For some, today is a day of remembrance, for others, it’s a day memorialized in history. A day, we as a country will never forget, but for many, the understanding of it stops there. Limited to what they learned about that fateful day in school (for my millennials) or watched transpire on television.
However, for me, it was real life. It was right there in front of me.
On September 11, 2001 I was living in Washington, DC, working as a news assistant in the New York Times, Washington bureau and living a few blocks away from the Pentagon. Working the night shift at the Times I was home sleeping when the first planes hit the World Trade Center in New York.
I was pacing in my bedroom fielding calls from family, friends and my editors when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. less than half a mile away from my apartment.
A year after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, I was still working at the New York Times and wrote, “For some…the terrorist attacks were not just horrible pictures on a television screen. The fires raged in front of them. The survivors streamed past them…”
This was exactly what I experienced that day and I still, 18 years later, can remember as clearly as if it just happened.
I walked through the smoke, smelled burning jet engine fuel, watched in shock as disoriented men and women in uniform, some covered in ash, blood and other debris, streamed past me calling out for colleagues or just trying to figure out where to go.
I stood clutching my reporter’s notebook on that street just watching, waiting, also in shock, before I could finally spring into action and start doing what I was there for, to tell their story.
9/11 was very real for me. Maybe that’s why I don’t talk about it much, do #neverforget posts on social media or why I haven’t really written about it since I left journalism over a decade ago. I can’t forget.
But that’s the thing about having an amazing team surrounding you and reminding you that the pieces of the past are the puzzle that makes up your present and your future.
As hard as it may be to talk/write about something or how “insignificant” your experience may seem in your own head, those often are the most important stories to share.
There’s another reason I was finally convinced to tell my 9/11 story.
Unfortunately, right now I fear we live in a world where there is another attack going on…well several actually…and it’s from within our very own borders.
The first is an attack on journalism.
Despite leaving the profession over a decade ago and crossing over into public relations and strategic communications, where I often find myself challenged by or even at odds with the very media outlets and professionals I previously called colleagues, I have always believed in the sanctity and tremendous value of the 4th Estate.
The men and women who pursue journalism as a career, and stick with it, are our nation’s storytellers. They are eyes and ears in rooms we wouldn’t have access to without them.
They are a young journalist from St. Louis, Missouri, whose biggest trauma prior to arriving in Washington DC at 22, was hiding in the basement during the occasional tornado threat or the Cardinals 1985 World Series loss to the Kansas City Royals. But on that fateful day, she had a job to do, a story to tell. No matter what I was going to do my best to tell it despite being completely terrified and literally standing at ground zero, not knowing if another attack was imminent.
I remember that’s all I could think about as I looked around (often at the crystal clear blue sky) and as my phone buzzed in my pocket with family and friends desperately trying to reach me and make sure I was safe.
Now, let me say here, I completely realize this is another reason people bristle at journalists. I think they often think they have no compassion and are just hungrily exploiting people in crisis.
I can honestly tell you throughout my career I never aggressively pursued someone to talk to me that didn’t want to, but you have to also understand a good journalist has the ability to get to people to talk to them and share their stories, resulting in a more informed public.
What kept me going that day despite what should have been crippling fear, was empathy and responsibility.
Even today, this is something we instruct our communications clients at North to always prioritize first and foremost in a crisis. The definition of empathy? The ability to understand and share the feelings of another. That is journalism in a nutshell and exactly what I employed that day and for the year that followed of telling many stories of 9/11.
That is not a profession we should begrudge or in the worst case, which is happening far to often now, degrade. Because, take it from me, it’s all guts and very little glory at times.
Journalists are the storytellers, the eyes on history that provide glimpses in rooms, around corners and into tragedies, wars, and devastation that you might not want to know about — but need to know about.
It took hundreds of us and an entire year but we memorialized every single victim of the 9/11 attacks in our pages with pictures and in-depth profiles of each of them. Their stories, their lives, their sacrifice memorialized in sometimes excruciating detail. I remember fighting tears and fear on many occasions.
I didn’t want to transcribe hours upon hours of Blackbox tapes and recordings from inside each of the planes that were overtaken by terrorists on 9/11, but I did. One of the lesser jobs of piecing together the attacks that fell to the lowly newsroom assistants. It took over a year and I can still hear the fear in the voices on those tapes toward the end of the transcription, as the planes crashed.
But they were details that needed to be heard, stories that needed to be told, so that we had the full picture of what exactly happened that day.
The other attack on our country is an attack on our morality, basic human kindness, and compassion. In the rubble of that day the compassion and just pure humanity that was on display. There were outstretched hands, total strangers holding each other and sharing in our collective fear but also within minutes being emboldened by the need to save anyone that still could be, to find answers, and in the end say “never again.”
I don’t think until now, writing this, I ever really thought about the impact that day had on me or the pieces of it that I continue to carry with me.
Just as pieces of that day have stayed with me I know that they are also permanent pieces that make up the fabric of America.
I know that means there is hope, there is strength, there will be a return to kindness and compassion, because there are many heroes among us, some even journalists, but all of us Americans.
A few articles written by @bossladynorth post-9/11: