It’s a collective freeze-frame in the consciousness of America. We were all swept into it.
Anyone alive on September 11, 2001 can tell you where they were, who they were with, and what they were doing the day four hijacked airliners crashed in New York, Washington, D.C. and rural Pennsylvania.
Snapshot of when I first heard the news: I was standing in my living room with videographer Chris Hedrick. We were about to leave town to report on a feature story for WBNS-TV (CBS) in Columbus, Ohio.
The terrorist attacks changed who we are and how we perceive the world. We are more wary and less secure. For many of us, the weight of 9-11-2001 will always linger. That’s a certainty for the family and friends of the 2,977 victims who died in the suicide attacks. We didn’t ask for it. Many of us still can’t quite believe it. We begrudgingly accept it. Or do we?
I was a reporter for WBNS-TV on that day 10 years ago. That morning, good friend and videographer Chris Hedrick and I were supposed to drive to northern Ohio to work on a feature story.
Not long after we hit the road, we learned that a third aircraft had slammed into the Pentagon. A fourth plane crashed into a Pennsylvania farm field. We got a call from WBNS-TV boss John Cardenas. “I want you and Chris to head towards New York City.” said John. “We have a satellite truck less than an hour behind you.”
And so we went. Chris and I turned our Ford Explorer east. We drove eleven hours and some 535 miles that day across Ohio, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey. We arrived that night at Liberty State Park. It’s on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River across from the World Trade Center.
Along the way, we were riveted to the radio, listening to the non-stop reports that poured across the airwaves. Whenever we stopped for gas we caught glimpses of the television coverage that left people glued to their screens that day.
It was soon confirmed by federal officials that the two planes that crashed into the World Trade Center and two more airliners that crashed in rural Pennsylvania and into the Pentagon in Washington D.C. had been hijacked. We knew thousands of innocent people had died or were injured. Most were Americans. We wondered what other acts or terrorism could follow.
That night, we did our first live shot a few miles southwest of the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center. The entire south end of Manhattan was plunged into darkness save for the white glow of the emergency lights powered by gas generators that crews erected near the collapsed twin towers.
You could see the large plume of white smoke drift through the night sky. It washed over the filtered generator lights behind us in Manhattan.
We stayed the rest of that week, working 18 hour days, reporting from New Jersey and New York on the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history:
The rescue effort that quickly turned into a recovery only effort.
The outpouring of volunteer assistance from across the country and around the world.
Candle light vigils for the victims who died and their surviving families.
There’s not much to say that hasn’t already been said about 9-11-2001. So many thoughts have been expressed. So many words have tried to describe what happened. I still search for words to describe what happened that day, how I felt and how 9-11 changed me . But, I would like to share a few of my memories:
The Jersey City, N. J. police captain who tirelessly coordinated the volunteer relief effort that streamed across the Hudson River to Ground Zero and back again from the Jersey City docks. The captain always had words of support and cheer for the thousands of people who arrived to do something…anything, to help in the days that followed the WTC attacks. His tireless humor and positive attitude lifted everyone around him. I shed bittersweet tears when I later learned the captain and his wife had buried their young daughter, a cancer victim, just days before 9-11. In one of his darkest hours, he shined so brightly. Where did he get the strength?
The New Jersey firefighter who I interviewed, exhausted and covered with dust and soot after spending 12 hours recovering victims from the World Trade Center rubble. At the time, there was a real danger that several buildings damaged by the collapsed south and north Trade Center towers could still collapse. If they had, they could have killed or injured the rescue workers who risked their own lives in the recovery effort.
When I asked the firefighter why he risked his life he pointed towards Ground Zero. That’s where 343 NYC firefighters were killed evacuating World Trade Center employees. He said “Because I have brothers and sisters in there who would do it for me.”
The trip under the Hudson River on a mostly vacant subway car the morning after the attacks. I’ve never seen a subway car with fewer people. It was quieter than a Sunday morning. Eerily quiet that day. One passenger, a young woman in business dress, sat across from us lost in thought. I caught her eye for a second and tried to smile. She looked back with a smile that quickly trembled and faded as tears washed down her cheek. There was no need to explain. There was no way to explain what had happened less than a day before.
The morning Chris and I left Columbus it was a bright summery day. When we returned home to our families six days later, the weather had cooled. It felt like fall.
So much had changed in these six days of my life. So much more has changed in the 10 years that have followed September 11th, 2001.