC) towers in New York City.

My immediate reaction was that a small, private plane had somehow veered off course or lost altitude, that it was just a tragic accident. There was general confusion as eyewitnesses described a gaping hole in the tower and smoke pouring out. As reporters were relaying accounts of the damage, the second tower exploded and one of the witnesses speaking from his phone at a safe distance kept exclaiming, “Oh my God, Oh my God. The other tower has just exploded. Oh my God.” The terror in his voice reminded me of the broadcast in 1937 of the tragic Hindenburg fire.

Only then did I realize these events were no accident. The explosions were an act of terrorism that began with the hijacking of four commercial airliners ultimately used as missiles to strike key targets: the Pentagon, the twin towers of the WTC and the White House. Only the latter was spared thanks to heroic actions by the passengers. But the American people were completely caught off-guard by this dastardly act. None of us thought it possible that other human beings could be so determinedly cruel.

A national nightmare

“I'm still in shock. I was expecting to wake up and find that it was a dream because I didn't think it could happen, “ said Ray Cirz, CEO of New York-based Integra Realty Resources. Cirz was at Integra's New Jersey office when the first plane hit the twin towers. Although he was stunned by the first strike, Cirz tried to reason what may have happened. “There are a lot of small private planes that come up the Hudson River,” Cirz explained. “I thought some small plane veered off course and hit the tower.” A short time later, Cirz was having breakfast with his wife at a restaurant when they learned that a second plane hit the southern tower. “Then we said, ‘Oh my God, it's terrorism.’”

The suicide missions of Sept. 11, 2001, have destroyed thousands of lives and shaken our national psyche. Three days after this cowardly act, we are fraught with emotions ranging from fear to anger to helplessness, even as recovery operations continue in New York City and Washington, D.C. Business is moving so slowly that it seems to be on life support. And to remember that the hijackers of these planes trained in Florida right under our noses is most disturbing. Although we realized the potential always existed for such an act to occur, we never thought it would become reality.

Forever changed

There are thousands of real estate stories surrounding the tragedy in New York as the city begins to put the pieces back together, most of them still unwritten. Just this morning, Sept. 14, we received word that Larry Silverstein, the New York developer who led the group that bought a 99-year lease of the WTC for $3.2 billion just months ago, vows to rebuild the complex.

As bold a statement as that may be, corporations may flee from the idea of ever again occupying high-profile office space. Who could blame them for feeling so vulnerable?

Indeed, life in America as we knew it changed dramatically on Sept. 11, 2001.

The NREI staff offers its deepest condolences to those affected by the tragic events of Sept. 11. We also would like to hear your experiences. Please e-mail your story to Matt Valley at mvalley@primediabusiness.com.