Wednesday, September 11, 2013

September 11, 2001

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I woke up early because I was on the courts beat at the Palm Beach Post and had to check the courthouse docket.

I turned on Howard Stern on my car radio, because I liked to hear him make fun of the news. Within minutes, he switched from talking about the hotness of Pam Anderson to yelling that planes had hit the Twin Towers.

"It's terrorism!" Stern said. 
He was right. 

I called into the newsroom, thinking it might be a joke. Jane Smith was the day editor and answered the phone. It wasn't a joke, she said. It was real.

I called Lisa L. Colangelo, my friend at the NY Daily News who covered City Hall. It was primary Election Day and she was still home because she was working the late shift. She hadn't turned on the news yet.

"NY is being attacked!" I yelled into my cell phone. "Put on your jeans! Get extra pens and granola bars! You won't be home for hours!"

"Wait, why hasn't my editor called me about this?" Lisa asked, confused. This was because all the phone lines in and out of Manhattan were down. She went to work. She wasn't home till 36 hours later. Her beloved city was under attack.

I started interviewing people in the Palm Beach County Courthouse for man-on-the street reaction. A woman in the Law Library told me the State Department building had been bombed. That turned out to be false, but I didn't know it at the time.

My stomach turned. My brother worked in the State Department building. I called my brother at work and home. Couldn't get through. Then I called my Mom, Barbara Wetzler. She was watching TV and saw the second plane crash into the WTC. The tone of her voice was awful. I called my Dad. He hadn't heard from my brother either.

I called into the Post newsroom and burst into tears with emotion from it all. I stood on a street and cried. Because I sounded somewhat whacked out, they sent Christine Stapleton out to the courthouse to work on the story with me.

I pulled myself together; I was a journalist and had work to do. Lisa called me, with a note a horrified disbelief in her voice.

"Kath, can you believe the Twin Towers collapsed?" she said. "They're gone. They're gone."

I said something reassuring like "I am sure everyone got out in time." Because I could not fathom - who could fathom - that they did not. That they were dead. That the dust cloud spreading over Manhattan was full of their bodies and souls and dreams.

In the courthouse, one prosecutor told another that the Pentagon had just been hit. I tried my brother again. Couldn't get through. An hour or so later, my brother called my Dad and said he was okay. His office got evacuated and he had to walk home, to Virginia. But he was okay.

I called my friend Jill DeForte in New York City. She was okay, but shaky and sad. I called my friend Maryanne Murray Buechner. She lived in Brooklyn but had been uptown that day with her young son. Her husband, Terry, was still in their apartment in Brooklyn and saw the towers collapse from their window.

Back at the office, it was full of purpose and pressure to get out the story. Only later did we find out all the very many Florida connections to this tragedy. Some of the hijackers trained at flight schools in Florida. They lived nearby. They went to restaurants and bars and had been among us. (The next month brought deadly anthrax to the National Enquirer in Boca Raton and fears of biological terrorism. We didn't know that then.)

My very best college friends - Tina, Chris, Luci and Nancy - were supposed to visit me that upcoming weekend. All the planes were cancelled. They couldn't come.

My most vivid memory was scrolling the Associated Press wires. There were so, so, so, so many stories. My mind could barely keep them straight. Four planes down. New York, Pennsylvania and D.C. Each city, each plane had a story. Later, each victim would have a story.

Eventually, I had to tune it out and write my story and go about the rest of my work day. But deep day, something had shifted. I liked my job, but didn't love it. I liked living in Florida, but missed my hometown of Philadelphia. I kept thinking: "If I had died today, if it had been me, what would I regret?"

Within 10 months, I started a new career as a college journalism professor at Rowan  University and moved back to the Philadelphia area. I love my job. I love being in my hometown.

To the dead of September 11, I say to you: I remember you. I think of you today. I hope you are at peace.

"The Dead of September 11" by Toni Morrison

The Dead of September 11 - Toni Morrison

Some have God's words; others have songs of comfort
for the bereaved. If I can pluck courage here, I would
like to speak directly to the dead--the September dead.
Those children of ancestors born in every continent
on the planet: Asia, Europe, Africa, the Americas...;
born of ancestors who wore kilts, obis, saris, geles,
wide straw hats, yarmulkes, goatskin, wooden shoes,
feathers and cloths to cover their hair. But I would not say
a word until I could set aside all I know or believe about
nations, wars, leaders, the governed and ungovernable;
all I suspect about armor and entrails. First I would freshen
my tongue, abandon sentences crafted to know evil---wanton 
or studied; explosive or quietly sinister; whether born of
a sated appetite or hunger; of vengeance or the simple
compulsion to stand up before falling down. I would purge
my language of hypberbole; of its eagerness to analyze
the levels of wickedness; ranking them; calculating their
higher or lower status among others of its kind.
Speaking to the broken and the dead is too difficult for
a mouth full of blood. Too holy an act for impure thoughts.
Because the dead are free, absolute; they cannot be
seduced by blitz.
To speak to you, the dead of September 11, I must not claim
false intimacy or summon an overheated heart glazed
just in time for a camera. I must be steady and I must be clear,
knowing all the time that I have nothing to say--no words
stronger than the steel that pressed you into itself; no scripture
older or more elegant than the ancient atoms you
have become.
And I have nothing to give either--except this gesture,
this thread thrown between your humanity and mine:
I want to hold you in my arms and as your soul got shot of its box of flesh to understand, as you have done, the wit
of eternity: its gift of unhinged release tearing through
the darkness of its knell.

Originally published in Vanity Fair magazine.