It's almost a cliche to say it now but it really was such a beautiful day.
September 11, 2001 was primary election day in New York and I was the assignment editor at NY1, the city's 24/7 news station. Political coverage was our bread and butter and we lived for election days. We had crews in early, stationed at polling sites around the city.
I had gone downstairs for a quick breath of fresh air because I knew it would be a long day. I can still close my eyes and see the blue sky.
I went back upstairs and things were moving as normal as possible - live shots were going off pretty much without a hitch, there were calls to the police department to check on crimes to see if they were worth devoting resources to. It was a high bar that day since most resources were going to be dedicated to politics.
And then it started.
It began over the scanner we used to listen to the fire department. The call was for a gas explosion at the World Trade Center. Even on a day that was about politics, a gas explosion at the Trade Center had the potential to move the meter.
I turned up the scanner.
And the world went crazy. Seemingly all the scanners started to scream. The level of chatter rose exponentially. That's when I heard someone say that it was an airplane; an airplane had flown into one of the buildings.
At this point, the incident was still just moments old but it was clear that it was big.
I broke two crews from their polling sites and sent them to the trade center. Then I told the producer what I had done.
"I don't know exactly what it is, but it's big and we need to be there with everything," I said.
Soon after I was able to get a police official on the phone.
"It was a passenger jet," he said. I made him repeat it. "We don't know how bad, but it's bad, really bad."
I still remember how shaken he sounded.
Getting that bit of news on the air was the first of a couple of decent scoops we had that day. For a long time, that seemed very meaningless. We were the first to report it was an airline jet, the first to report it was a hijacking. None of it made me a better person, none of it brought anyone back.
I started calling in reinforcements. I got one of the writers to sit with me at the assignment desk and work the phones. Staff started showing up. Quickly.
Everyone that I sent out the door that morning received the same advice: “Get as close as you can.”
It didn’t take long to establish just how horrendous things were. There was a gaping hole across several floors of the building and as we tried to get our head around what was happening, the second plane hit.
Things just kept getting worse.
I remember a discussion about whether or not we should show video of people jumping to their deaths from the floors above the fire. It was very clinical. It was something that clearly showed the horror of the day – if you’ve never seen that footage, and I hope you never do, it’s something that’s impossible to forget, no matter how hard you try.
We decided we didn’t need to show it.
Even before the buildings fell, there was no doubt to the extent of the horror. We didn’t need to show anything more than the billowing smoke to get that point across.
Then, of course, the first building fell.
And with the lives of so many, it had the very practical effect of taking out cell service.
Suddenly, we lost contact with all of our crews that were down there. Suddenly, my fear was that in telling people to “get as close as you can” I had been sending them to die.
It would be almost 90 minutes – during which time the other building also came down – before everyone was accounted for. During that time – and I had to be told this by people who were on the desk with me because I was on auto pilot trying to stay focused on the story and keep emotion out of it – I spoke with the families of reporters; families wanting to know their loved ones were okay.
I would tell them, of course. They had nothing to worry about it, I had just spoken with them and everyone’s okay.
I lied. Fortunately, it worked out. To this day I am amazed that no one was physically hurt.
Obviously, not everyone was so lucky.
It didn’t take long for the phone calls to start. So-and-so was inside and didn’t make it out.
The first call came from a friend at the mayor’s office to tell me that Father Mychal Judge was dead.
Father Mike was a Franciscan friar, the fire department chaplain and a friend to everyone who needed one. He was excellent at putting things in perspective and I always thought about him when there was disaster coverage.
“Lord, take me where you want me to go; let me meet who you want me to meet; tell me what you want me to say and keep me the hell out of your way,” he once wrote.
And while I'm not a particularly religious person – I’ve thought of news as my religion – I’ve always taken his words as particularly good advice when it comes to covering a large disaster. Something horrific is happening and all you can do is do your best to make sense of the situation and offer comfort where you can.
There would be so many calls that day – hundreds of firefighters, scores of police officers, thousands of people.
It would be weeks before we were able to safely say that ONLY about 3,000 people had been killed. As horrible as it was, a little while later, if the planes had hit a little lower. It would have been much worse.
I didn’t go home for two weeks. The days were filled with 18, 19, 20 hours at the desk with breaks to sleep in the green room or an excursion to a suite of hotel rooms across the street.
There were some nighttime visits with a friend from the city who would bring me down to the site and just typing the words I can still smell the smoky stench that came from so much death and destruction.
When I finally went home on the 25th, it struck me how the day was as beautiful as it had been on the 11th. The difference was that the city was so eerily quiet – the streets were filled but it was almost as if no one made a noise – that it was almost oppressive. It bore down on me, keeping everything inside.
I didn’t cry that day. Or for a long time. Now, I find myself welling up at the most ridiculous times. I was reading a story in the Oregonian about the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus getting ready to travel to New York for the anniversary. I couldn’t stop crying.
For a while I’ve thought I would take the day off, that I wouldn’t want to be at work on that day.
But then I thought of Father Mike and all the others who died that day.
I figure the best way to honor them is to come in and do my job.
So, on September 11, 2011, I will do just that.