September 11, 2001. It Seems Like Only Yesterday

8:39 AM, Sep 11, 2013   |    comments
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Dear Readers, I wrote this on the 10th Anniversary. But I caught myself looking up to the sky and remembering today.

I'll never forget the weather that morning.

The day dawned bright and clear.

The air was crisp under a cloudless blue sky with a warm, late summer sun.

On September 11, 2001 I was on my way to work at WROC-TV in Rochester, and at 8:45am I had tuned into WHAM Radio to catch my favorite part of the morning show hosted by Chet Walker and Beth Adams. It was called the "WHAM Free For All", and it was when Beth and Chet would invite news anchor Bill Lowe and talk show host Bob Lonsberry into to the studio to discuss a topic of the day. No format, really. I guess that's why they called it the free for all.

As I listened to them chat about what I can't remember, I clearly recall that Bill stopped talking in mid sentence.

"Um... there uh, ..well I'm looking up at CNN and there seems to be some sort of fire way up on one of the World Trade Centers....we'll have to keep an eye on that."

The quartet went back to talking about whatever they were talking about....when Bill interrupted again.

"Now we're getting reports that some sort of small plane may have hit one of the twin towers...we can only hope that not too many people are hurt."

At that point my instincts told me to tune my radio to WBEN in Buffalo instead.

Don't get me wrong, they're both great stations.

In fact I know this because I worked at both of them.

But because I worked at both, I also knew that WBEN was just quicker on the trigger to switch to network coverage of major events.

My instincts were right.

When I flipped the dial, WBEN was already airing a live feed of WCBS in New York. By this time, I approaching the last of the two traffic lights I'd encounter on my commute to work.

I tuned in just in time to hear a WCBS news anchor say they were going to take a live call from someone who'd apparently seen what happened.

The male caller stated that it wasn't a small plane, it was a passenger jet and that "it was purposely steered into the building."

"Well sir," the WCBS news anchor began to caution, "we have no confirmation of either of those two things."

"That's why I called in....and that's what I'm telling you. The pilot drove it right into the building!"

"Well,..now,sir...we wouldn't want to speculate..."

"Of course YOU can't speculate because YOU didn't see it!" shouted the caller. "But I DID,....and he drove it right into the building and HE DID IT ON PURPOSE!!!"

I had just pulled into the parking lot at work and went dashing into the television station. There I found my news director and the station manager watching the live feed of the first trade center tower burning.

"We gotta get the live truck and get to the airport,...NOW!" I shouted.

'What?"

"I just was listening to a radio station from New York. This is a terrorist attack....we have to go...right now."

"Let's not be hasty, Dave," said the station manager, with the same admonishment I'd heard the news anchor on the radio intone to the caller just moments ago.

He looked at me like he thought I was nuts, and asked, "What makes you think it's..."

Before he could finish the question, the second plane slammed into the second tower right in font of us on live TV.

There was but a few seconds of silence before I turned to him, this time in a very calm and quiet voice, and asked, "Any more questions?....We need to get the #$*&ing truck and get to the airport now."

I hopped in with a photographer and a short time later arrived at the Rochester airport. Inside we found groups of people standing in silence, staring up at large screen TVs.

The photographer began taking video of the screen and the events unfolding on them.

"No, no.." I whispered. "Turn around,....shoot their faces."

He looked at me quizzically, so I explained.

"There will plenty of pictures of what's happening on TV on the tapes they're rolling back at the station. But they won't have this," I said, nodding to the growing mass of would be travelers around the TVs.

And so he began taking video -not of what was happening-- but the reaction of those watching it happen.

He shot their faces.

Faces which were stone silent, some with gaped mouths, others with gaped mouths covered by their hands. Some twisted in horror. Others with tears already coming from their eyes.

The anguish on those faces would only intensify as they watched the first of the towers come crumbling down.

But before that happened, I had been called to go back out to the truck and do a live shot as soon as the network gave local stations an availability in their now wall-to-wall coverage.

Soon our news anchor, Jerry Fiore, tossed it out to me for the first time, asking me, "Dave, what's happening out there?"

I may have been the first person on TV to say this.

I can't say for sure, because I wasn't watching anyone else up to that point.

But I know I did that live shot only about a half hour or so after the first plane hit the first tower.

And I recall looking into into the camera, and stating, "The same thing is happening here, Jerry, as is happening everywhere else right now. And that is, that the world has changed....and the world has changed forever.""

 

The rest of the day was a blur... countless live shots, the run on rental cars for those whose planes had been grounded and who sought desperately to return home to their loved ones.... frantic efforts to confirm who from our area had died,..desperately seeking pictures...telling the sad stories of those still missing, holding our own emotions in check when speaking to the bereaved... keeping our composure, knowing our nation was under attack, and not knowing what might be next.

