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Bill Ritter reflects on the 12th anniversary of 9/11

September 10, 2013 10:26:32 AM PDT
This will certainly be a different kind of September 11th remembrance this year. The pain of the day, and the sorrow for so many thousands, will still weave through us.

How couldn't it?

But this year. the specter of war looms loud and heavy, and figures to envelope us in a way that could change the way we view the 9/11 memorial service of 2013.

How couldn't it?

President Obama has made his case that we should attack Syria, as a lesson and in retaliation for killing hundreds of Syrian civilians with Sarin gas. And so as we remember the victims of the terrorist attack here, we think of the families wiped out by the senseless and inhumane gassing of more than 1,400 people - including hundreds of children.

Evidence points to the Assad regime in Syria doing this to its own people, and while President Assad's brutality is a shock to many - given his education in London as a doctor - we know all too well that evil comes in many forms.

And now, as the U.S. seems poised for a military strike against yet another Muslim country, a ray of hope. Congress seems less than eager than the president and likely will not approve Mr. Obama's request for military action. And Russia, of all countries, seems now to be riding to the rescue with a proposal to put Syria's weapons of mass destruction under international control. Eventually, hopefully, those weapons will be destroyed.

Like I said, with all this as the backdrop, this could be a different perspective on this year's memorial. One fear - New York could be vulnerable to another terrorist attack in retaliation to any military action against Syria.

So while we remember those innocent people whose lives were snuffed out on the crystal clear late summer morning 12 years ago, as we watched the World Trade Center towers attacked, and ablaze, and, in short order, collapse, there is a blanket of tension wrapped around all of us on this anniversary. We are mourning, still, for all those who were killed, and we are weary of what's ahead.

That is the backdrop for our remembrance this year. Even as we take part in that annual ritual of recounting where we were and what we were doing when the towers were attacked.

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. Lori Stokes and I, and then, later, 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 made 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 12 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.

On a personal note, I so wanted to rush home and hug my kids during all this. Alas, when I got home the next day in the middle of the night, they were fast asleep, having left their first day of school in what they had to have known was a cloud of fear. And there would be no school for them - and for millions of others - for several more days.

It is easy to talk about closure - but I simply do not believe there is such a thing when it comes to September 11. 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 September 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 12th 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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