Monday, September 03, 2007

The Day Time Stood Still

Through the fog of sleep, I heard my answering machine click on just before 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001.
"Who the hell is calling me at this hour?" I thought, angry at having been awakened. I'm a copy editor for a daily newspaper and I work nights. Friends and family know better than to call that early.
I turn my phone off before going to bed. I also turn off the answering machine beep. But the old machine makes a gentle click when it records a message. I'm a light sleeper. The soft click may as well be a thunderclap.
I drifted back to sleep.
About 10 minutes later, another click from the answering machine.
My thoughts turned to my mother, 81 at the time. Maybe something was wrong.

I woke up, turned on the machine. The first call was from a friend and co-worker telling me that some kind of accident had just happened at the World Trade Center. A plane flew into one of the Twin Towers. The next call was from my mother, frantically informing me that another plane struck the second tower.

I turned on the TV, to CNN, I think. It wouldn't have made a difference, because the same horrific images were broadcast on every station.
I sat on my bedroom floor dumbfounded, wondering what the hell was going on.
The commentator was saying that the crashes appeared to have been deliberate.
Fire and smoke billowed from the multiangle views of the towers on the newscast.

About 9:40, my supervisor called to tell me to get to work as soon as possible. It was all hands on deck at the newspaper.
I took a quick shower, threw on the first clothes that came to hand -- jeans and an old flannel shirt -- and raced out the door. It's less than three miles from my house to the paper. The drive took just minutes.

The newspaper building is four stories tall. The newsroom is on the fourth floor. The long bank of windows in the newsroom faces south, offering a panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline. Half the reporters and editors were gathered around the big television set in the center of the newsroom. The rest of us were staring out the windows at the column of smoke over lower Manhattan, just eight miles away as the crow flies.

Around 10:30, the TV broadcasts turned to snow and white noise. The World Trade Center's north tower had collapsed, and with it the antennas of the local stations. The south tower had fallen about a half-hour earlier. From the windows, we watched the plume of smoke over lower Manhattan slowly turn into a pall that spread from the Twin Towers site like a drop of ink in water. It grew and grew, becoming an angry, black mass that hung over the city for days.

We were watching all this from the windows that only the day before offered us such a crisp, clear, dramatic late-summer view of the skyline. To this day, I can't look out those windows without remembering what I saw the morning of 9/11 and for days afterward. To this day, I can't look out those windows at that vista without inserting a mental place-marker for the Twin Towers.

Post-Sept. 11 view of Manhattan skyline from a window at The Record

As we raced to compile the news, we learned of the jet that smashed into the Pentagon, and of a fourth jet that plowed into a field somewhere in rural Pennsylvania. The Associated Press bulletins coming over the wire were screaming that America was under attack. We wondered what the next target was going to be. There were unconfirmed reports that more jets were headed to other sites nationwide.
There really was no time for anger or rage.
Things were happening at light speed.

On the copy desk, we frantically edited the stories that would go into the special edition planned for that day, a supplement to the regular edition that had already been printed. We also raced to put out the paper for Sept. 12.

Besides editing stories, each of us on the copy desk was assigned a related task. There were so many charts and graphics and maps that had to be edited to accompany the stories. My job was to help compile a time line of the events we saw with our own eyes that had changed America forever.

Meanwhile, photos from our staff photographers were pouring in, including one by Tom Franklin, a good man I'm proud to call a friend and colleague. You might not recognize Tom's name, but you have seen his iconic photo. It shows three firefighters raising a U.S. flag over the rubble of Ground Zero against a backdrop of the colossal debris pile that had been the Twin Towers.

We put in about 17 hours on Sept. 11. It seemed like the day would never end. I was seeing double by the time I went home, exhausted physically, mentally and spiritually. I had to keep rehashing the day's horror because compiling the time line required constant checking and rechecking of facts and figures. I had to keep replaying the events in my mind, an endless loop of pain and tragedy. The sequence of events was burned into my brain. It still is, even if I have forgotten over the ensuing years the exact time at which each stitch became a part of the fabric of history.

The succeeding days at work were nearly as long. The horror in Manhattan and Alexandria, Va., and Pennsylvania eventually melded into new stories coming out of Afghanistan, and then Iraq. Strange place names such as Tora Bora and Tikrit and the Triangle of Death became part of our daily vocabulary.

I wonder what strange new place names will become part of our vocabulary in coming days.


east village idiot said...

How interesting to read the perspective of a journalist on that day - what extraordinary responsibility you had to keep it together - knowing that people would be running out to buy your paper for answers. wow.

I have to say - as a manager of a large staff during that time, my heart went out to my staff from NJ. They all went through the WTC to get to work. Then to deal with the fear of bridges and tunnels after that...they were truly traumatized and anxious for months afterwards.

Michael said...

The team effort was incredible. I just wish it had been for something joyous.

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,
As the annivesary gets closer, I've been thinking a lot about 9/11/01. It's incredible to me that 6 years have already passed and how little progress we've made in these 6 years. Gee, I wonder why? As usual, your writing blows me away.

Michael said...

Thanks, Nancy, love you, too!

YourFireAnt said...

I agree with both commentors. One of the best pieces of writing about that day that I've seen. It doesn't tell me how to feel; it just tells me.

Thanks, Michael.


Michael said...

And thank YOU, FA!

Anonymous said...

i love your writing too! it also blows me away.


Michael said...

Thanks, Lisa!

Brotha Buck said...

I remember that day so vividly. I also work for a newspaper. My situation is different. We wait to see what your newspaper does, and then we simply downloaded what your artists visually reported. I wanted to be at home so that I could watch the news. At work, I felt like I was missing out.

Michael said...

Hey Buck,

Good to hear from you!

The only way I was able to slog through that day was to focus on my work and, to the extent to which it was possible, detach myself from what was going on.

But looking out the newsroom window and seeing the smoke rising from the gaping hole in the ground where the Twin Towers had been started the cycle of anger and disbelief all over again.

Thankfully, things at the paper quickly became so busy it was far easier to become immersed in my work.

But the anger and disbelief returned later, and have taken years to dissipate.