While those nearby in New York City on the fateful day in Sept. 2001 saw devastation miles away from the World Trade Center, NASA's Frank Culbertson saw 9/11 firsthand from much further away: from space.
From about 200 miles above Earth aboard the International Space Station, Culbertson was the only American in space, seeing the devastation brought on by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks from a vantage point outside the planet.
It's difficult to describe how it feels to be the only American completely off the planet at a time such as this, he wrote the following day. It's horrible to see smoke pouring from wounds in your own country from such a fantastic vantage point. The dichotomy of being on a spacecraft dedicated to improving life on the earth and watching life being destroyed by such willful, terrible acts is jolting to the psyche, no matter who you are.
The Fateful Day
Culbertson had just finished a set of early morning tasks, part of Expedition 3 mission, which he was the commander, along with Russian colleagues Vladimir Dezhurov and Mikhail Turin. He said he learned of the events after hearing a news report about the very bad day on the ground, as the International Space Station was just approaching New England.
Upon learning of the hijacked planes that hit the World Trade Center, Culbertson desperately searched for a window view of New York City in a series of events that did not seem real.
Once I saw it out the window, we took video as the second tower was collapsing, he said. I didn't know exactly what was happening, but I knew it was really bad because there was a big cloud of debris covering Manhattan. The smoke seemed to have an odd bloom to it at the base of the column that was streaming south of the city.
Shortly after, Culbertson learned that he was witnessing history, seeing the second plane crash into the towers.
That's when it really became painful because it was like seeing a wound in the side of your country, he said.
Looking Back on 9/11
The entire ordeal of 9/11 was caught on film by Culbertson and released by NASA for the tenth anniversary along with a series of letters from Culbertson.
In his letters, he expressed feelings of regret to have seen 9/11 from space instead of being with fellow earth dwellers in the aftermath.
The most overwhelming feeling being where I am is one of isolation, he wrote in one of the letters. The feeling that I should be there with all of you, dealing with this, helping in some way, is overwhelming.
Culbertson personally lost a fellow U.S. Naval Academy classmate, Charles Chic Burlingame, who was the pilot of the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.
What a terrible loss, but I'm sure Chic was fighting bravely to the end, he wrote.
Along with his personal loss, Culbertson mourned the aftermath the 9/11 terrorist attacks would have on the world.
I know that we are on the threshold (or beyond) of a terrible shift in the history of the world, Culbertson wrote. Many things will never be the same again after September 11, 2001. Not just for the thousands and thousands of people directly affected by these horrendous acts of terrorism, but probably for all of us. We will find ourselves feeling differently about dozens of things, including probably space exploration, unfortunately.
See a portion of NASA's video of 9/11 from space below: