It’s the story we all have, the memory we all share. Where were you on 9/11? What did it mean then? What does it mean now? Sometimes our stories intersect, sometimes they diverge. But we are all bound by that day. Today we are a working mother in North Carolina and a working journalist in Washington D.C. leading very different lives. Ten years ago we were a TV news crew working together. This is our story . . . then and now.
His: If I don’t write this, then the terrorists have won. OK, maybe not. But it seems like everything else since September 11, 2001, has been based on that premise. We’re always looking for a way to stay one step ahead of the people that want to do us harm and we can justify all kinds of things in the pretense of safety, real or illusive. America got sucker-punched that day and we as a country have vowed to never let our guard down again.
That day ten years back changed everyone’s lives—how we live, how we think—but for me personally, it set me on a course I would never have been able to dream up on my own. As a cameraman and journalist, that day became the thread that almost every story I’ve told afterward could be unraveled back to whether working for American TV or foreign TV, which is what I do now. There’s almost always some connection if you look for it.
Hers: For the first time in a long time I am taking special notice of the anniversary of 9/11. Maybe it’s the decade mark, maybe it’s because the mastermind of this unimaginable atrocity was finally found and killed, or maybe it’s because for the first time in my children’s young lives I feel obligated to talk with them about the horror of that day. At ages eight, six and one, they were born after the day America changed forever and like many mama bears I have sought to protect them from the very real evils that exist in our world. But my children are in school now, they hear things, and of course, the killing of Osama bin Laden earlier this year needed to be explained. He did this to us, so we did that to him.
So now it’s time, at least for my oldest, to see some of the images from that fateful day. The gleaming World Trade Center towers reaching into the Carolina blue sky, the explosive fireball, the plumes of white smoke, then black. People falling calmly from the skies, people running frantically in the streets. Chaos everywhere. Some of those videos have been archived for years, but I have no doubt it will all come back out this week. What do I allow my children to see, what do I hold back, how do I explain a series of events that is still breathtaking in its magnitude and intensity? Maybe I should just tell them how I spent the day on September 11, 2001.
His: On that Tuesday in 2001, my day began with the assignment to drive from Raleigh to the small town of Salisbury, about two hours away. My reporter Jennifer and I were to set our camera up outside the home of the mother of Elizabeth Dole, who planned to announce she would be running for the Senate made vacant Jesse Helms’ retirement. I wouldn’t call it an exciting assignment. Photographically speaking, it was just another boring press conference without much room for creativity. I figured at least we’d have time to get some good BBQ for lunch after a noon live-shot.
Hers: I was excited about my assignment that day. As a reporter for the local ABC affiliate, I enjoyed covering political stories, and we were likely to be the lead story. Some of our stuff might even make it to that night’s network newscast. That’s always cool. This was before cell phones were so smart and all consuming, so my photographer Kyle and I were actually passing the time on the drive down by talking to one another . . . in complete sentences. Then his cell phone rang. It wasn’t the station, but a friend of his, who told us about a plane hitting a building in New York City. We turned on the radio. There was confusion about exactly what happened; something serious, but it was fragmented and lacked context. And New York City, relatively speaking, was still pretty far away . . . we drove on.
His: I assumed it must have been some local private pilot who got lost in the clouds and clipped a wing of his Cessna on a skyscraper . . . bad, but not anything that would affect our world. But when Jenn and I tuned in the radio, I knew right away things were more serious than I originally thought. Then we heard the news that a second plane had also collided with the twin towers, and the knot in my stomach started to form.
When we reached Salisbury, several satellite trucks were already there, including one from CNN. I set up my tripod and claimed my spot, assuming we still had a job to do there. While we waited, everyone gathered around a TV monitor CNN had hooked up with a live feed from NYC. That was my first glimpse of the burning towers. Planes as missiles? It was inconceivable.
Hers: Seeing planes fly into buildings is a lot different from hearing about planes flying into buildings. Huddled around the CNN satellite truck, I was mesmerized by the image—the plane looked so little, the sky looked so blue and then poof!—the enormity of it all was still beyond my grasp. For a group of people who get paid to talk, we all stood there speechless. But there was no time to sit around and watch TV, we WERE TV, and we all knew our stories that day would not be in Salisbury, North Carolina.
His: My personal timeline becomes hazy here because so much was happening all at once. I think then the news of the Pentagon crash came, and everyone’s cell phones started ringing like a digital symphony. CNN started packing their gear to leave. Ms. Dole’s press person came out to say there would be no announcement. By this time she had already become the falling tree in an empty forest. Our newsroom had ordered us to hightail it back to Raleigh, assignment to be determined. We knew by then that America was under attack.
Hers: The day was rapidly going from bad to worse. My news junkie adrenaline was in high gear. This was big--really big--and I knew I wanted—no, needed—to be a part of it. Kyle and I were already on the road and offered to turn around and head straight to DC. This was what news crews lived for. No luck, we were too far south, and the station already had crews en route to New York and Washington.
The drive back to Raleigh was somber and anxious. I felt out of touch. It would have been nice to have one of those information-rich smart phones. Suddenly, New York City didn’t seem so far away. Heather, our producer, called. She was seeing all the horrific ground video that we had yet to see. Kyle was quiet as he listened to her. I could barely hear her voice through the receiver but I’m pretty sure she was crying. That’s not real common for us TV folks. When he relayed the information my anxiety gave way to a more visceral reaction. My throat started to close and my stomach started to turn. Another plane had crashed in Pennsylvania . . . FOUR PLANES! What in the hell was going on? What would happen next? And where? This was so much worse than I could have imagined. The news junkie in me took a back seat to the me who is allowed to have feelings. My Catholic faith kicked in and I told Kyle I thought maybe we should pray. I wasn’t sure for what exactly, but I just felt a strong urge to pray...out loud. I never do that. At least not at work. He didn’t argue and drove silently as I began, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name . . . ”
Written by Kyle Lanningham & Jennifer Buehrle Williams