(PARMA, OHIO) - On this day, seven years ago, Joe Biden was sitting in a train car on his way to work when he noticed an unusual number of cell phones were ringing. The next thing he knew, so was his.
His wife Jill was on the other end of the line, stammering into the phone as her eyes were fixed on the television set back in Wilmington.
"Oh my God, Joe," Biden recalled she said, "An airplane just went into one of the Twin Towers. What does it mean, Joe? What does it mean? It looks like they aimed for it."
Being the first he'd heard of it, he told his wife he didn't know.
"Oh God, my god!" she said, "Another plane just hit the other building!"
As his wife told him what she saw on the television screen, what had come out of the sky and crashed into the skyline of New York City, Biden's train car went into the darkness of the Baltimore tunnel.
At that moment, Biden would later say, the whole world sort of froze.
When his train arrived at Union Station in Washington, Biden got off and walked out into the morning sunshine. Against the cobalt blue sky, he could see smoke billowing from the Pentagon. When he arrived at work, the Senate building had been evacuated.
Later that day, Biden received a call from a friend who had lost a son in a boating accident a few years before. He had another son that was in New York City.
"Joe, I need your help," the friend said. "My son just started his first day of work on the 101st floor of Tower One. What can you tell me?"
Biden said, "Pal, I can't tell you anything right now."
It was later confirmed that the son had died inside of the building.
Not long after the attacks on 9/11, Biden was on a flight headed for Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. President Bush had ordered military strikes against the country for harboring terrorists, and a number of Al Qaeda members had been rounded up and were being held as prisoners.
Biden was one of the first members of Congress to travel to the region since America had been attacked. A general brought him in to see where the detainees were being held. The first thing Biden noticed was the markings on the ground. Aside from them, the floor had been scrubbed to the point of looking pristine.
The area had been divided into quadrants. Lines, Biden remembered, had been drawn on the floor, much like parking spaces in a parking lot. Futons and warm blankets furnished each space where the prisoners were kept. And in front of each section, in rough hewn wood, Biden saw English painted on signs. The words read, "Remember the Towers." Another, "Remember the Pentagon." Another, "Remember Pennsylvania."
As he toured the base and was briefed on secret information, Biden passed a wall of an airplane hangar, where a single photo had been tacked up by a member of the military. Biden noticed that it was not of a soldier and not of a politician. It was the determined face of a firefighter, running through the smoke of the burning World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001.
It has been seven years since that photo was taken of the fireman, and just after noontime today, Biden was seated among a group of police and firefighters outside of Cleveland. He introduced himself to the small gathering, saying "My name is Joe Biden, and I want to say upfront here, this is not about politics today."
The room, filled with dozens of reporters and local police and firefighters, as well as their families, was quiet and dark, and Biden's words echoed over the faint ambience of laptop keys tapping and muted coughs. The silence, between his pauses, was at times deafening.
"On that morning, America faced a new threat," Biden said of 9/11. "Something that had never happened to us before. Pearl Harbor was tragic and consequential. But this was the first time in the lower 48 that anything like this had ever, ever happened. It brought us into a new era. A new reality."
"I think part of today is remembering not only what we thought on 9/11, but reminding Americans that every single day, in acts as ordinary as they are profound. You suit up. You put on equipment. You get on the back of that ladder. You get in the back of that vehicle. And you head out not knowing what you're going to find."
Biden, who has had his share of tragedy in life, referred to something his late first wife Neilia had said to him, before she was killed in a car accident along with his daughter in 1972 – his sons survived after being rescued by local fire and ambulance crews. Neilia had told him the "greatest gift God gave mankind is the ability to forget."
Biden said that while forgetting, at times, might help with painful memories, the world must not what happened on this day in 2001. And Americans, he said, must not forget the men and women standing by at the firehouse or the police station who are waiting in the wings, ready to respond in a crisis as widespread as another major terrorist attack or one as isolated as a car crash.
"Not only do I owe you so many people so many people owe you, and we gotta remind them. We gotta remind them this is not just any ordinary day, but say a prayer for those families for who today is a bitter, bittersweet day," said Biden.
"We owe so much to the families and we owe so much to all of you who are ready to repeat, ready to repeat exactly the kind of heroism that we saw on 9/11 so I came to thank you and I came to say to the entire Midwest while we're celebrating and commemorating the sacrifice made back East that we know it's no different in Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Oregon, California, no different, no different. Ordinary people do extraordinary things – that's been the nature and the mark of who we are as a country – and so I came to say thanks, and say to all Americans remember, remember, and say a prayer, say a prayer for those families who lost someone and say a prayer for these men and women up here that they stay safe."
"That's my only message today. Let's pull together, let's stay together. This has nothing to do with as some have said Democrat, Republican – this has to do with who we are as a people. It defines us and I'm proud to say I think the most vivid definition of who we are around the world up to now has been in the face of this new threat of terror around the world has been our first responders."
"You've made us all proud and I just want to thank you and say Godspeed, keep your head down, and pray God we're never gonna have to implement some of the extreme measures we have on paper to be able to deal with an extreme problem. Thank you all very much."