Sunday marked the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. I was a young reporter in Upstate New York that day and it’s still almost as vivid today as it was a decade and a half ago. A version of this column ran in The Courier-Herald in 2011 and it has been edited for inclusion this week.
I had just gotten out of the shower when the first plane hit.
I was listening to Howard Stern tell a story about not having sex with Pamela Anderson when he was interrupted by his producer saying he didn’t want to spoil the fun, but had some news.
I remember the confusion at first, the sense that it was somehow a mistake, an accident.
I went to the living room of my Albany, N.Y., apartment with my towel wrapped around my waist and turned on CNN to get a sense of the scene and watched live as a second jet liner flew in too low and fast to be anything other than intentional.
I sat there, stunned, blinking over and over and trying to shake myself awake when I heard Stern and his crew react from the bathroom as the delay they used to keep on him hit real time.
It was the attack on the Pentagon that really got me though: that’s an act of war, not just terrorism.
I immediately called the wife of a good friend who at the time was working at the Empire State Building and told her to get him the hell out of there. Then I sat quietly watching the coverage, still wrapped in my towel and unable to move, for quite some time.
I don’t remember getting dressed, but I remember the first tower collapsing just before I turned off the television and started my drive to work at a small weekly paper in Saratoga County, just north of Albany, the state capital.
The second tower collapsed while I was on my drive.
As I got to my office, which was a small satellite office of a daily paper and in a decent-sized office park, my neighbor down the hall called me down to watch the footage on the TV in his office.
Finally pulling away, I called my editor. It was all I could think to do.
“What do I do?” I remember asking. “No one is going to care at all about the leash law anymore.”
I think I may have sworn, but I definitely remembering mentioning the leash law. It was one of my top stories for the week, as in a town that is changing from farms to subdivisions, a leash law can be top news.
But none of that mattered now. Who would care? Life was different. Even then, at 10:30 a.m. on Sept. 11, that much was obvious.
But I still had a deadline the next day and even though NOTHING else mattered, we still had to put out the paper.
“I don’t know,” came the response. “Make some calls if you can and hang tight. Stay safe.”
I remember that, too. I remember her telling me to stay safe.
I did what I knew to do: I reported. There were stories to tell. This story was big enough it had to be localized.
My first call was to town hall and it immediately turned into a story.
The town clerk’s son was scheduled to be in a meeting in one of the towers at 9 a.m. and she hadn’t heard from him yet. She was beginning to panic.
It turned out that his meeting got moved to 10 a.m. so he was not in the building when the attacks happened, but because the chaos caused to phone lines to go down, she did not get the news until mid-afternoon.
Later, I discovered that the town’s Democratic Party chairman (every position is a partisan position in New York state) had just returned from the city. He and his wife were staying at a hotel across the street from the World Trade Center. The morning of Sept. 11 they left their hotel around 9 a.m. and went their separate ways, her to a meeting, him to do some genealogy research.
They spent the next several hours trying to find each other again and the chair recounted a harrowing tale of having to dive into a Chinese restaurant during the collapse and watching the debris and smoke roll down the street.
They finally reconnected through her mother in Albany, with each calling upstate because it was easier than trying to get to each other in the city.
He also left me with the image that jumped out the most: As he and his wife, finally reunited, were on a train headed back to the Capital District (about three hours north of the city), he said everyone was transfixed on the city receding behind them and the giant plume of smoke rising out of Manhattan that could be seen well into the Catskills.
The next day, Wednesday, Sept. 12, I stopped over at the local newsstand in a strip mall to buy a couple of papers and discovered everyone had the exact same idea; They were completely sold out of everything, including the Investor’s Business Daily, which the clerk said they never sold.
A truck with more NYC papers was expected within 20 minutes, however, and I asked to wait. As I was there, a line began to form behind me with everyone wanting copies of the newspapers of the day to commemorate the event.
I remember calling my ad rep back at the office and asking her to bring my notebook so I could do a story and I just walked down the line asking people why they wanted newspapers.
To a person, everyone told me that they wanted something they could pass down and that television video tapes don’t do justice to an event the way a newspaper could.
But the big local news of the day came over the police scanner when a gas station in the town just north of mine called to report two “Arab-looking guys” driving a Ryder truck and filling every container they could – soda bottles, gas cans, milk cartons – with diesel fuel and asking for directions to the city without taking the highways.
I joined the chase after these guys and was there when they crossed into Clifton Park and what seemed like every cop in the county – sheriff, trooper and local – surrounded the vehicle, pulled the guys out at gun point and searched the vehicle.
I turned the story over to the daily reporter who chased them down from the north, but I got the photo credit that day. I remember it vividly – two guys on the ground with a dozen guns pointed at them.
As it turned out, they were a couple of Hispanic guys taking leftover supplies from the Saratoga Racetrack to Belmont Park into the city. They figured traffic would be bad, worse on the highways, and they should get some extra fuel.
So there it was, our little community paper ran three localized stories and a related news story that week. On the front, we ran an AP image of New Yorkers fleeing the collapse in terror.
I vividly remember the picture to this day. It is of one of the moments that even watching now, 15 years later, makes it difficult for me. I can handle the explosions. I can handle the fires. I can even handle the collapse. But the jumpers and especially seeing my fellow New Yorkers – my fellow Americans – screaming in horror and fear takes me from sadness to blinding rage every time.
It still amazes me how this much later the same emotions still come flooding back when I think about that day.
I remember the fear and the anger, but also the pride and the unity. I remember the feeling that it was an attack on us all and that we rose up as one to pick up the pieces and move on with life.
It’s what we do, we’re Americans.
There are millions of stories like mine. And thousands that are worse, thousands where the people they love didn’t come home.
I don’t tell these stories much anymore, as it is painful, but I think it is important to remind ourselves exactly what it was like that day, reminding people who were too young to remember what life was like on Sept. 11, 2001, and how fast everything can change.
And to remind them and ourselves that life goes on, that America still stands for freedom and that yes, that Star-Spangled banner does yet wave. And that we cannot live in fear.
So stay safe out there, people. Safe, but not afraid.
It’s what we do.