“Oh my God!” I could hear my father yell at approximately six in the morning on September 11, 2001.

At the time, I was fast asleep. But my dad’s shrill voice immediately woke me up. I stumbled out of bed, hastily put on clothes, unsure of what was happening. I sprinted to the bedroom where he and my mother were. Both were glued to the television, watching breaking news. The North Tower of the World Trade Center was just hit with a Boeing 767-223ER plane. We saw the damaged building, enormous amount of smoke, debris and devastation. No doubt it was a terrorist attack. No pilot, in the right mind, would fly their plane into the World Trade Center like that. Direct hit.

We started talking about the unfathomable casualties from that one crash when we watched a plane hit the South Tower at 6:03 a.m. Pacific Time on live television. This is it, I remember thinking. This is the beginning of the end. Before any of us could process the images and video being broadcast in real-time, the towers fell. Decades of history collapsed. The famous New York City skyline was gone. Symbols of America’s tall greatness and exceptionalism was taken down by a group of sick and depraved terrorists within a matter of minutes. How could this happen in our country? How dare they!

Anger soon folded into disbelief over the monumental scale of ruin we were witnessing. Journalists and New York City residents captured video of the ground of a seemingly inescapable cloud of dust chasing them. People couldn’t run fast enough. Like us, they could barely process what was happening around them. But unlike us, they were in imminent danger. They were terrified, tearful, with lungs full of ash and despair. My family wondered aloud if the people we saw running for their lives survived. Then my mother interjected, “The passengers. Police and firefighters who tried to help people inside the towers evacuate. Everyone.”

Dad is from New York. I asked him if he knew anyone who lived or worked near the World Trade Center. He wasn’t sure. But one look at his pained facial expression showed me he suffered deeply from watching a city he once worked in suddenly become the epicenter of unspeakable horror.

We couldn’t even talk in complete sentences. Thoughts were jumbled. Emotions oscillated between insurmountable horror and profound sadness. And this was all before we learned of an American Airlines Flight 77 jet crashing into the West wall of the Pentagon and a United Airlines Flight 93 crashing into a field in Stonycreek Township near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. By then, we had to do something. But what? How?

At the time, the family and I lived in West Hills, California. Fortunately, we were far from the unfathomable chaos that unfolded. We honestly didn’t know if terrorists hijacked any more planes and where those planes would crash. Didn’t even know when these acts of terror would end. Everyone was shaken. But we also knew that I was going to school that day. As shaken as everyone was, we desperately sought a semblance of normalcy — something to cling onto. Right then and there, everyone knew we would remember this day and be haunted by these memories. But we had to keep going. Had to keep moving.

My hands were shaking when I arrived on campus of El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills. Principal Ron Bauer’s gruff, booming voice appeared on the school intercom, assuring students that classes would continue as scheduled. I remember thinking how distant and cold Bauer sounded as if he was trying to brush aside the events that transpired that day like it was some minor inconvenience. Later, I realized he was just protecting us from completely surrendering to grief and disillusionment. We had to keep moving. But how? We can figure that out later, I suppose.

That day, every teacher in my period were suddenly anointed crisis counselors. They tried to educate at first but soon ran out of words. For approximately an hour, teachers struggled to teach. When they eventually gave up trying to pretend that everything was normal, they just stood in front of the class and talked. I remember looking around and seeing the other students feeling the exact same way as me: sad, numb and distant. Our minds were elsewhere. However, at the very least, we were together. We had each other. No matter where we came from, what we grew up believing or what social cliques we gravitated to, we were unified. We were unified in our grief. We were united for hope. We were united as one America. Nothing else really mattered. Any petty squabbles or differences became absolutely insignificant.

After classes were over, I headed home and watched all the 9/11 footage playing on every major news broadcasting network. The family was still unsure of what might come next. All we could do was hope to one day recover from all the death, destruction and despair — assuming that was even possible.

In my mind, America was no longer invincible and invulnerable. One of the most symbolic pillars of our country was utterly destroyed within minutes. But by the grace of God, we showed resilience. It took time, but we came back. We had to. New York City returned, but not without its enormous gaping wound at Ground Zero. We remembered the 2,977 brave and innocent souls who perished that day. Every ring of the bell to signify a life loss resonated deeply within the soul of America. And while we grieved and sifted through the emotional and physical rubble, America went into Afghanistan to root out the terrorists responsible for organizing and coordinating the worst attack to hit our country.

September 11, 2001 fundamentally changed me as a person. I went from being a carefree teenager living a mundane, transactional experience every day to appreciating the scarcity and fragility of life itself. Everything could be taken away in a second — within a blink of an eye. Family, friends and loved ones suddenly lost people who were integrally woven into their lives and they were never coming back. All they had were unanswered questions, chilling memories, broken dreams and stifled ambitions of living a long and fruitful life. First responders at Ground Zero were left to deal with hundreds of thousands of toxic debris. Residents living and working nearby were exposed to various contaminants and carcinogens that would leave them were long-term illnesses. The damage done would continue to live on. To see how everything changed that day made me fully acknowledge the value of my personal existence and our collective existence as Americans.

I also learned the importance of fighting back and becoming a stronger country for doing so. If New York could rebuild after the worst day in American history, so can we. People will be quick to point out that some of the ways our country fought back were questionable at best — getting into a war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, harassment and hate crimes against Muslims. But for the most part, we were able to recognize that we needed to be better and do better not only for the sake of self-preservation but also leading by example. We wanted to show the world that it was entirely possible for the United States of America to actually be united.

I can only hope that a massive terrorist attack will not be the sole inspiration for us to unite as a country.