Essay: Recalling the day 9/11 became more than just another date

US & World

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — It is hard to believe September 11, 2001 was once a date that did not hold the infamy it has for the past 19 years.

Shortly after the attacks, I received a phone call from our current news director, Karen Rezendes, who was WPRI’s executive producer at the time.

“We’d like to send you to New York,” she said.

Within an hour, I was on the road with our now-retired head photographer Les Breault, calling everyone I knew in New York, from relatives to former co-workers.

Of course, the old-style, block-shaped phone I had didn’t stream video, so we had no idea what to expect at 1 World Trade Center as we made our way south. The details on the radio included only speculation about what happened, and hope there were survivors.

One fact was obvious: While I-95 is busy every day, it was just about empty from Providence to New York City. For long stretches of interstate, travelers were somewhere else and we had the road to ourselves.

Getting to New York was easy, but getting on the island was not. Every bridge was blocked by police who frantically told us to keep moving.

As we maneuvered through the side streets of Queens and Brooklyn, there were confused crowds on the sidewalks and more police. It was bedlam.

We crawled our way through the boroughs ─ the huge plume of grey smoke and ash billowing above the East River on our right.

Surprisingly, there was no one blocking the Manhattan Bridge, but we drove forward slowly, thinking someone was going to stop us. Near the peak of the bridge, we found a single officer.

“How can I help you?” I recall him asking.

He then offered a slight grin and a nod as he glanced at the “12” on the side of our SUV. (Les and I tried not to look surprised when he said that we could go ahead.)

I believe he thought we were the cable news channel Long Island 12, not a couple of journalists from Rhode Island.

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We began shooting a series of stand-ups to give viewers an idea of what it looked like on the worst day in history, in the busiest city in the world.

But to me, while the scene looked horrifying and apocalyptic, it was more about sound than sight.

As we walked toward what became known as Ground Zero, our footsteps were silent as if we were walking down a street after a snowstorm. But it was ash silenced our walk.

Also, without the usual gridlock of cars and people in the financial district, the street noises were gone.

At most breaking news scenes, you search for someone who saw what happened. It’s not always easy and sometimes, there are no eyewitnesses or no one who is willing to talk. Not on that day.

Everyone we asked had similarly terrifying stories.

I’ll never forget the first woman we interviewed. She was dazed, telling us about seeing people jump from one of the towers, taking a shot at surviving the fall as opposed to sure death if they stayed in the burning building. She wasn’t the only one who saw that horror and I’m sure they all must think about it on this day and often.

Another woman came up to us, asking for help finding her sister who worked in the World Trade Center.

There was also a man on a bike in tears who pedaled by and shook his head.

In the soot on the hood of a car in front of a store on Beekman Street, someone had written a one-word description of what the city looked and felt like.

“Hell,” it read.

Within an hour, I was editing in the backseat of Les’s car while he drove toward CNN and CBS with the goal of feeding our story back to the station.

Imagine driving through Manhattan with almost no traffic. We were there in a matter of minutes ─ a drive that normally takes much longer. But nothing was normal on that day.

I called the station to tell them what we had.

“How do we feed this back to you?” I asked.

The question brought humored shock from our assignment editor.

“Feed what back?” he said. “We never thought you’d get on the island. We’re busy. Call me back.”

The next sound was the click of the phone being hung up.

Our first story was edited but getting it on the air required a connection. Les recognized a CNN employee he knew from somewhere, and within minutes we were on an elevator, moving toward their control room where we beamed the video back to Rhode Island.

That busy assignment editor called me back a short time later.

“How’d you guys do that?” he asked.

Our satellite truck arrived that night but could not get across the river. Truck operator and truly-dedicated journalist Mike Budronis had to sleep in the truck somewhere in Brooklyn.

The next day, he was able to park relatively close to Ground Zero. Security would get tighter and tighter and soon police put up roadblocks behind us, unknowingly penning this station from Rhode in, instead of out, of the secured area.

In the days to come, volunteer first-responders from several departments outside New York would walk by us, hopeful about finding survivors under what they called “the pile.”

The thought that someone was alive under the debris seemed to keep them going.

They’d walk out hours later, covered in dust, as a new shift went in with similar hopes.

Firefighter after firefighter, police officer after police officer, volunteer after volunteer trudged by and told us they were going to reach someone any minute. Maybe there was a pocket of space somewhere under the twisted metal, concrete and glass? Each hour was going to be the time they found someone.

Hindsight makes that sound ridiculous, but in the early going there was great faith and determination. Hope.

There were no miracles.

Sadly, by Thursday of that week, we saw more and more people carrying signs with pictures of their missing loved ones.

They had checked the hospitals without success but told us they thought their husbands and wives, brothers and sisters were perhaps dazed by the explosions and now wandering the streets somewhere.

I don’t know if any of the many we talked with found the people in their pictures, but I’ll always hope there were more than a few happy reunions.

We witnessed resiliency as well, watching expressions go from shock and awe to comments about how the attacks would not keep the city down.

They were right. New York got back up after that deadly punch in the face, and as we know, it’s now just as packed with cars, people and energy as it was before 9/11.

From time to time, I talk with Rhode Islanders who lost loved ones that day. I don’t think anyone has said they’ve somehow accepted that an attack that was so unexpected and devastating found their families and took away the people they love.

Many of the local victims’ relatives tell us they still hope 9/11 will be declared a national day of mourning someday.

For now, we remember where we were when that first plane hit and the terror we felt during the next 102 minutes that involved four hi-jacked planes, 2,977 lost lives and unthinkable pain.

Walt Buteau ) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter: @wbuteau

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