9/11 in Amherst

Flags were flown all over Amherst, Mass. on 9/11.

This is a fairly solemn time of year for many around the United States, including myself.  Every year on this day, I feel the large bricks return to my chest.   For a long time after Sept. 11, 2001, I felt the bricks on my chest.

On that date, I had two young children — 3 and 1.  We lived in Gaithersburg — part of the sprawling Maryland suburbs outside of Washington, D.C. I was also the national/political editor for The Washington Post’s Web site on that date.  The big story before 9/11?  I was working with Chuck Babington, the political blogger for the site, for weeks on a package about tax policies which we were supposed to launch that day.  That became trivial rather quickly.

As the news broke that day, I struggled between my role as a father and husband and that as a journalist/editor.  Students often ask how best to handle covering tragedy and how I handled 9/11 and the weeks and months afterwards.  Journalists always try and compartmentalize their emotions.  It wasn’t easy that day.  And, I’m still not sure I shouldn’t have grabbed my family, jumped into a car and driven into the mountains somewhere.  It’s a question that continues to haunt me.

Everyone always talks about the weather on 9/11.  It was a stunning Fall day.  My wife and I found ourselves lucky to commute together for the first time in a while.  We both worked in Arlington — the location of The Post’s web site at the time.  My wife worked in a building filled with offices connected to the Department of Defense and just blocks away from the large building with USA Today on it.  We were stopped in traffic on Canal Road when WTOP, the all-news radio station in Washington, reported that a commuter plane had crashed into one of the buildings at the World Trade Center.  As someone who dealt daily in the world of breaking news, my first reaction was that the report didn’t make sense.  I called Jason Thompson, a colleague and friend who was already at the office and he said they were on the story and were trying to get details.  I dropped my wife off and was a block from my office when the news of the second plane came across the radio.  I called Jason again and I’ll never forget what he said:  “Yeah, we just saw it on TV.”  The tone in his voice gave me chills.  Still does.

I walked into a newsroom that was a sort of controlled chaos.  In  the national/political corner of the newsroom, Chuck was on his third update or so on the breaking story.  After discussions with Doug Feaver, the executive editor at the site and Ju-Don Roberts, the metro editor, we decided to send Chuck to the newspaper offices where he would be better able to take feeds from numerous sources.  It was a month before I saw him again.

We tried hard to focus on the story.

The day was a blur.

After the plane hit the Pentagon, I tried to reach my wife by phone but the lines were jammed for hours.  When I did reach her, I urged her to leave immediately and go home to be with the kids.  She t0ld me her building was being evacuated.  She then sat on Canal Road — again — for hours, as helicopter gunships with baby-faced soldiers leaning out the window buzzed overhead.

*  I remember standing on the balcony of our building and seeing smoke from the Pentagon.  We sent videographers to the Pentagon.  What they saw was traumatizing.

*  I remember lots of e-mail.  Many people I worked with forwarded what they were hearing from AP to local TV to local radio.  Sorting through what was rumor and what was real that day was perhaps the most challenging moment of my career.   The rumor of the car bomb at the State Department made it on air and on the Web at a number of places, including NBC’s Today Show….but proved wrong.  And as I watch the replay of the Today Shows’ programming that day, it’s stunning how quickly Bin Laden’s name is mentioned in connection with the attacks.  By 11 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, Tom Brokaw is on air giving background on Bin Laden.

*  I remember moments.  Standing in the middle of our building in Arlington, with reports of the fourth plane headed towards D.C. and one editor saying “we’re in the flight path to the White House.”  We looked at each other and then went back to our desks. We were in a vulnerable building, but no one left.  All those in the newsroom that day were focused on getting the story out.  Not only was it the day that transformed the country but it also transformed the journalism industry.  Feaver has often said that 9/11 was the day that Web journalism was born.  The Web site was re-designed on the fly that day and washingtonpost.com became a place not just for news but also a place for service journalism.

*  I remember everyone throwing themselves into covering the story.  No one left.  People in marketing, advertising and HR sent me information to add to the breaking news story.  Before there was crowdsourcing, we had a community of people contributing information.

*  I remember the video.  The plane. The crash.  The smoke.  The flames. Those jumping out the windows.  The horror of watching both buildings collapse.  I grew up in the New York suburbs and always considered myself a New Yorker.  Many family and friends worked in New York.  As I tried to juggle my duties as a journalist I thought about all those I knew in New York.  My uncle, now retired from the New York City police department, could not be tracked down until the early evening hours on 9/11.

*  I remember the bricks on my chest.

As 9/11 approached this year, I became disturbed about the coverage of the planned Islamic Center and the “burning the Koran” narrative that we’re still hearing today.   It really makes me wonder how far we’ve come in nine years.  For the most part, journalists operated with honor and distinction on 9/11 and the days and weeks afterwards.  I wasn’t feeling so positive around the hysterical coverage of these two recent storylines.  Facts have been ignored in favor of headlines, SEO and the desperation to be first . . . and the coverage has been nothing short of disgusting.

But I came across something yesterday in the social media universe that gives me hope.  A twitter feed with the hashtag #wherewereyou has gone viral and many are sharing their thoughts of the day.   The hashtag was generated by The Washington Post in an attempt to use merge social media and blogging and crowdsourcing to answer the question:  9/11:  Where were you when the towers fell?

It’s a simple but effective idea that has a created a story via the Twitter stream.  Reach out to the community and get their thoughts and create a story.  What a great idea.

As you read through the twitter stream, you gain perspective.  The day comes flooding back.  Life is valued.   And, you find yourself recognizing the narratives of the “Ground Zero Controversy” and the “Koran burning” for what they truly are.

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