Remembering Sept. 11 — 20 years later

Memory is a strange thing. Never blessed with a photographic memory, as I have gotten older, I realize what I do remember are bits and pieces of things that when put together paint a picture of a day.

Even those that change the world. Even one as monumental as 9/11.

I don’t remember, for instance, if I was supposed to be off that Tuesday or simply working a later shift. What I do remember is I was sleeping in — something I could do as a young man that I could never do today.

I was awakened by my girlfriend, whom I had met when she was a reporter at the small daily I worked at outside of Philadelphia. She had recently left the paper, but being the news junkie she was, started her mornings watching the Today Show.

She told me I’d better get up and come into the living room, that a plane had just hit the World Trade Center.

I remember I tried to shake off the cobwebs. I remember noting the day was much like the one is today, as I write this. It was still summer, but fall was in the air. The sun was bright and the humidity was gone as I looked out the open window next to my bed.

I remember trying to wrap my brain around what she said. I remember muttering something to the effect that it had happened before. I’m a history buff, and I was thinking of 1945, when a B-25 flew into the Empire State Building in a fog.

She assured me this looked different. Knowing we had a rule that you shouldn’t lay anything heavy on me before I had my coffee, that, in combination with her voice, told me I’d better get up.

I remember I made my way to the living room in time to see what I thought was a replay of the moment the plane struck. It was shortly after 9 a.m. When I saw the smoke emerge from the second tower, I realized it wasn’t a replay.

I realized it was deliberate.

I don’t remember where I was when the plane hit the Pentagon, or when the final plane went down in Shanksville. I may have been home or listening to news radio in the car. I don’t remember if I saw the moment when President Bush was told. I don’t remember any phone calls, I don’t even remember how I got into the office that day (typically I carpooled). I just know I went in. 

There were no questions asked, no requests made — it was all hands on deck and the newsroom that day was full. Reporters getting in contact with officials. Editors pulling copy from wire services and planning coverage. All of us trying to think of people to get in touch with who might be near the scene or know something.

I remember calling a friend who lived and worked in Northern Virginia. He told me how his girlfriend had seen the Pentagon. 

Ironically, it was a day or two later that another editor reminded me of a former colleague who worked in New York — it completely slipped our minds. He was one of the many who walked their way back to the ferries that day.

I was the paper’s Graphics Editor, and while I pulled whatever the Associated Press moved, I spent more time building pages than anything else.

All day, the newsroom television — typically tuned in to reruns of The Simpsons or the public access show our Sports Editor worked on — showed events at the place we would soon know as Ground Zero as they happened. We watched — numb — as first one, then the other tower collapsed.

We worked long and hard that day, not sure if or when more was to come. It was well after dark when we went home. We were blessed, I like to think, to have the work. While others could only watch, while businesses and local governments shut down, we were in a position to “do something,” no matter how small it may seem today. To put down, for the record, the events of that day. 

In the days and weeks that followed, we continued our coverage. I wrote a column that tried to put into context my thoughts. Reporters travelled to the site to report on the recovery, and friends volunteered their time to support those efforts. We told the stories of those we lost, and those who were struggling with loss. 

We were together in a way we hadn’t been prior and seldom have been since. We were all Americans. In the face of tragedy, we were all proud.

By Sept. 14, the war authorization was passed and by October, we invaded Afghanistan.

In between, life attempted to get back to something akin to normal.

Baseball returned. Locally, the Hall of Fame voice of the Phillies, Harry Kalas, made an impassioned intro welcoming fans back from “the cradle of liberty.” A couple of weeks later, I attended the United States Grand Prix Formula 1 race in Indianapolis, the first international sporting event held in the wake of the attacks. We waved our flags and cheered our nation and its people for the fans who had come from all over the world.

We — and what we stood for — would not be defeated so easily.

In the subsequent years, I had the honor of helping cover our armed forces and the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Photo/Graphics Editor for Stars and Stripes, the independent newspaper for the military community. And, through my columns, I have tried to bring attention to the lingering wounds many who were part of that fateful day — victims, families, first responders and others — still suffer. As national attention moves on, I feel it is vitally important to do so.

For we must never forget.

Chris Six is a columnist and freelance journalist. He is the editor of Chris Six’s Daily Cheat Sheet, an indispensable web newspaper curating the best in original commentary and journalism from all sides each day to promote conversation on important issues. Learn more at cdsix.com.