The strongest connection I had to what happened on Sept. 11, 2001 was what the three televisions in the newsroom I was working in told me.
And when I remember that day, I'm surprised that I own so many emotions.
I had been a journalist for nine months with CNI Newspapers and I was covering South Milwaukee. The idea of localizing a story as major as this was a daunting task.
For the first few minutes after hearing about the first attack, we just stood there in shock. All of 100 of us – hands over our mouths, the same thoughts running through our heads, “Oh my God, please help those people,” I remember thinking.
Within minutes, my father called me on the phone to make sure I was OK. He didn’t want me doing something crazy like hop on a train to Chicago to cover a story, he said. I hadn’t planned on doing that at all, I told him.
“Good,” he said. “Stay put. I love you.”
“I love you too dad,” I said.
I don’t know if he realized it, but that was the first time he had called me in three years. It’s not that we didn’t talk. The conversations were just short and business like, and I had always called first. After talking to my dad, I called my daughter’s school. I wanted to hear the secretary’s voice on the other end of the phone line tell me my daughter was safe. And she was. Once I talked to my ex-husband about picking her up, I focused on the task at hand.
We didn’t have a news website then, just the hard copy newspaper and it was scheduled to go to press that night. My editor assigned out a number of stories. I focused on the vigils that were being planned. I talked to priests, ministers, and rabbis. They all told me they were hosting a community gathering. And I don’t remember the exact words they said, but I remember hearing a warmth and peace in their voices that I desperately needed to hear.
After all we had just collectively witnessed a massive tragedy. Airplanes smashing into buildings and fields, an orange ball of glowing fire with distinctive black edges, papers and debris raining down against the backdrop of a cloudless sky, buildings falling and people running for their lives like they do in cartoons when the monster takes over the city. But this monster was real, and even though the terrorists were thousands of miles away, we knew we might be next.
Thinking of this, I somehow, in a room full of people, I felt very alone.
The priests, rabbis, and ministers said this was the time for people to be together in love, not fear or anger. This was a moment to rekindle the love we have for our neighbors, our families, our friends, and our communities. This was a time we should turn on the lights to our homes and hold that candle up, not cower alone in our homes. We needed to show the world our togetherness, our resolve, our commitment, and our unity.
We talked about particulars and I had planned on going to at least two of the vigils.
Our offices were in New Berlin and I was five minutes late for a ceremony at one of the churches in South Milwaukee because of all of the lines for gas, which had skyrocketed in price. When I walked into the chapel, the room was packed.
Entire families had abandoned their once busy schedules. Young couples stood wide-eyed, shoulder-to-shoulder. Middle-aged hard-as-nails-looking-biker types stood tall with tears streaming down their faces.
And despite their sadness, they listened to the words of the pastor that night. Their thirsty eyes drank in his words. The pastor, and I don’t remember the name of the church or even his name, said the congregation needed to help the people affected by this horrific tragedy. They needed to give of themselves. They needed to show love to perfect strangers.
And they did.
For months I wrote stories on blood-drives, penny drives, Red Cross fund-raisers, and the millions of dollars companies donated to victims. I remember observing unity in action. They were a body of people who, through their pain, opted to demonstrate peace to others. Our ability to give to those affected by Sept. 11 may not have lessened their pain, but we collectively carried the burden of that pain together.
On a personal level, every time I watch that plane smash into that building, that bright orange ball of fire explode, that building collapse, and see those people running, I think, “run… run for your lives my friends.”