Throughout my journalism career, many stories have affected me personally, but none more than covering the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. I had just graduated from college, started at my first newspaper in a small town in central New York and was eager to be professional, neutral and present the facts.
At the time, I didn’t understand that although my classes taught me how to be objective, sometimes it’s impossible not to get emotionally involved.
September 11, 2001, was an election day in New York. I was preparing our coverage and needed some polling clarification which prompted a call to the state capital in Albany.
A woman answered the phone in tears. I remember feeling frustrated by her lack of concentration and was a little terse in order to get the information I needed.
“Don’t you understand?” she asked. “Two planes just hit the World Trade Center. There might not BE any election.”
I might have been inexperienced, but I understood the gravity of her words and decided to look into it by booting up our Associated Press wire service on my computer and scrolling the national news feed.
The story was literally unfolding one sentence at a time. By the time a full paragraph had moved, I knew enough that our town would have casualties. We were only a few hours north.
I asked my managing editor if I could change my assignment for the morning. By deadline, I had collected a few first-person accounts that still haunt me to this day.
In the weeks that followed, I talked to people who were elated to find out their loved ones were safe. Others weren’t so lucky. Three people from our coverage area died in the attack on New York City. And although I’ve moved four times since then, changed states and jobs, I’ve never forgotten their stories:
“With something of this calamity, people expect to see pictures of the victims and their family members on television, but this time it was my family.”
Bill Bracken, a county police officer, had been spending his 20th wedding anniversary in the Caribbean with his wife. They watched the devastating news coverage from their hotel room, worried about his younger brother, Kevin, a city firefighter.
“I was told that Kevin was one of the officers listed as missing on the New York Fire Department records,” Bill said. “I had almost been expecting it, but that didn t make it any easier to accept.”
Unable to get an early flight home due to the countrywide halt on air travel, the Brackens decided to ignore the media coverage and find solace in each other. Four days later, they turned on their television, hoping for some positive news.
“It was unbelievable. The first thing we saw was a makeshift memorial at my brother’s fire station,” he said. “They mentioned Kevin’s name and showed his wedding picture, and we both started crying. It was gut-wrenching.”
Because of some family connections in the NYPD, Bill and his father were among the few people to tour ground zero firsthand.
“What was most amazing is that no human remains were visible in the rubble. Not even a trace. No shoes, clothing, tables, computers or clocks — nothing but a vast sea of cement and twisted steel beams,” he said afterward. “I had seen enough on television to know that my brother was dead, but I think my dad needed some closure.”
“Tu-Ahn had an incredible life,” her husband, Tom Knobel, told me. She came to the United States as a teenager from Vietnam. In the weeks before Saigon fell in 1975, her family fled from the communists. “She literally had bullets flying at her when she was being airlifted out of the country and she escaped to become an American success story.”
She was a stockbroker at Fred Alger Management Co. on the 93rd floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower. Sept. 11, 2001, was her second day back from maternity leave after giving birth to 5-pound, 6-ounce Vivianne Hoang-Anh, which means “yellow bird” in Vietnamese.
Tu-Ahn had been able to call Tom on her cell phone three times after the first plane hit her building. “She sounded scared, was obviously in danger and very concerned,” he said. “I had all the TVs on in the house trying to get the most accurate information and wondering how I could help. Then I watched it fall. It felt pretty hopeless at that point.”
But in the midst of catastrophe, Knobel found some hope to cling to. “I look at my daughter and it gives me a warm glow. It reminds me of the virility of life.”
Every Monday since 1999, Valerie Hughes left her farm at 3 a.m. and commuted to the World Trade Center, where she worked on the 97th floor of the north tower as the senior vice president of technology for Marsh McClennan. She was scheduled to start working from home at the end of 2011, but she never got the opportunity.
On Sept. 11 — five days after celebrating her 57th birthday — the first jetliner crashed into her building a few floors below her office.
After hearing the news on his car radio, Glenn pulled over and frantically tried contacting Valerie on her cell phone. When he didn’t get an answer, he and some family members drove to the city and formed a search party. They filed a missing persons report, submitted her hairbrush for a DNA sample, and then found a glimmer of hope. Valerie’s company set up a list of its employees who were alive, and Valerie’s name was among them. She was said to be in critical condition at an unknown hospital.
It turned out to be a false lead, but even a month later, Glenn hadn’t given up. “There’s always the possibility that like Huck Finn she’ll walk in on her own funeral.”
He admitted that coming to terms with his loss wasn’t easy, but knowing he wasn’t alone helped. “The whole country is grieving at the same time,” he said.
Ten years later, that’s still true.
As a journalist and as an American, I learned a lot that day. I learned about patriotism and that sometimes having a personal connection to a story makes it more tangible.
And as I take in all of the news coverage today, I’ll be paying personal tribute to the three lives who unknowingly touched my own.