WRAL staffers share 9/11 memories
Posted September 8, 2011
With the 10th anniversary of 9/11 coming up, we asked some of our staff members to share their memories of that day. You can share your memories as well, by clicking here.
On September 11 I was sitting in a Wake County courtroom doing a piece on DWI's. This was before anyone had smart phones or wireless laptops. When the first plane hit the first tower, I got a news alert on my pager. I immediately turned to the Raleigh police officer next to me and we started quietly talking about the situation. Soon, the entire courtroom was buzzing with the news.
All of the court officials including me went back into the judge's chambers where we gathered around an old clock radio of all things to listen to the news reports. At least a dozen people were crowded into the small room, yet it was eerily quiet as we focused on the radio announcer's words.
After a few minutes, I knew I had to get back to the newsroom. It was surreal as I walked in and the powerful images of the towers on fire and then falling were on every TV screen plastered across the entire newsroom. It was the beginning of what would turn out to be the first of many fourteen hour days that week. I was assigned to cover local angles-Could it happen here? Are we safe? I certainly didn't know the answers. No one did.
I hadn't dressed to be on air that day, but it didn't matter. I reported in a sweater. No one cared. In between live-shots I remember sitting at my desk watching the video of the people jumping out of windows over and over again. It was transfixing. I couldn't turn away. I didn't even realize that I was crying. My news director put her hand on my shoulder and told me she was feeling the same way too. This wasn't about the news anymore--it was about people.
My daughter was eighteen months old at the time and at a nearby daycare. I had moments of panic throughout the day, wondering if I was doing the right thing, wondering if I shouldn't go and get her. If the world was truly ending-which is what it felt like-I needed to be with my family, not at WRAL. My husband and I talked throughout the day. The second he picked her up I felt a huge wave of relief come over me. But still in the back of my mind I wondered, Are we really safe?
Later that week we were scheduled to go to Florida for my husband's uncle's one hundredth birthday. The station wanted me to work, but the whole country was on edge. I could not let my baby go on a trip without me. So I went. We drove, of course. I just kept thinking if the world was ending, at least I was with my family.
The lessons of 9/11 get more diluted with time. But I'm sure anyone who was alive on that tragic day will never forget the images of death and destruction that we shared as a nation and can summon those feelings of loss at a moment's notice. In many ways, we lost our collective innocence that day as a country-even longtime journalists like myself who thought we had seen it all.
I was working part-time in radio and full-time in web dev when a shop of 60 of us got laid off Sept. 10th, thanks to the tech bubble of 2001. Woke up Sept 11th to my mom on the phone, screaming at me to turn on the news. I did it just in time to see the second plane hit.
I went in to work and found that half my former co-workers had done the same. We didn't know where else to go. We finally found a TV in the building next door. My most vivid memory of the time is hearing Bob Edwards' voice shake as the first tower went down on my way home, heard on the radio at a stoplight a few blocks away.
I also remember staying up all night watching CNN's Ashleigh Banfield wander through the streets of New York like a ghost, covered in ash and only barely coherent. I didn't sleep for three days.
Afterward, what I most remember is the quiet outside. I'd walk my dog at dawn and dusk, and it seemed so eerily still. The day they allowed flight travel to resume, I remember neighborhood kids watching the sky and ducking, and thinking, I never felt that way about planes overhead. Maybe this is the new normal.
I arrived about five minutes earlier to work on September 11, 2001 than I usually did. It was about 8:55 a.m. and several of my co-workers were standing in front of the assignment desk staring up at the TV monitors. They said a plane crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. I thought it was some crazy pilot of a single engine plane, but the fire and smoke made it obvious that this was much more. Suddenly, we watched the second plane – an airliner – come into view and smash into the second tower. Clearly, this was a coordinated attack. It took a while to absorb the enormity and horror of this moment. I remember thinking that this was on the scale of Pearl Harbor – or worse. As the towers crumbled to the earth, I knew that it was worse. Soon, reports came in that the Pentagon was the target of a similar attack and that another airliner crashed somewhere in Pennsylvania.
Immediately, the desk began pairing reporters and photographers to get out the door – to look for local connections, local reactions – to what? We weren’t yet sure. The suspicion was that it was a terrorist attack, probably by a radical Islamic group. I typically worked as a one man band, but that morning they sent me out with reporter Tom Lawrence to RDU Airport. On the phone going out we learned that all flights were cancelled. We would grab interviews with travelers stuck in the terminal with nowhere to go. We’d find others turning around to go home – get their reactions. We spoke to airport management to air their official statements. We linked up with engineer Tony Gupton who pulled up with a live truck. Airport security turned back any vehicles that were simply picking up passengers. They wouldn’t allow anyone to park anywhere near the airport terminals – except TV live units.
These are the kind of events we practice our craft for. We react on instinct and go through the motions to get information, to get pictures and sound, package it, send it, and air it. We didn’t have much time to consider the enormity of this day – the impact it would have on the country and on the civilized world. I suspected the attacks could continue almost anywhere in the country, even in Raleigh. I tried calling home to check on my family, but cell phone networks were jammed. It was a time to think about your loved ones and if they were in a vulnerable place. We knew that countless innocent people had been killed – and countless others were injured. We heard stories of people jumping from the WTC towers before they collapsed, simply to escape the flames even though the fall meant certain death. These were people who got up to go to work just like I did that morning, having seen their own families for the last time.
I remember the unity that this tragedy created in the country. For a time, we weren’t divided by race, by class, by political persuasion – but united as Americans. In the days after the attacks, I reported stories of patriotic fervor in the Triangle. People were buying up American flags from stores and displaying them at home, on their cars, on hats and clothing. High school football games transformed the Star Spangled Banner moment from a passionless ritual to a heart felt and tearful celebration.
It was a day that I will never forget – and I often wish we could return, not to the horror of that day, but to the unity we felt as Americans.
I had just moved to southwest China in the summer of 2001 and was winding down from a long, confusing day on Sept. 11 – there is a 12-hour time difference – when a friend in Durham sent me an instant message telling me something had happened and wanted to know if I had heard.
China was a different world for me, and America was the farthest thing from my mind. Unable to comprehend the language or relate to the culture, I was exhausted from a day spent roaming the new city in which I lived. It was only 9 p.m. or so, but I just wanted to go to sleep.
I had been checking email, so I went to CNN.com but couldn't get connected. I figured it was the shoddy dial-up Internet service that I had. For some reason – maybe I thought America wasn't susceptible to violence on that massive of a scale – I didn't think much more of it and thought that my friend was just overreacting.
A few minutes later, I received a frantic message from another friend. I walked downstairs to some American neighbors' apartments. They hadn't heard anything either.
I walked back upstairs and turned on the TV. There was nothing. As I kept flipping through the channels, I came across a scrambled station that had taken a Fox News feed. It was in Chinese. I couldn't understand it, but the images I saw spoke volumes.
I let the Americans in my apartment building know, and we sat, for what seemed like hours, stunned. I remember seeing smoke and dust and destruction and chaos and people crying. We cried. We prayed. It was surreal.
For us, the world seemed to have stopped, but outside our apartment building, life went on the next day.
The people around us didn't seem to care. For the average Chinese national with whom I interacted, 9/11 was just another instance of terrorism and violence in the world. I liken it to, perhaps, an average American's response to an IRA bombing in Northern Ireland.
Over the next few days and weeks, we learned more about what had happened. What stood out to me was how people came together, how strangers were there for one another. Americans seemed to be united in tragedy. It was bittersweet.
As the 10th anniversary approaches, that day is still incomprehensible. I'm continually moved by the images and sounds from that day and by the amazing tales of heroism and survival and resilience.