One of the inevitable realities that comes with growing older is the ability to actually recall seminal moments in history that have not only impacted and shaped your life but which continue to exist as critical events — their significance acknowledged as being much more than a few footnotes on the pages of life.
September 11, 2001, serves as such a moment in my life and in American’s story. And while this Friday will mark the 19th anniversary of that tragic date in American history, the reason I’ll never forget it has almost nothing to do with my own life and what I felt on that day but what could have happened to my children and how their futures could have been tragically changed forever.
In retrospect, one of the things that I remember most about 9/11 was how similar the day first began, almost a mirror image of any other day — until it suddenly and inexplicably changed, like a shape-shifter, into something more reminiscent of a nightmare than a daydream.
Back then, I was a beat reporter based in Chicago — relatively new in my career as a journalist and eager to establish my own unique voice and make a name for myself in the business. It was a Tuesday morning and the newsroom was buzzing with activity as my fellow reporters and the editors booted up our computers, checked the latest news reports and grabbed a few donuts and some coffee. As they say in the business, we were going to press.
Then, just before 9 a.m., the publisher rushed into the newsroom — his face glowing, white and so bereft of blood that he looked like the proverbial ghost. The fax machine was going berserk as page after page came pouring nonstop out of its mouth — vomited on the floor in an unruly pile of sheets that grew bigger with every passing minute.
It seemed almost surreal when the publisher shouted, “stop the presses.”
Wasn’t that the line often used in the movies when we’re given a hint that something terrible has just happened requiring Clark Kent and Lois Lane to grab their pads, pens and coats and rush to the scene of the crime? Had someone robbed a bank? Did the stock market crash? Had someone “important” been kidnapped or murdered or found guilty of some heinous crime?
It was much worse. America was under attack. We were all stunned. As more information was released, we learned that through a series of four coordinated terrorist attacks led by 19 members of the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda, four passenger airlines had been hijacked as a means of initiating four deadly suicide missions.
In the end, 2,996 people died, over 6,000 required medical treatment for their injuries and property and infrastructure damage totaled at least $10 billion. As for firefighters and law enforcement officials, 9/11 has become the deadliest incident in U.S. history, with 343 and 72 killed, respectively.
I was directed to take the train, along with a photographer, from our offices in Oak Park to downtown Chicago. No one really knew what was going on yet and many speculated that similar attacks might occur in other major U.S. cities. We were there to confirm or deny such speculations.
The trains were empty as people were racing to get as far away from the skyscrapers and swarms of other people to the supposedly safer suburbs.
I wish I could say that I was attentive to my assignment. I wish I could say that I was eagerly pursuing interviews with folks as they scrambled out of the ominously tall towers of downtown Chicago, fought for cabs and pushed their way onto the platforms for the “L.” But it wouldn’t be true.
I moved in a fashion more akin to a robot that day — like being in a trance — my movements hampered like one trapped in suspended animation. Phones were inoperable for most of the morning as the circuits and cell towers were overloaded as millions of Americans tried to contact their loved ones to make sure they were safe.
It took me most of the day before I was able to reach my ex-wife and be reassured that our children, then just 11 and 7 years of age, were okay back home in Detroit. — the city from which I had moved after our divorce, hoping to make a fresh start on my own in Chi-town.
I had never felt such fear or anxiety like what I experienced on 9/11 — waiting to hear, wanting to hear, needing to hear. Finally, when I heard the voices of my little girl and my little boy, all was right again — at least in my very small world.
Others would not receive such good news.
And so it was.