I was in Maryland, attending a journalism fellowship, excited to be a in room filled with smart, talented peers. Within minutes of the attacks, three of them left immediately, heading to New York to cover the biggest story imaginable. A Canadian newspaper I was stringing for regularly had already called my home in New York: “Get down there!” I stayed in Maryland; others would do it better, faster.
I didn’t want to do that story. I know my limits.
That was the day my sweetie, a photo editor for a major New York newspaper, was to move into my apartment, 25 miles north of his home in Brooklyn. Everything he owned was packed, ready to go. The movers pulled up at 9:00. “We can’t go. All the bridges and tunnels are closed.” He packed a shirt, a bottle of water, fruit and ran to the Brooklyn Bridge, ready to start walking to work in Manhattan.
Overhead, he saw and heard a lone F-15 Eagle, a fighter jet, its roar so loud that the ground shook beneath his feet. “We’re at war,” he thought. He’d traveled with the military. This was a sound he knew. Afterburners are loud, frighteningly so.
Lots of traffic noise. At the bridge, a sea of vehicles awaited, every radio tuned to the same station. A wave of people staggered across the bridge, some running, some walking, every single one covered in gray dust, the pulverized concrete of the towers’ collapse.
He backed up, bumped into someone, apologized — and recognized a shooter’s vest, the sort with a dozen pockets, and three camera bodies. One of his female colleagues. He took off her glasses and cleaned them with his bottle of water. “How much film have you shot? How much digital? Give me your film.”
He ran to the nearest mom-and-pop photo store — he didn’t know where it was, had never used them, just recalled there was one nearby. “I work for (a NYC daily). I have three or four rolls of film. I need them processed right away.” An hour later, he had the negatives, and back at his apartment unpacked everything he would need: film scanner, computer, telephone and a television — a newsroom recreated in his otherwise empty Brooklyn apartment. Prior moves had taught him not to cut off the power until he’d moved into the next space.
The coffee table became his desk, the floor his chair. He called his editor in midtown: I have (the shooter’s) photos. I have her film. I’ll be transmitting as soon as possible. If anyone else is in the area, tell them they can come to my apartment.” The editor was calm. “Thanks.”
He had a light table, and might have used it to read the negatives, or maybe the window. He doesn’t remember. Within three hours, he had transmitted about a dozen images to his editors in midtown. The shooter headed out from his basement apartment, took more pictures, came back with digital images he transmitted.
By the end of the day, at sunset, the two of them returned to the bridge together — the sunset, with all the smoke and city lights — would make a good picture. “We joined a cast of thousands.” In silence. “People were whispering, so quietly you could hear helicopters overhead, landing in Manhattan on the docks.” A few had hand-held radios.
The two of them walked home to their individual apartments. Stores and restaurants were closed. Pieces of singed paper — “like a snowstorm” — floated through the air, office memos carried across the East River from the towers. They blanketed the grass of his backyard, their company letterheads still legible.
I called him many times that day. I didn’t have a cellphone and he had no number to reach me. But the phones didn’t work and I could not reach him. I knew he was supposed to be near the Towers at 9:00 that morning and had no idea if he was alive, injured or dead. Fellow journalists, with me in Maryland, were kind: “Your boyfriend is missing? Are you OK?” I wasn’t, but had to be. By 4:00 p.m. I finally got through.
I drove north three days after 9/11, knowing the exact spot on I-95 where I would be able to see the city’s southern tip, terrified. At 65 mph on a crowded expressway, I cried so hard I could barely see. It was like seeing someone you love punched black and blue.
A Paris agency wanted a story, right away, on DNA testing of bodies and body parts. The country, the city, was still focused on finding survivors, when these editors, overeas already knew there were likely to be none. Editors in London, Paris and New Zealand, who bought three different versions of my story were ahead of the game. They knew, and wanted details.
I knew no one in authority near New York or D.C. would make the time to speak to me. How could I report the world’s biggest story, one that every reporter in the world was working on at the same time?
What was the most analogous story to this one, a story none of us could even grasp emotionally, even as we were living it? A San Francisco earthquake and the Oklahoma bombing. I interviewed scientists and crime scene experts in San Francisco (using the three-hour lag between CA and NY to my advantage) and in Toronto, my hometown, where I had great sources and a decent reputation even 20 years after leaving.
I researched and wrote 2,500 words between 9:00 a.m. and midnight — 6:00 a.m. Paris time. My editors there needed the copy asap to offer to their clients. Versions of my piece ran in the London Sunday Telegraph, the French weekly VSD and the New Zealand Herald.
I found and interviewed a corrections officer doing volunteer work at the site for Glamour asking what she’d seen. I still have those notes.
Then I made the mistake of calling an acquaintance to tell her, needing to offload the horror. She is not a journalist and called me back, weeping, hysterical, raging. “Why did you tell me this?” We have barely spoken since. I finished the interview and cried for 30 minutes, shaking with the intimate, hideous details of what had happened there, details I still have never read elsewhere.
There are things that journalists hear and see and know — as photographers and their editors do as well — that are beyond nightmares. You, the reader/viewer, are spared. These are things that sear and stain our souls.
Today, if you pray for the victims and their families, please remember with gratitude the very real bravery of the men and women, the journalists and photographers and video cameramen who covered this terrible story.
We, too, were witnesses.