I was getting ready for work when Dennis called me from the airport.
“You won’t believe this,” he said. “I just watched a jet crash into the World Trade Center on live television.”
“What?” I said. “What are you talking about?”
“I was watching the Today show and they have live coverage of a plane that crashed into the World Trade Center,” he said, “and they were showing the towers, and while I was watching, another plane flew right into the other tower, on live television. They think it might be a terrorist attack.”
“Oh my gosh,” I said. My brain was having trouble comprehending the magnitude of what he was saying. “That’s crazy!”
“I know,” he said. “I’ve gotta go. My flight’s boarding now.”
“Okay, have a safe trip,” I said. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
We hung up and I turned on the television and then continued getting ready for work, in the way that you continue on autopilot as your mind mulls over the impossible. Seeing the sober, frightened faces of Matt Lauer and Katie Couric and the live video of the World Trade Center suddenly jolted my comprehension.
I needed to get to the station.
I grabbed my things, hurried to the car, and turned on the radio. Suspected terrorist attack. Planes being used as bombs. All flights halted. Dozens of flights still in the air.
Dozens of flights still in the air.
Quickly, I called Dennis’s cell phone. There was no answer.
The station beeped in on my phone and I took the call.
“We need you to head downtown and be ready to go live as soon as possible,” they said. “All government buildings are evacuating until they can account for every plane that’s still in the air.” I gulped. “Okay,” I said. “I’m headed that way now.”
I was strangely calm. This couldn’t really be happening. It had to be some sort of mistake. There was a rational explanation for everything. Dennis was fine. Everything would be fine. It had to be fine. Every few minutes, I’d feel panic rise in the back of my throat as I drove. I pushed it back down. I struggled to put my mind in work mode. I had to go on the air soon. I had to keep it together. I tried calling Dennis again. No answer.
I had to stay calm.
Downtown, a quiet stream of workers filed out of Nashville’s tallest buildings and headed for the buses and parking decks. They looked like I felt. Worried. Bewildered. Confused. Many of them tried to make phone calls on their cell phones, but the lines were jammed. I found my station’s live truck and stood in front of the camera out on the sidewalk. It was a beautiful morning. The air was crisp, the sky impossibly blue.
This couldn’t be happening.
“Where’s Dennis right now?” the photographer asked me.
“He’s on a plane,” I said. “He has the day off.”
“Are you serious?”
“He’s fine,” I said shortly, and took out my cell phone, trying to call him again. The call wouldn’t go through.
“Dammit,” I said to myself. I put in my earpiece and tuned in NBC, watching the live coverage on the tiny monitor that the photographer had set up in front of me.
As I watched, the towers fell. First one, and then a few minutes later, the other. Around me, I heard a few screams and sobs from the workers on the sidewalk who were getting the information on their phones and radios.
I had to stay calm.
All morning long, I reported the latest from a downtown street that quickly became deserted as people scurried to get as far away from Nashville’s tallest buildings as possible. In between my reports, I listened to national news. Twelve planes were still in the air, unaccounted for. Then ten. Then six. I kept periodically trying Dennis’s cell phone. There was no answer.
I had to stay calm.
Finally, two hours in, Dennis called. I fought back tears at the sound of his voice. His plane had taxied out onto the runway before the pilot got the call to wait there until further notice. They sat on the runway for a long time, before turning the plane around and heading back to the airport. He hadn’t been able to reach me on his phone.
He was okay.
And now, with all of Nashville and the surrounding area glued to their televisions, trying to comprehend what was happening, we both had work to do.
I returned to a chaotic newsroom, where the entire staff was struggling to sort through the massive amounts of information coming in and decide what to put on the air. Sitting down at my desk, I began sorting through the calls taken by newsroom assistants and interns. One in particular stood out. A Vanderbilt doctor had called in, saying his best friend from college was on the flight that had crashed a few hours earlier in Pennsylvania. The doctor had just talked to his friend’s wife and she told him she’d had one last conversation with her husband on his phone while the plane was still in the air.
I called the doctor. He invited me to come over to his house and said he’d be willing to do an interview.
At his house, the doctor and his wife were poring over photos of his friend, Jeremy Glick, and Jeremy’s wife and daughter. They had cued up their wedding video for me to the part where Jeremy, one of the groomsmen, walked grinning up the aisle after the vows had been exchanged. Jeremy’s wife told the doctor that her husband had called her from the flight after the terrorists took over the plane. She told him that two jets had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. He said, “We’re going to rush the hijackers.” Those were the last words she ever heard from him.
“Unbelievable,” I said softly. “That must be why the plane went down in Pennsylvania. They must have fought the hijackers.”
“That’s why I wanted to do this interview,” the doctor said. “I want everyone to know that my friend Jeremy and those other passengers were heroes. Who knows how many lives they saved?”
I was told this story by the Vanderbilt doctor only a couple of hours after it had actually happened. There was no official word on why that flight had gone down in Pennsylvania, and I’m pretty sure I was the first member of the media to have heard the story. I had no way of verifying whether it was true.
But sometimes, you go with your gut. I believed the doctor’s story, with all my heart. I went back to the station with photos and the wedding video, and put together a story for the six o’clock news about Jeremy Glick and the heroic passengers of Flight 93.
Once I’d reported that story, I went back out, to a hotel this time, where an American Airlines flight attendant had agreed to talk to me about her co-workers who had died on the hijacked flights. It was an emotional interview– like the doctor, she wanted people to know that her flight attendant friends and colleagues were professionals who loved their jobs. She was sure they had done everything they could right up to the end. Later accounts would prove she was right. Again, I returned to the station and wrote her story, then reported it on the 10:00 news.
The newscast ended and the day was finally done. But Dennis and I didn’t want to go home. I had been so busy working and so committed to keeping my emotions at bay and getting those stories on the air that I hadn’t had a chance to process what had happened. So instead, we went to a nearby sports bar, which was still packed with people watching coverage of the day’s events on the big-screen televisions.
I ordered a vodka tonic and stared, horrified, at the scenes of dust-covered New Yorkers fleeing the falling buildings in terror, of injured employees stumbling out of the Pentagon, of a blackened field in Pennsylvania, of face after face appearing on the screen, registering the emotions that every single one of us had experienced in the last 15 hours. Shock. Fear. Grief. Horror.
And for the first time on what must be America’s darkest day, I cried.
Image via Michael Foran/Flickr