The song is a reflection on the events of Sept. 11, 2001. On that day, al Qaeda terrorists armed with box cutters and other knives hijacked multiple planes and piloted them into New York City’s Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 Americans died in the attacks.
“Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?/Teaching a class full of innocent children/Or driving down some cold interstate?” Jackson sang.
Jackson wrote the song in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. It won the artist a Grammy Award in 2002 for Best Country Song. Meanwhile, his performance on Sunday included a full band with violins and acoustic guitars, per Taste of Country. As Jackson wrapped up the song, an image of the “Raising the Flag at Ground Zero” photo by Thomas E. Franklin appeared onstage. Jackson then saluted it.
Watch Jackson’s performance of the song here:
Alan Jackson Knows the Song Evokes Strong Emotions
“Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” has often moved audiences to tears, Jackson admitted to Yahoo News in 2011. He said he was hesitant to release the song at first. But he’s glad he did, and he’s proud that people seem to find it so moving.
“And I’ve seen people crying in the crowds, and they cheer on lines that mean something,” Jackson told Yahoo. “Like the line about the heroes just doing what they do – they really like that. There’s a lot of emotion going on in the room during that song, and it always makes me feel good that it has affected people that way.”
The line he was referring to goes: “Did you burst out with pride/For the red, white and blue/And the heroes who died/Just doin’ what they do?”
Doing What Heroes Do
Indeed, as Alan Jackson knew well, on 9/11, there were many heroes to choose from. September 11 became the deadliest day ever for firefighters and law enforcement. The New York City Fire Department saw 343 firefighters die, according to the 9/11 Commission report. That was the greatest loss of life of any emergency response in recorded history. The New York City police force lost 23 officers from their ranks. And 37 Port Authority officers died that day, which was also the greatest single loss of life of any police force in history.
“We had a very strong sense we would lose firefighters and that we were in deep trouble, but we had estimates of 25,000 to 50,000 civilians, and we had to try to rescue them,” Division Chief for Lower Manhattan Peter Hayden told the 9/11 Commission.
Meanwhile, United Airlines Flight 93 also had its share of heroes. After their plane was hijacked by terrorists, the passengers used the in-flight Airfones to call family members and learned the fate of the other hijacked planes. According to History.com, a vote was taken, and the passengers decided to stage a counterattack.
At 9:57 a.m., the passengers rushed the cockpit. With the passengers threatening to break through, the hijackers decided to crash the plane. At 10:02 a.m., the cockpit voice recorder registered a voice saying, “Yes, put it in it, and pull it down.” The airplane then flipped and charged into an empty field at 580 miles per hour. There were no survivors. Before the passengers rushed the cockpit, it is believed that the plane had been bound for the Capitol, the White House or a nuclear power plant along the Eastern seaboard.