9/11 was a shared experience in many ways. Everyone can remember where they were, what they were doing, when it happened. I didn’t know anyone in New York at that time. I didn’t know anyone affected by the tragedy. I’m only sharing this because I was a member of the media at this time — college media at least — and my reactions and experiences may have been different than most. I was 21.
I awoke to my cell phone ringing.
“DUDE. Where the hell are you?” It was the voice of B, a fellow student with me on the daily college newspaper and the managing editor.
“Well good morning to you too, sunshine,” I mumbled, hauling myself upright. “What is it?”
“Are you freaking SLEEPING?!” He sounded manic. “Turn on your TV. NOW.”
“Fine, fine … ” I stumbled out of my room into my parents’ living room. The TV was already on. I saw buildings, smoke, and a body falling from the sky.
“An airplane has hit the World Trade Center,” the voice-over intoned.
I think I stopped breathing for a minute before whispering “what the hell.”
“No shit, boss. What do you want me to do?”
I shook my head, trying to clear it. I was the executive editor of the paper. Time to go to work: “I’m sure you’ve already done some of this, but call everyone. I want reactions from all over the place. At least 5 reactions per person. Get someone to the international house to get their take, someone on UPD, call Christina and ask if she can check in with campus ministry and see if they’re planning anything. Does anyone live on campus? Get them in the dorms and see what they’re doing in there. I’m getting dressed now and I’m walking out the door in less than 10 minutes. I’ll be there in 30. Call if you need anything in the meantime.”
“Got it,” he yelled as the line clicked dead.
I left a note for my parents on the kitchen table: “Going to the paper. Don’t know when I’ll be home.”
The day passed in a blur. We were manic — working on stories, calling sources, watching the TV, reading the wire. In the frenzy, we didn’t really process the emotions we were feeling. It was all adrenaline.
The campus was closed, but not evacuated. Campus police asked us to leave for our safety, but we refused. They didn’t push the issue. I think they had expected as much.
Early on, we decided to keep our coverage focused on the university, with only an AP story stripped across the top of the page. We didn’t run an image of the towers falling on the front page, we knew all the major papers were doing that, covering that. We were trying to be relevant to our audience. What could they expect to change? What had happened — or not happened — on campus? Our main story was about a candlelight vigil for the victims and their families.
We wrote, edited, cut, designed, and wrote headlines. At nearly midnight, we put the paper “to bed”, met our courier at a corner, and sent it to be published. (I’m dating myself, we did paste-ups back then: The publisher would scan the full-sized product and then print the papers.)
I got home at nearly 12:45 a.m. My dad was waiting up for me on the couch. I sank down next to him and closed my eyes.
He patted me on the shoulder, kissed the top of my head, and headed off to bed. It wasn’t until I had crawled into my own bed and was trying to sleep that the emotion came. The feelings of horror, of helplessness, of sympathy for the victims and survivors came flooding through. I was oddly upset that my work that day, while important, hadn’t helped anyone, hadn’t saved anyone or made the world safer. I felt disgusted with myself that my first instinct had been to get excited.
Instead of wallowing and crying in the dark, I pulled my blanket into the living room and watched the news until I fell asleep.
It’s been 10 years. I don’t know that the world is safer now or if we, as Americans, are more free or more fearful today. I’m part of a generation of people whose entire adult lives has been lived post-9/11. Its a dubious distinction. I just hope that we, as a nation, can rise above tragedy and fear once more. However long it takes.