Fall 2014 staff: I am re-posting something I wrote for The Shorthorn staff on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. As you no doubt reflect this week on how the terrorist attack has shaped your life and country, I wanted to share my own thoughts – they remain true today. I hope you’ll take time to read them.
For the Shorthorn staff:
Sept. 10, 2001, ended like many did for me in the weeks before. Sleep eluded me, my brain bubbling with questions that all pointed toward one thing – doubt.
A new school, no friends, and no idea what I was doing at a daily newspaper. I foundered on a new beat, suddenly going from pumped to chump in a sea of experience. Most nights ended in tears and the fear I’d made the wrong choice in uprooting my life seven hours from friends and family to chase a dream. I was the wrong person for this career, in it at the wrong time.
The pounding on my door gave way to the crush of Kendra’s weight against it.
Beth, get in here.
My roommate, already in my room when she said it, pulled me by the hand into the living room. I watched in awe as smoke billowed from the World Trade Center’s North Tower. We stood, roommates by a chance drawing, in our pajamas watching and listening to speculation. Accident? Tragedy? Attack? We had no words, but our hands tightened against each others.
Then the second plane struck.
Attacked. My normally preoccupied mind went blank, then flooded with the enormity of what we were watching.
I pull on jeans and a T shirt.
Shoes. Notebook. Pen. Then out and through Centennial Court apartments, and across Mitchell Street. Through campus, I slow only to notice the small groups of students swarming to televisions and computers in different buildings.
Other student journalists at The Shorthorn had followed their guts to the newsroom. Others itched to get out of classes, where computers had frozen with the number of people around the world who were trying to process what had happened by watching the videos. Instructor Pat Gordon told some students to just go – there would be no class today.
At 8:46 a.m., Sept. 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Seventeen minutes later, as the world watched, American Airlines Flight 77 flew into the South Tower. Flight 77 struck the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. A fourth, United Airlines Flight 93, crashed in Pennsylvania at 10:03 after passengers fought their captors. Nearly 3,000 people, including the 19 hijackers who helped orchestrate the attacks, died.
Notebook. Pen. Another pen.
Every staffer at the paper that morning had the same assignments: Find out what people were thinking. How they were feeling. What they were doing. Where they were when they found out.
Just go, we were told. Some of us were scared. Nervous. But we knew we had to go wherever people were.
Hours later, we met in the breakroom to see what we had gathered and be assigned some of the news tips that had come in – school was canceled, then not, then again; international student groups worried about retaliation; we might have alumni in the towers. We split, then reunited under deadline. The leadership of Editor in Chief Jason Hoskins, Managing Editor Michael Currie, and our newsroom adviser, Chris Whitley, kept us moving through the day.
We put out the best damn newspaper we could. I don’t think many of us slept – either the anticipation or the nerves or the worry kept us awake that night.
We had little certainty in the week that followed. But we talked. We worked hard. We even laughed a little. Some people quit; most stayed on. We had only one sure thing from day to day – there were no rookies or veterans after Sept. 11. There were no designers or reporters, no editors or photographers. We were The Shorthorn, plain and simple.
At 9:03 this morning, 10 years later, I watched a video of the second plane crashing into the South Tower. The same fear and anticipation flooded my heart, and the urge to rush to the only place I knew to be came back. I looked through clips and papers from 2001 and the years that followed. The Shorthorn staff I was part of covered tributes, vigils, policy changes, nervous students and fundraisers in the wake of the attacks. We covered the stories that were about regular life, too – ice cream socials, career fairs, lectures and other signs that life had to move on at our campus.
Soon, Page 1 of The Shorthorn would cover the U.S. declaring war in Afghanistan. News from ensuing wars is still edited into The Shorthorn’s pages, 10 years later. Veterans of that war walk and study among you. The following spring, international students on campus would begin to see greater scrutiny as the U.S. clamped down on allowing citizens of “terror-harboring” countries to study in our nation. We see the effects of that now on our campus, whose face has morphed drastically in 10 years. In Spring 2003, Design Editor Jessica Felkel (now Jessica Shaw) and I would travel to New York City for a national journalism convention, where The Shorthorn was recognized for its outstanding coverage throughout the previous year. We had to decide whether to fly – restrictions had changed and the U.S. would soon declare war in Iraq. That war, too, still resides on your pages. Once in New York, we choked up at Ground Zero, marched in the first of many anti-war protests that shut down Times Square, and had an opportunity to see, firsthand, the devastation and resilience of a nation.
To say Sept. 11, 2001, changed the trajectory of our nation is an overwhelming understatement. It changed the individual paths of its entire population. Some decided to serve their country and communities. Some strengthened their faith. Some reunited with estranged family. Some found a new purpose.
For weeks, I’ve struggled with how to answer the question the Shorthorn staff poses each year to many people: Where were you during the Sept. 11 attacks? Now, you know. But the question got me thinking past that, to the trajectory of my life since that fateful day.
Last night, I thought about how I felt Sept. 10, 2001 – unworthy and not ready. Full of doubt. I had none the next day.
This morning, Sept. 11, 2011, I realize it was in the day that 3,000 people lost their lives that I found the true purpose of mine.