Sunday, September 11, 2016

September 11 – The day that changed everything

NOTE FROM BLOGGER: In remembrance of the 15th Anniversary of 9/11, I am reprinting the post I wrote five years ago. Tragically, terrorism has escalated around the world since that fateful day.

I remember in surreal detail that Tuesday morning (fifteen) years ago.

While driving to my job at a daily newspaper, I listened to the breaking news story on the radio: Two commercial passenger jets hijacked from Logan had just struck the World Trade Center.

America was under attack.

When I arrived in the Newsroom, the reporters were gathered around the televisions, and I joined them.

We saw Manhattan burning, the Twin Towers reduced to rubble, thousands of people running through smoke-filled streets. A third jet hit the Pentagon, and a fourth plane heading for Washington crashed in a Pennsylvania field.

We would later learn that President Bush was aboard Air Force One heading to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, home of the Strategic Command, which controls the United States’ nuclear weapons.

My assignment that Tuesday was to edit a special supplement, but I abandoned the project and filed into the conference room with my colleagues.

“What the (expletive) is going on?” said the executive editor, as he tried to wrap his head around what was happening. There were a lot of veteran reporters in the room, and there was dead silence.

But it was our job to inform the public, and our reflexes kicked in. The editor started to assign stories. He told me to connect the dots, to tie this rampage with the first attack on American soil at Pearl Harbor 60 years earlier.

We went back to our cubicles and started making calls.

I found a former Army Air Corps mechanic, a Purple Heart recipient who was stationed at Hickam Field near Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed the airfield. He had been on duty all night and was going to bed at the time of the early morning raid. He told me that he ran to get a rifle in the hangar, and it was hit three times. He said that 200 men died there, and the planes, barracks and hangar were heavily damaged. He also saw the Arizona being bombed. More than 2,000 servicemen would lose their lives in the harbor. Yet he pointed out that Pearl Harbor was a military target and an act of war, but the World Trade Center victims were civilians.

I also spoke to a widow, whose husband was an aviation machinist mate first class aboard the Helena on the “Day of Infamy.” She said that he was just getting out of bed, putting on his shoes and planning to go to church when a bomb hit amidships. She told me that he ran up to the deck, and bullets from a Japanese plane flew over his head and killed two men. She said that what her husband most remembered about that day was the confusion and disbelief at the surprise attack.

I wrote the story and turned it in on deadline.

The following weekend I returned to the summer house in Fogland. September is a beautiful time of year, and everything was the same – the Sakonnet still lapped the shore, children played on the beach and the sounds of laughter were everywhere. But everything had changed. I no longer felt safe.

(Ten) years ago, I was on a fellowship for religion journalists at Brandeis University in Waltham. One of the guest speakers was a journalist whose beat was Homeland Security. After the lectures, the college hosted a reception, and I had the opportunity to speak to him.

“Do you think we are safe from future terrorist attacks?” I asked him.

“Let me put it this way,” he said. “We have stopped every terrorist attack since 9-11. But the odds are that we can’t be right 100 percent of the time.”

It is a sobering thought.


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