Everyone remembers where they were. I was sitting at my desk in the newsroom at CBC in St. John’s. Reporters and producers were moving slowly toward televisions in various parts of the room, their eyes widened and glued to the screens. It went really quiet. We were all trying to process what we were seeing. Was this real? Had a plane just flown straight into one of the towers of the World Trade Centre in New York?
As we accepted the reality of what was happening, we made plans for our news coverage. We weren’t on the ground in New York but this event had hit home. Thousands of airline passengers had been diverted away from their destinations in the US. Four thousand had landed on the tarmac in St. John’s, many thousands more had landed in Gander. Newfoundland hospitality kicked into high gear.
After the passengers were allowed off planes in St. John’s, many were bussed to our main stadium downtown where emergency coordinators arranged a place for them to sleep. Camerman Rod Dobbin and I were there as bewildered travellers filed up the steps. They looked shocked, they looked tired and appeared genuinely saddened by the bits of news they were hearing. We interviewed Mr. and Mrs Rutter from North Carolina as soon as they stepped off the bus. We had questions for them but they had more for us. They knew the media would have details of the attacks in New York. We told them what we knew and agreed to catch up with them later.
Rod and I worked for 24 hours straight. We interviewed passengers lying on cots in the gym at Memorial University and volunteers at churches who had opened their doors to strangers. Newfoundlanders offered their homes, their food and their comforting smiles to these unexpected visitors. As devastating as the news had been that morning, I felt reassured by the goodness we witnessed everywhere we turned. As one church volunteer told us, “There are very few people who are responsible for what happened in New York and there are a great many who want to right a wrong that’s been done.”
At the end of that 24 hour shift, Rod and I found Mr. and Mrs. Rutter again strolling the grounds of Memorial University hand in hand. They had slept and had taken a shower but they were more refreshed by the relationships they had made in a time of crisis. By then, they had seen all the news footage the world had witnessed a day earlier. Mrs. Rutter wasn’t interested in dwelling on the darkness of the event. “Thank god, there are more of the good people out there so we can stand together and be strong,” she said.
I had never been to New York City when I covered that story on September 11th, 2001. My first visit was a few years later and then again in September of 2010. On that occasion, I was there for the anniversary of the terrorist attacks and I wanted to visit Ground Zero that very day. I left my hotel shortly after dawn and walked the quiet streets of Manhattan. I tried to imagine what that day would have been like 9 years before. It was impossible, I determined, for someone who had not lived through those terrifying moments.
I arrived at Ground Zero before the commemoration ceremony. I found a wall to lean on and observe the unfolding scene. Souvenir sellers waved flags and shook key chains. Media people were setting up cameras, taking photos and already conducting interviews with mourners who had gathered to mark the 9th year since the towers fell. I was moved by all the gestures of patriotism. It was a sea of red, white and blue. There were, as there always are at public events of this magnitude, the attention seekers. They held signs, they carried crosses, they went to great lengths to stand out from the crowd.
It wasn’t those gestures that moved me, it was the quieter signs of grief that have stayed with me most: couples who held onto each other and rubbed each others backs, grown men who wore t-shirts dedicated to their fallen comrades and blinked back tears. Then, there were the people so overcome with their memories and sadness that they held their heads in their hands and sobbed. I stood from a distance and took their pictures. I didn’t know any of them or anything about the loved ones they’d lost. Who could ever have imagined losing someone that way?
It’s now been 13 years since 911 changed the world. On September 11th I still think about the sad faces I photographed in NewYork City. I still remember the generosity I witnessed here in Newfoundland and the gratitude from stranded passengers buoyed by new friends. Like Mrs. Rutter, I’m inclined to focus on the positive moments connected to this anniversary. Let’s hope she’s right and that there are more of the good people out there.
If you’re interested in seeing what a I saw that day in New York City on the 9th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, please find my photos in the gallery.