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Bill Ritter reflects on the 10th anniversary of 9/11

September 10, 2013 8:31:17 AM PDT
5,256,000 minutes. How do you measure, measure a decade?
In daylights? In sunsets? In midnights? In cups of coffee?
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife?
In 5,256,000 minutes - how do you measure a decade in the life?

With apologies to the folks who wrote and performed in "Rent" and sang "Seasons of Love," these are questions many are asking as we remember the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

How do you measure this span of time?

I've been talking to people whose family members and friends were killed on that fateful morning, and I know how they measure it: By a pain that comes in waves. It is a pain that started 5,256,000 minutes ago, but never really stops and probably never will. A pain, to quote Bob Dylan, that stops and starts - like a corkscrew to the heart, ever since we've been apart.

You can measure the decade by watching what's happened to kids since Sept. 11.

I was cleaning out the house recently and found a picture of my son on his first day of first grade. The date was Sept. 10, 2001. He was 6 back then, a little chunk of cuteness. For months after the terror attacks, he'd come home from school and ask me if they had captured Osama bin Laden yet. Now he's taller than me, a strapping young man, smart as a whip, who likes to play football.

Then I found a letter my 9-year-old daughter wrote to New York firefighters - the ones who survived - comforting them during their collective grieving for 343 members of the FDNY who died when the World Trade Center towers collapsed.

She's now 19 - and just as compassionate as she was back then.

I always worried that the terror attacks would partly define my kids' youth, worried that growing up in New York City with fear as the drumbeat would somehow instill fear in them. For some reason - maybe because we didn't leave the city or the area, maybe because we didn't show fear - they are maturing into confident, fearless adults. At least that's what it seems like to me. Or maybe that's just what I hope.

I'm thinking about my kids on this 10th anniversary of the attacks because I've been talking to families with children who were born after their fathers died in the Twin Towers. Kids who were in utero on 9-11-01. Kids who know their fathers only through pictures and stories passed on by their mothers and other family members. Kids who are now 9 years old - old enough to understand what happened that day. Old enough to know that their fathers were killed by terrorists. Old enough to know what they're missing.

But make no mistake: these are not children who are wallowing in grief. At least most of them aren't. The moms who have focused on their children - and realized that their own sorrow can't take center stage - have for the most part raised kids who aren't paralyzed by grief and a sense of loss.

This 10th anniversary is giving me - and us - a chance to think of those kids, think of all that's happened between then and now. And I think of my own children's experiences between then and now, and think of how my life has changed. I think of my 2-year-old, who knows from nothing about terror attacks or Ground Zero or al-Qaeda or Sept. 11. At least, not yet.

There are those who are and will remain trapped in an emotional Twilight Zone. It's hard to imagine that they could feel otherwise. You never get over a death like that, not when you love the person who died. But that pain, like all death pain, is a giant scar that closes up. It doesn't heal, it just closes up. And it can be reopened with just the slightest scratch. Like an anniversary. Like the 10th anniversary.

I talked to Jill Gartenberg, now Jill Gartenberg-Pila, who says she will do something she has never done - go to Ground Zero for a Sept. 11 anniversary. Maybe you remember Jill. Her husband Jim was on the 86th floor of Tower One when the planes hit. He talked to us on air that morning, calm and cool, reassuring families that help would come to those who were trapped.

Maybe he believed that. Maybe he didn't. His voicemails to Jill at home suggest he did not. They were full of emotion and fear.

Jill and Jim had a 2-year-old daughter - and another one in the oven, as they say. Now, the 2-year-old is 12, and the one in the oven is a fully baked 9-year-old. Jill has since remarried - to a widower (not 9-11 related) with two kids of his own. She has taken her grief and turned it into a celebration of Jim's life and what he left behind - chiefly, two beautiful girls.

Jill's story resonates the most with me - and you'll see it during our coverage Sunday morning. So how will you remember Sept. 11? The 10th anniversary falls on a Sunday, so many people won't be in town for the second-to-last weekend of summer. And the normal weekday crowds certainly won't be in Lower Manhattan.

This year, Ground Zero and the Lower Manhattan that was transformed by 9/11 will belong to the people who will spend the day remembering.

That means, for many of us, remembering how that fateful day started. I have told this story before in these annual remembrances, so for those who have heard it, forgive and indulge me.