One of the most remarkable things about September 11, 2001....and one of the things I know I'll never forget, .....is the enormous sense of unity which would soon envelope us all.

I remember that my first, very personal moment in that regard, occurred amid all the chaos of that day.

It was outside the airport where I was preparing for yet another live shot, and where by then a crew from a rival station had set up to do the same thing.

They positioned their equipment right next to ours.

And between the two rival stations, there were no bigger rivals than me, and the reporter the other station had dispatched to the scene.

We were fierce competitors, deeply respectful of one another, yet not overly friendly lest one gain an advantage over the other by becoming too close.

There we stood between live shots, in front of our cameras, each with a TV monitor sitting on the ground just below and to the right of our respective camera tripods, allowing us to watch what was continuing to transpire.

We stood there like that for some time.

But eventually one of us ( I honestly don't recall which one) ventured over to the other's camera position to huddle in front of the other's monitor.

I also don't recall which one of us reached out first ....but on that day it eventually came to be, that two fierce rivals each found themselves with an arm draped around the other's shoulder....watching together as the events unfolded.

During this gesture of mutual comfort, not a word was spoken. No words needed to be.

We were all in this together.

We were all unified.

We were all one.

But very early on in all of this, I also came to another realization. An instinctive feeling that, tragedy and human carnage aside, an even graver loss might soon follow.

The loss of our liberties in the name of security.

I recall thinking that if that happened, and if this great nation was fundamentally changed in that manner..then those who attacked us would in a very real sense be victorious.

This only intensified that night, when I had moved from the airport to another location outside of a Wegmans, where employees were loading a tractor trailer of donated supplies bound for New York to assist rescue and recovery workers.

I was listening to the radio, where by now even the music stations had pressed their DJ's into duty as talk show hosts. I listened to one particularly idiotic "host" rail on ...demanding that from now on all Americans be issued national ID cards, which they would be required to keep on their persons and show to authorities upon request.

"Here we freakin' go,"...I thought to myself. "Here we freakin' go."

And all of this, mind you, was well before anyone heard the words "Patriot Act".

Sadly, some of those things I feared (but thankfully not all) would indeed come to pass.

There are other indelible sounds and images which still flash into my brain from that day and the days which followed.

Members of Congress singing on the steps of the Capitol, other nations in front of their houses of government playing the Star Spangled Banner...the same nations we are seemingly always quick to aid when disaster strikes...now paying tribute, and weeping for America; their great protector. David Letterman coming on the air a few days later stating, "it'll never make any damn sense." Dan Rather appearing on Letterman's show and breaking down while attempting to recite the words to America The Beautiful. Hours of telethons to raise money, the blood drives ....the run on stores to buy American flags, and seeing them displayed on house after house after house.

I'll also never forget an event a day or two later, also at the airport, on the night when air travel resumed.

Fortunate for me, just before I was to go on live, I spied in the distance the lights of the first plane to fly into Rochester since all flights had been grounded on September 11.

It dawned on me that this was more than an approaching plane. That it was actually a sign of things beginning to return to normalcy (whatever normalcy might be in a post 9/11 world.)

It was closer when the anchors tossed it to me at the airport, asking what I could report on just when air service would resume.

"Before I begin," I told them, "I think there's something everyone should see..."

I gestured upward as the cameraman tilted and zoomed his shot in on the plane,...and then I just remained silent for a moment longer....letting it roar over our heads and touch the runway before I stepped into the view of the camera and began to speak again.

And when I did, I remember remarking that, "although that's a noise that we used to most often complain about,... on this night,...no sweeter a noise could there be."

Even years later, as the sands of time began to cover the rawness of our wounds, there have been odd reminders of September 11.

One in particular for me occurred in September of 2004, when I went to obtain a building permit for our new home. The town clerk who accepted payment was also the one who assigned the street address.

"Hey,...while you're here, let me tell you what your new house number will be,"she said cheerily.

But then, as she looked at her computer screen, I noticed her brow began to furrow.

"Hmmmmm," she said, seemingly troubled.

"What's the problem?" I asked.

"Well,... it says here that you should be assigned 911...but I just can't do that to you."

She gave us 915 instead.

We've now observed ten anniversaries of 9/11, and I've covered most every one of them.

On the first, I remember doing a story on the news in which (left to my own devices) I decided to include members of my my own family.

There were a couple of reasons. First, I recalled how important family was to everyone in the aftermath of what happened. My son wasn't born until 8 months after 9/11, but the truth was I had just been told by my wife a few days before the attacks that he would be coming along.

