Photo: Kevin Featherly
It was 10 years ago today. Three years after 9/11.
I was in New York for a national Society of Professional Journalists conference. Before I left the Twin Cities, I had contacted my old colleagues at WCCO-Radio. “Got anybody at Ground Zero that day?” No, they didn’t. So I was the guy. Their unpaid correspondent. And happy to be that.
Sept. 11 that year fell on a Saturday, and I was to be at Ground Zero with my primitive flip phone, which I would use to recite several brief dispatches live over the Minnesota airwaves from the site of the greatest calamity of our lifetimes.
As it happened, Tammy and I overslept. Comfy hotel bed, I guess. We woke with a start, realized we had half an hour to get where we needed to be on lower Manhattan, and practically got dressed in the subway car. Somehow we made it to Ground Zero with several minutes to spare.
What I remember most about that moment was the deep, yawning, walled chasm that separated one side of the pit where the Twin Towers once stood from the other. It was like looking across some gloomy, groaning urban facsimile of the Grand Canyon.
The other thing I remember most vividly is the sheer volume of people who were there to observe the third anniversary of 9/11, and the high percentage of them who were carrying signs of protest. They were there to, viciously I thought, accuse the Bush Administration of being party to the disaster–as though George W. Bush would have slaughtered his own people for some sort of inchoate, unidentified political purpose.
Or, if you’ll forgive a moment of rank partisanship, that he and his government were clever and capable enough to pull something like that off.
I’ve cried a number of times over what happened at 9/11. I’ll confess it happened only an hour or so ago, watching ESPN’s “Man in the Red Bandana” feature story on television.
But I never did as it was happening, not on that Novocain day in 2001. Not until long after I had filed my last dispatch for the day at Newsbytes.com, my long-lamented former employer where we spent that frantic day covering the telecommunications infrastructure damage wrought by those torpedo airliners, as well as the first stirrings that Congressional action might soon be taken to curtail our civil liberties.
That night, I plopped down in front of the TV and just absorbed wave after wave of shock. I was angry, yes, and probably sad. But I never cried. Not until around 3 a.m., on Sept. 12, when ABC News ran footage of the queen’s royal marching band in London, playing a flawlessly reverent “Star Spangled Banner.” Then the tears came in torrents.
(I was stunned to read later that Condi Rice had precisely the same experience, at precisely the same moment.)
Standing at the site three years later, flip phone in hand, I felt none of the raw grief I expected to feel. I experienced nothing I would call sorrow. Just the numb, somber hush of awe and incomprehension. How massive an event could this really have been? How tall was the pile of rubble before they carted it all away? Am I still, at this moment, breathing in suspended particulates of human matter? How could this thing really have happened, in this world?
I filed several dispatches for WCCO Radio over the course of the 90-minute long remembrance ceremony on that day, Sept. 11, 2004. Afterwards I neglected to collect the tape of my broadcasts, and I don’t remember what I said to the host on duty that day, John Wanamaker, when he was interviewing me from his radio booth in Minneapolis.
I remember only one of my comments well enough to recount it.
I stood looking around at all the tall buildings of Wall Street and Battery Park surrounding me on every side, and at the ugly void of a pit situated so awkwardly in their midst. I remember the thought that occurred to me in the moment, which I fairly blurted out live to a Twin Cities radio audience.
“John,” I said, “it looks like nothing here so much as a case of bad dentistry.”
Peace be with the dead, the survivors, their families, and us all.