Remembering 9/11

It was shortly before 9 a.m. on a bright, sunny Tuesday morning when my son David called me at the Freeman from his “apartment” in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The only good things about this Murphy bed  “studio” were it was cheap and that its lone window offered a panoramic view of lower Manhattan.

It’s been 20 years, so I don’t remember if the city desk had yet seen the Associated Press report that heavy black smoke was pouring out of the upper floors of the World Trade Center.

“Did something hit the building?” I asked him.

“I don’t know, but there’s a lot of smoke and fire,” he said.

“Keep talking,” I said. “Tell me what you see.”

About then, word reached the newsroom via AP. Clusters of people were gathered around the office TV set watching the drama unfold.  

“Holy crap, Dad”, David yelled into the phone. “Here comes a plane, and it’s a big one. It just hit the tower!”

“Don’t hang up,” I told him. “One of our reporters is going to speak to you.”

Hallie Arnold, our county reporter, sat about 10 feet from my desk. “Hallie,” I said, probably louder than necessary, “get on the phone with this guy. It’s my son David, and he’s got a bird’s eye view of the World Trade Center from Brooklyn.”

In local newspapers, “the local angle” is always top priority and here was a former resident (Kingston High School class of ’96) with an eye witness account of the biggest story we ever covered. Hallie’s interview with David led our World Trade coverage.

Editors gathered the staff, called in off-duty reporters. All hands on deck. Editors met with each other and staff every hour, right up to deadline at noon. I still think of it as our shining hour, the tragedy of what we were trying to cover notwithstanding. 

Editors took charge. Is there anybody from our area who was in the buildings, or who had responded with the uniformed forces? What about reactions from local officials? Members of the public? 

The phones started ringing almost immediately after the first tower was hit. People, many of them frantic, said they had friends and family coworkers in proximity of the towers. Had we heard anything? No. It was too early. Then the first building collapsed. Oh, my God.

Shortly before our deadline, a close friend got through to me. It was off the record, he said, but the son of a local family he knew well had been trapped on the 96th floor and was presumed dead. I won’t repeat the victim’s name but it was published through independent sources a few days later.

I had jotted the young man’s name on a pad, his age, the company he had worked for. But then I asked myself that morning why should the newspaper subject a grieving family to a news inquiry only hours after they had lost their son, the father of two small children? It was not an easy decision, a violation of the cardinal rule in journalism being that reporters tell editors all they know about a story regardless of their personal feelings about it.

Some of it, I realized later, had to do with our son David. He’d been going through a rough stretch what with the bad timing of graduating from college the year the Dot-Com bubble burst. Even scoring an interview was an accomplishment and he’d been scheduled for one near the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. It had been cancelled the day before, yet another disappointment. Now, through the mercy of God, he was safe.

And some of it had to do with my revulsion over TV news reporters sticking a mike in some poor soul’s face after a family tragedy. “How do you feel about this, Mrs. Jones,” was the stock question.

A few years later on one of the 9/11 anniversaries, I ran into the young victim’s mother (whom I knew) at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast. I expressed my condolences, and then with some trepidation asked her what she thought of 9/11.

“I just wish for peace,” she said, walking away.

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