Where was I when the planes hit the towers?
In a classroom at the community college where I teach journalism. I had a news website projected onto the wall, with a live shot of the north tower belching smoke. When it became clear that this was no accident, I told my students to grab their reporter's notebooks, fan out across the campus and start interviewing anyone and everyone they could. We'd need stories for the student newspaper.
They filed out, and I sat there alone for a moment, watching the image on the screen. Somehow, the sight of a skyscraper sliced through by a jet wasn't what was most frightening, probably because the idea of it was still so beyond comprehension.
No, what was most disturbing, what brought home the magnitude of what had happened at that point was the fact that the federal government had ordered every jet in the nation's skies grounded. Every jet.
I called my wife, who works in Philadelphia. "Stay away from any federal buildings," I told her. "And Independence Hall. And the Liberty Bell. Come home."
A few weeks after the attacks I organized a marathon reading of obituaries of those killed, taken from the pages of The New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. On a warm, sunny day much like 9/11 itself, dozens of students lined up at a podium in the college's quad to take part. Many wept as they read, not just out of a sense of shared grief but because they knew someone who had been killed. After all, 18 of the victims came from Bucks County, our county. Nine were from our little town.
I concluded the event by reading not an obit but a column by Inquirer sportswriter Bill Lyon, penned just days after the attacks. In it, Bill ruminated on how the term "hero" is so loosely applied to pro athletes:
I don't mean that we should not have a proper appreciation of our athletes and of their astonishing skills.
Only that hero is a word to be bestowed with extra care.
These last few days, the rubble has been filled with them.
In their memory, we go on.
It was the single most moving piece I've read about 9/11.
The following spring my students and I organized a forum on news coverage of the attacks. The panelists included journalists from The New York Times and the Daily News, NBC News and Fox. Steve Capus, then the executive producer of the "NBC Nightly News," told the audience how producers had to censor much of the footage from that day because camera operators kept inadvertently capturing footage of people jumping to their deaths from the towers. News reports estimated that as many as 200 people jumped, rather than die from the smoke and flames.
Such footage could never be aired, Capus said.
Charlie LeDuff of The Times was asked what he did when he first arrived at the scene of destruction that came to be known as Ground Zero.
"I put down my notebook and picked up a shovel," he said.
I didn't personally know anyone killed in the attacks, and I can only imagine the pain of those who lost loved ones. But like everyone else I was changed by that day. For a time I tacked to the right politically, and was bullish on nearly anything our government could do to bring the terrorists to justice. When a friend from New Zealand visited we argued about the war in Iraq. I was trying to explain to him what 9/11 was like, what it meant to be attacked that way, and suddenly I heard myself saying:
"We thought the world was coming to an end."
But the world hadn't ended. It went on, and so did we. Months passed, then years. As my kids got older we tried to explain 9/11 to them, in bits and pieces, when they asked. We tried to make sense of something that made no sense, then or now.
And like, I suspect, many others, we were always torn between needing to remember and wanting to forget. For months I made an evening ritual of reading The Times' "Portraits of Grief," the paper's attempt to eulogize every soul lost that day. Somehow I felt I owed it to those people to know their stories.
Then one day I simply stopped. I just couldn't do it any more.
Likewise, my wife and I watched any number of 9/11 documentaries the first few years after the attacks. But more recently the DVD of "United 93," the film about the flight where passengers literally fought the hijackers to the death, has gathered dust on a shelf. We bought it, every year or so we think about watching it, and every time we decide on something else.
These days, when I think about 9/11, I take a walk. There's a park a stone's throw from our house with footpaths, benches and a grove of young oak trees. At the center of the park there's a fountain with twin jets of water representing the two towers, and around the fountain, etched in rounded glass panels, are the names of those from our county who died, including Victor Saracini, pilot of United flight 175, which slammed into the south tower. The park is called the Garden of Reflection, and it is a memorial.
The park probably won't be the grandest tribute to those lost on 9/11; that distinction will almost certainly go to the memorial at Ground Zero. But what's wonderful and perfect about it is this: It is full of life. Walkers crisscross the footpaths, kids play pick-up games of basketball and volleyball, and in summer there's a vigorous community garden where locals grow tomatoes and lettuce.
So it's there that I go for my walks, a middle-aged man trying to shed some pounds. Most times I follow the paths but every once in awhile I stop at the fountain, and look at the twin jets of water, and ponder the names etched in glass.
And then, full of memories, I go on.