Where were you on 9/11? One of our historical society partners and advisers, Alice Smedstad of the Merrillville/Ross Township Historical Society, suggested we pose that question leading up to the 15th anniversary of that tragic, yet historic, event.
Inside this section, and elsewhere in The Times today, you’ll read those answers. But for right now, it’s my turn.
It was Sept. 11, 2001, before that date became universally known by the shorthand term 9/11. I was sitting in the office, reading email and preparing for a routine day, when the news broke. A plane had collided with one of the Twin Towers in New York City.
I immediately touched bases with my wife, because that’s what you do in an emergency. You connect with your loved ones to make sure they’re safe.
And then the horror unfolded on live television.
A second plane hit the other tower. What was the worst aviation accident in our nation’s history quickly turned out not to be an accident at all. Hijackers had stolen planes and the lives of the passengers and crews.
Then a plane hit the Pentagon. Then came news that a fourth plane had crash-landed in a field in Pennsylvania. That one, everyone guessed, was headed for either the White House or the U.S. Capitol.
Speculation abounded, but facts were scarce. We were still forming questions even as we looked for answers.
Reporting in high gear
There’s a perception of journalists that we’re ghouls who thrive on tragedy. It’s not true.
There were plenty of tears shed in newsrooms across the country, and perhaps around the world, that day. We’re human.
Journalists were worried about their friends, family and colleagues in New York City and the Pentagon. We feared another plane might hit the Sears Tower or some other landmark. Where would the terrorists strike next?
But even as events unfolded, we began mapping out a plan for coverage. We wanted a thorough report and threw all available resources toward it.
As we all contributed to the effort, we knew what we were working on would be a part of the nation’s history. It was the first major attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor, after all.
Alongside this column, you’ll see one result of our coverage — the front page of the Sept. 12, 2001, issue of The Times. Online, at nwi.com, you’ll find page after page of news about the horrific events that day and attempts to put them into perspective.
Here’s more perspective: My son, who is 15 years old and a high school sophomore, was on my wife’s lap, drinking his bottle, when the attack occurred. He has no memory of it.
It’s safe to say that the very youngest Americans who could possibly have any memory of that day would be high school seniors or college freshmen.
But there’s one more perspective I want to share. It belongs to a colleague, longtime ABC Nightline host Ted Koppel, who is speaking this afternoon at Purdue Northwest’s Westville campus.
Knowing that he would be here on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, and that his new book is about the potential for a cyberattack on the nation’s power grid, I asked him about his experiences that day.
Koppel and his wife were on vacation in France that day, he said. After lunch — there’s a seven-hour time difference between Chicago and Paris, remember — Koppel saw a group of Americans huddled together. They recognized his unforgettable face and asked him to share what he knew.
He didn’t know anything.
Koppel quickly got on the phone with his office and with a great deal of effort managed to arrange a charter flight to London. The small private plane landed on a grassy runway that was no longer in use. The airports had been shut down.
“What was terrifying to me was when I saw just the collapse of the building, and at that point we had three of our children and their families living in the New York area,” Koppel said. “Not knowing what was happening with our children was the most frightening.”
It took days for Koppel to get back to New York.
It took much longer for normalcy to return to the nation.
Even now, 15 years later, I think back about 9/11 and the days immediately following and remember how united the nation became as we all grieved together.
If only that unity was the true state of normalcy for the United States.