Bill Ritter reflects on 9/11

September 7, 2009 5:52:19 PM PDT
I am old enough to know exactly where I was when I heard that President Kennedy had been shot. And I remember my reaction, because I grunted. I remember it may have sounded like a laugh - I was worried about that, worried about how people would react to everything I did back then as a 13-year-old. When you're that age, you sometimes believe that somehow everyone is watching at all times - how you walk, how you dress, how you react.

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It doesn't take long to realize that NO ONE is in fact watching you, and that people could care less how you react to anything. But when you're 13, you think the world is all about you.

Or at least I thought that, back on Nov. 22, 1963. I was in class at Portola Jr. High School in Tarzana, California, and the grunt-that-sounded-like-a-laugh was, in truth, my attempt to stifle a sob.

I was shocked - shocked to the point of tears. And it didn't get better, as word later came in that this young president had died from his wounds. It happened somewhere in Dallas was all I knew at the time. Later, of course, we'd know all too well about that motorcade, and the Dallas Book Depository, and the rifle that had been used, and how Mrs. Kennedy had tried to leap out of the Lincoln Continental, about how the Texas Governor in the car had also been shot.

And I remember my red-eyed English teacher, Mr. Olson, speechless, on that day. He had a picture of President Kennedy hanging on his wall. I knew he was a political sort of guy; his grandfather had been a governor of California years before.

I had never seen Mr. Olson as grim or as sad as he was that fall day. And the image of that day - and my reaction - are burnished in every part of me. Forever.

I bring all this up because the morning of September 11th is burned in my fibers with the same intensity as that day in November, 1963. Maybe even stronger.

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, so 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. WE ARE UNDER ATTACK!

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 in and he was 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, we found out, had crashed into the Pentagon?

Didn't make sense that they weren't connected - but we had no confirmation about the Pennsylvania crash 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 because it is all connected.

The image of those clouds of dust as each building collapsed, so final and destructive. The image of people jumping from the buildings - leaping to certain death because the heat was 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, maybe didn't. The thoughts of all those who had family members in the buildings, watching them burn and fall as the TV's showed the horror of it all.

I am holding back sobs right now, just thinking about it. The emotions, even eight 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.

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 other is a "stand up" 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" as we call it. 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. 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 sugar coat 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.

Every year around this time, I find myself thinking - enough! Let's have a small ceremony, and take a moment to remember what happened. Why go through with this wall-to-wall televised coverage of the names being read, and the reflecting pool and the prayers.

And then the day arrives and I find myself swept up in the emotion of it all, and in remembering what I've written about in this space. And when it's over, I'm overcome - with emotion and grief and a feeling of "never forget."

And so - we do it again. I was there for catastrophe. And I've been there for every memorial.

And it's my honor and privilege to participate.

Bill Ritter