Bill Ritter reflects on the 19th anniversary of 9/11: 'The hardest story I've ever covered'

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Monday, September 5, 2022
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On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we hear from the Eyewitness News journalists who were there, in the streets, in the air, and in the newsroom, reporting on the events as the tragedy unfolded, capturing the unforgettable video of that day, and risking their lives to tell the world what was happening.

NEW YORK (WABC) -- When people would ask, "what's the hardest story you ever covered," it was a no brainer to answer, after Sept. 11, 2001.

But the deadly coronavirus pandemic and the deep recession that's followed, is now right up there, on equal footing. Both events have changed our lives. Both events have changed our world view. Both events will be with us. Always.

This year, it will be a very different kind of 9/11 memorial service, to mark the 19th anniversary. The pandemic has thrown up shields - shields to protect ourselves.

We are supposed to keep socially distant. We are supposed to wear masks. We are supposed to be aware of the pandemic that is still killing people every day. Tens of thousands of new cases a day. Not as bad as it was ... but still bad. And deadly.

And so this year, the official memorial 9/11 ceremony will still have the reading of the names of the victims - more than 3,000 of them at Ground Zero and in Shanksville, Penn. and at the Pentagon. But this year - because of the pandemic - the reading will be pre-recorded.

It makes so much sense.

But there are those who - just like those who don't like to wear masks - don't want to remember the victims by reading the names on tape. They want in-person readings, just like every other year. But this isn't just like every other year. Are politics seeping into the 9/11 Memorial event? Developments this week might point to that.

9/11 Timeline: How the September 11 attacks unfolded

Because this week Vice President Pence was set to be there at Ground Zero and the memorial pools - along with family members -- spread out, safely, on the 9/11 memorial plaza. But the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation decided they didn't like the tape-recorded aspect of the ceremony and organized an unofficial event at Zuccotti Park with family members reading the names. It's a great group, but the anxiety and reality of the pandemic doesn't call for masses of people to crowd together.

Anyway, the Vice President suddenly reversed himself - and said he was going to the unofficial event, not the official one. Was it because the Trump Administration didn't want to support an event supported and organized by Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio? There are those who wondered that.

Then - after much buzz and consternation of this - Mr. Pence suddenly reversed himself again this week, and decided he was going to be at both events.

There's a political tinge to most things, but for the first time this week it felt as if presidential politics - with the election weeks away - had been injected into a collective and emotional and bonding memorial.

It was a fiery blast of the reality that has divided and - dare I say - infected the country.

But it won't affect the somber official event.

I look at the links on our abc7NY website to all of the remembrances I've written each year on September 11, and I realize we will never stop mourning.

I think that's fairly clear, after 19 years -- 19 years since the worst attack on the United States in its history. Eighteen years of remembering that day, and the frightening moments that followed, and the utter pain and sorrow that enveloped this big metropolis and this shocked country.

There will be a time when the number of people killed by September 11 illnesses exceed the number of people killed on September 11. We are still counting the dead. Just this week, more than two dozen new names of FDNY members were added to the memorial - members who have died this past year.

Our thoughts are with the men and women who so bravely worked at Ground Zero...and the pile...after the terror attacks. And our thoughts are with the people who loved those who were murdered on that day, 19 years ago.

I have told the story before in these annual remembrances, of where I was when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center. 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."

Related: September 11, 2001 - In their own words

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 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.

VIDEO: Eyewitness News Roundtable from 09/11/02

It is difficult not to cry, even now.

The emotions 19 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 N.J. 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. N.J. looked back, and then, like everyone else around him, started to run.

N.J. for many years didn't participate in our annual remembrance coverage of the 9/11 attacks. The pain, the memories, the scars - all too fresh. But he will once again this year bring his unique reporting skills to our coverage. And I am grateful for that.

But, with N.J. as an example, we know that the anger and sorrow are, for many, still part of their lives.

Related: Anthony Johnson reflects on the anniversary of 9/11

It is easy to talk about closure - but I simply do not believe there is such a thing. The wounds 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.

But 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 to cover the attacks and catastrophe that followed. And I've been there for the memorials. And I will be there for the 19th 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.

CLICK HERE for more Eyewitness News reflections, photos and stories marking the anniversary of 9/11