I was getting ready to go to the gym on that Tuesday morning back in 2001. It was a bright, crystal-clear blue sky; the first week of school for my kids. Spirits were high.

Our 6 p.m. producer, Zahir Sachedina, called me at home. "You watching what's going on?" "No, what's up?" I asked.

"Looks like a plane crashed into the World Trade Center," he said. "Maybe a small plane. We want you to get in here and anchor this special report."

I hopped into the shower and turned the TV volume up all the way so I could hear what was happening. It was clearly unclear what was going on.

And then another plane hit.

I remember that the man who was anchoring at the time - a man who no longer works here - said that for two planes to crash into the Twin Towers something had to be wrong with the FAA's radar system.

I recall throwing the bar of soap against the shower wall. Hard. And I remember yelling. Loudly. Something obscene at first. And then, "WE ARE UNDER ATTACK!" And then something obscene again.

I jumped out of the shower, rushed into work and was on the anchor desk as the second tower collapsed. Sandra Bookman and I stayed on air for hours. Jim Dolan was also there, monitoring the flood of bulletins, including the one that said a United Airlines flight had disappeared from radar somewhere over rural Pennsylvania. How could it not be connected to the two planes that had crashed into the World Trade Center, and to the plane that, as we had found out, had crashed into the Pentagon?

It make sense they were connected of course, but we had no confirmation connecting the Pennsylvania crash. Not yet.

That first day is a blur of images and emotions and tears held back. Not a blur that's out of focus - because I remember most of it so clearly. But a blur that's all connected, so much so that it runs together. All those terrible events of that day were, in fact, a string of one larger event. Like each single frame of a film strip. Blurred together, they make a complete picture.

The image of those dust clouds erupting as each building collapsed, so final and destructive. The image of people jumping from the buildings, leaping to certain death, the heat just too intense to tolerate. The last phone calls, some of them to us on the air, from people who maybe knew they were going to die.

The thoughts of all those who had family in the buildings, watching them burn and fall as the TV showed the horror of it all.

It is difficult not to cry, even now. The emotions 10 years later are, I know, right on the surface. It doesn't take much to bring them up; writing these words is enough to do that.

It just all felt so wrong, so terribly misguided and horrific. Whatever gripes and complaints the group that did this had against the U.S., whatever valid criticisms they could level against this country - nothing, NOTHING could ever justify the human carnage they caused and the grief that followed.

The grief affected us as well. Don DiFranco, a member of the Eyewitness News team, was on the top of one of the towers when it was attacked. Don was an engineer - and his first thought after the plane crashed into the building 20 floors below him was to call us and tell us we might be off the air because of the crash. That was what he worried about. I hope only that Don didn't suffer.

There are two other images that haunt me that involve our staffers. The first is Nina Pineda and Lauren Glassberg, huddled and hugging behind a car, as the dust swirls around them. The fear - seared on their faces and in my memory.

The other is a "stand up" on tape by NJ Burkett. A burning tower was over his shoulder as he looked into the camera and talked about what was happening at that moment in Lower Manhattan. His cameraman suggested he do it again - another take. He did...and as he spoke, the ground rumbled and there, over his shoulder, the first tower crumbled. NJ looked back, and then, like everyone else around him, started to run.

The anger and sorrow that followed are, for many, still part of their lives.

It is easy to talk about closure - but I simply do not believe there is such a thing. As I said earlier, the wound can scar over, but there is no closure for a wife who no longer has her husband, or for parents whose child was killed, or for a child whose mother perished that day.

We also try to avoid saying that people were "lost" that day. Keys are lost. Nice pens are lost. Report cards are lost. The people who died that day aren't lost. They were killed. And to say "lost" is, I think, to sugarcoat the reality. It's harsh what happened, and we should acknowledge the harshness. They were killed. They died. They weren't lost. We know what happened to them.

And so as we've done on Sept. 11 every year since the attacks, we will remember again this year. I was there for the catastrophe. And I've been there for the memorials. And I will be there for the 10th anniversary. It's my honor and privilege to participate.

For those of you who will watch our coverage of the ceremony at Ground Zero, know that we will be feeling the same emotions as you are. For all of us, a moment of reflection helps honor those who woke up that day, kissed their families goodbye, went to work and never returned.

BILL RITTER


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