So, my photographer and I drove to our baby sitter's house and took pictures of him, as someone who would grow up in a post 9/11 world, and have no recollection of what the world was like before then.

My wife was also in the story. As a kindergarten teacher, and knowing the televisions in her student's homes would be bombarding them with sad reminders of what had happened, she spent part of the first anniversary reading a book to them called "September 12th".

Written by and for kids, it basically tells a story of how on one day, September 11th, something very bad happened. But that on the next day the sun came up again, and that things are okay... and that they shouldn't be scared.

It was an easy story to do, because I just wrote from the heart. I also won an award for that story.

Never so honored, had I ever been.

Just before that first anniversary, I was quite humbled when I was asked by Chris Martin, who volunteers for the fire department in my home town, to partake in the unveiling and dedication of a 9/11 memorial.

It's really quite something, with life sized statues which had been carved from wood, depicting the now famous photo of firefighters raising the flag over the ruins of ground zero. It even has a piece of the actual wreckage from the World Trade Center.

Martin wanted me to emcee the event, and said that while Governor Pataki had been invited, he doubted he would attend, and so in the event that he did not, could I maybe give a speech?

I poured all I had into it.

Before the assembled crowd, which included hundreds of volunteer firefighters from surrounding towns, I remember speaking about the New York firefighters, who had to know how much peril lay ahead when charging up the stairs....and how that didn't stop them. I recollected their faces covered with dust,...and tears. I asked folks to recall that moment (which I'm sure all of us had on that day) when -perhaps when no one was looking --that they cried too. I spoke of how in the aftermath of the attacks it suddenly didn't matter if you black or white....or rich or poor...or anything else because we were all so united. I also remarked that how, in a small town hundreds of miles away from ground zero, we would have our own small patch of hallowed ground, which would symbolize everything that was so right, ....after something so wrong.

When the ceremony finished my dad, who was also invited to attend, sidled up to me. And under his breath said to me words which only I could here, but which I'll forever cherish.

"I'm proud of you, David."

Never so honored, had I ever been.

They still hold a 24 hour vigil at that monument every September 11th.

On one of those occasions I received another call from Chris Martin, asking for nothing more than for me to pay a visit to the memorial.

"We don't need you to speak or anything. But we made some additions to the monument and I think you'd be pleased with them."

I told him I'd try and stop by that day, but I knew I wouldn't.

This was the first 9/11 anniversary which fell on a weekend.

Which meant that it would be the first 9/11 anniversary upon which I would not be working.

As such, I wouldn't be required to report on any remembrance services, or on increased security, or the state of the war on terror.

I would not be compelled to search out survivors of victims and ask them to share again their heart wrenching stories.

And frankly, I was thankful for that.

This would be the first "9/11" when I could just mark the occasion by myself, in my own way, wrapped up in my own thoughts.

About a week or so later I made it a point to go see the monument.

I parked the car, and as I walked toward it I quickly noticed the "improvements" had involved the erection of some new, shiny black granite markers near the statue.

As I got closer, I noticed there were words inscribed on the markers.

As I stopped to read one of them, I was stunned.

The words were mine....taken from the speech I gave at the dedication.

Never so honored, had I ever been.

I've come to view 9/11 as the modern generation's Pearl Harbor Day.

Think about it for a moment, and compare the similarities of those two events which occurred 60 years apart from each other.

On both days, America was attacked, and many died as a result.

Both occasions propelled us into war, in which thousands more would die.

Both brought about unparalleled waves of patriotism and unity.

As a result of each event, people gave money, either buying war bonds or donating to the Red Cross.

In each case they donated blood, ...or shed blood...to protect the nation from its enemies

Each occurrence was a watershed event in the lives of those who lived through them.

People remember just where they were, what they were doing, and who they were with when they heard about Pearl Harbor, just as they can with 9/11 (or the assassination of President Kennedy for that matter).

Human mortality being what it is , there are significantly fewer of us every year who are be able to render a first hand account of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

And some day it will come to pass that there will be no one left to give a first hand recollection of 9/11.

For now though, most can still recall the words of President George W. Bush to first responders when he visited ground zero, and when they handed him a bull horn because they couldn't hear what he was trying to tell them.

"Well I can hear YOU,... and pretty soon the people who brought down these buildings are going to hear from all of us."

Similarly, many can still recite the most famous line from President Roosevelt's landmark speech following Pearl Harbor in which he asked Congress to declare war on the Empire of Japan.

When he referred to December 7th, 1941 as "a day which will live in infamy"

But there was another line uttered by FDR in that very same speech, which most do not recall, but which seems as applicable to 9/11 as it was to Pearl Harbor.

It also seems very appropriate on this day:

".....WE SHALL NEVER FORGET"

 

.

 

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