Drummond for Council

Drummond for Council

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering September 11th - A Reporter's View

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. Everyone has a story and memories from that day - where they were, how they felt, what they wanted to do to help.

I saw the horror and heroism of that day up close and personal. At the time I was a reporter for The Washington Times. September 11th was my second day back from paternity leave as Kerry and I had just been blessed with the birth of our first child, Sadie Ann. It was indeed a glorious morning as I drove into D.C. that morning to start my 10 to 7 shift at the paper. I was driving along I-395 in my red 1997 Hydunai Accent, continuing to look in the back seat and see where the empty baby carrier was. Just amazing - me, a new dad I couldn't believe it.

Just before I left the house I saw that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. I listened intently to WTOP as the breaking news reports came streaming in. I knew it was not going to be a normal day at the office.

Then it happened. Around 9:40 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon and I - and our country - were forever changed. When the attack happened, I was just coming up to the point on I-395 where you see Washington and Arlington's landmarks on the horizon, around the Shirlington area. While I didn't see the plane hit the building I knew something was terribly wrong as I saw smoke billowing on the horizon. At first I thought that maybe it was the morning haze, but then the smoke grew darker and darker and you could see a trail leading down to where the Pentagon was. A succession of brake lights went on as people who were closer to the Pentagon stopped in their tracks, leading to a domino effect of red lights and stopped cars.

As a reporter, your first instinct is to go to the story. And that's exactly what I did. I needed to get to the Pentagon and start interviewing eye witnesses, covering a story no one wanted to cover, but I knew that I had a responsibility to the public to document the "first draft of history" in the form of a news story.

After calling Kerry at home and telling her to go to her parents house (they had a basement and I had no idea was happening - thought it would be safer there), I looked for a way to get to the Pentagon. I was able to weave in and out of traffic, get onto the shoulder and then eventually made my onto Army-Navy Drive. I drove down toward the Pentagon, looking for a parking spot anywhere I could find it. I found a spot and then started walking toward the scene, interviewing people, asking them what they saw, when they saw it ... any little detail I could get. People were walking and running away from the scene even as I was hurrying to it, but people wanted to tell their stories, if even for a brief moment. The emotions were still very raw and their memories were fresh. The first reaction from everyone I spoke with was shock, pure shock. How could this happen? Why here? What did we do to deserve it? And of course - we're going to find whoever did this and make them pay.

Eventually I made my way up to the Citgo gas station across the road from the side of the Pentagon that was impacted, where other journalists were starting together. That was our rally point and became the Pentagon's temporary press office. Cameras were getting set up, reporters were scurrying around trying to find out any morsel of "official" information they could get and - this may be hard to believe now - but there was a line for the pay phone. Even though I had a Motorola cell phone, the service was spotty even on a good day and with the chaos enveloping us, getting through was hard.

Helicopters were buzzing above and sirens continued to ring loudly as search and rescue operations intensified and firefighters put out the blaze. Watching all of this unfold before my very eyes was just simply amazing. The heroism of everyone who responded that day was just immense. I simply couldn't believe it. Still can't, really.

There are many, many memories from that day that stand out.

One in particular is that of Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke coming into the Citgo to talk with reporters. She had a stunned look of disbelief as did we. But she was poised, sharp and determined to tell the story of that day, accurately and without hysterics. She realized then that the world had changed and that all of us collectively were there to tell the story of that day. We had to get it right. Indeed we did.

Another memory is that of our first official press briefing around 1:30 with U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Craig Quiqley, the Pentagon's spokesperson. What a nice guy. He was under some of the greatest stress of his life, had just lost colleagues and friends but like Ms. Clark was there to tell the story of what he saw, what he knew and make sure that we got the story right. There were more briefings with him, too, but that first one I won't ever forget with the backdrop of the Pentagon still smoldering, his gleaming white Navy uniform and a gaggle of reporters four deep in a horseshoe around him.

Throughout the day I wrote and wrote and wrote, composing my stories, calling them in, dictating my words to convey what I had seen and heard to colleagues back at the paper who were compiling reports.

In the early evening, the Pentagon picked all of the journalists up and put us in a bus. They drove around the Pentagon, showing us up close the damage. Flood lights were on and crews were continuing to clear away the wreckage. That bus was stone silent, except for some muffled cries. The bus eventually took us into the building for a press briefing with then Sec. Donald Rumsfeld, then Sen. John Warner and Sen. Carl Levin, among others. Sitting there I was struck by the fact that just hours before, this same building had been struck by a plane and down the halls from where we were people died. Yet, we were in that building. It was a statement being made about our resolve - it's one that continues to stay with me.

In the days and weeks following September 11th I continued to cover that day's aftermath from the Citgo station. I made many friends that day including one of my best friends, Candace Smith. Then a reporter for the Associated Press, Candace was 8-months pregnant. There really weren't any seats around, but there was a lot of waiting at points through the days. From my days of reporting in rural parts of Virginia I carried an assemblage of items in the back of my car. One of them was a folding chair. I gave it to her and needless to say she was very grateful.

Of course, the unfurling of the flag by the firefighters and military personnel was an absolutely breathtaking demonstration of patriotism, resolve and determination.

Another memory that will stay with me forever is the graciousness and kindness of the Salvation Army. During those first few days we cleared out the Citgo station's foodstuffs. And it was hard for us to go anywhere. Once you were there at the station, police understandably didn't want us to keep leaving and coming back. That's where the Salvation Army came in, bringing in food for us who had assembled at the Citgo station. And what did they bring us - Burger King cheeseburgers. It's a taste always synonymous with that day now.

Spending hours and hours covering all that happened that day and afterward made me realize how fortunate I was to live in this country and, bluntly, for being alive. But during those days and weeks following I didn't really have a chance to ponder. I was just working. Get up, read the papers, go report, come home late at night. Repeat.

But there were two times where I let my guard down. First, was the night Wynton Marsalis played his trumpet during a benefit concert. I was sitting on our couch at our condo at The Crossings. I was holding my little girl. She was just born into this world and while I was excited, I was also a bit fearful having been witness to what happened just a few days prior. She was awake but going to sleep and I just held her, rocking her, listening to the trumpet play with tears streaming down my face.

The second time was days after the attack when I was standing alone - completely alone - under the dome of the Capitol in the Rotunda. At the time only Members, staff, journalists and law enforcement were allowed in. Complete and utter silence and with the thought repeatedly going through my mind that if not for the heroism of those on Flight 93 who crashed the plane into a field in Pennsylvania, I might not have been standing there.

Journalists in this country have a great privilege - and a great responsibility. It's because we live in this country and we are Americans that we are able to do what we do. On that day, journalists understood this as clear as the sky was that morning. It was a great honor to document what happened that day. I won't ever forget. I hope my fellow citizens never forget either.

For more of the minute by minute activity that happened go to WUSA 9's Dave Statter's webpage, www.Statter911.com. It is a very complete portrait of what journalists saw that day.

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