Bill Ritter reflects on the anniversary of 9/11: Life viewed in 20-year increments

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Monday, September 5, 2022
'Eyewitness to 9/11: Behind the Lens' Official Trailer
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) -- I've tended to look at life -- and time that passes -- in 20-year increments. Maybe it's because I was born in a year that ends in zero, in 1950, and the math was always easy. So it was always simple for me to look ahead, or, as the years went by, easy to look behind as well.

Born in 1950...what will my life be like in 1970? Or 1990? Or in 2000?

Or, in 1990, where was I 20 years ago (speaking about my life, not in a literal geographic sense)?

And so I found myself in my comfort zone thinking of 20-year blocks, as we approach the 20th anniversary of a most uncomfortable event -- the September 11th terror attacks.

Seems like yesterday. Seems like forever.

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WABC-TV looks back on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 to hear from the Eyewitness News journalists who covered the attack as it unfolded.

I work in a business where there are many young people; journalism tends to attract young people. There is, among those drawn to the business of truth searching and storytelling, a desire to start early, because the flame of honesty and truth burns bright and strong.

And so I approached this year's annual commemoration of the evil 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks with a different sense of looking back. I approached it with a sense of looking ahead as well.

Twenty years ago.

For so many young journalists, that must seem like eons ago. At 71, my frame of reference is a tad different, although looking back 20 years, life seemed very different to the 51-year-old me in 2001 than it does now.

How could it not, especially after another deadly and life-changing event we went through with the COVID-19 pandemic?

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

I think that's fairly clear after 20 years -- two decades since the worst attack on the United States in its history.

There have been 19 annual memorials of 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, and every year, more names of FDNY members are added to the memorial.

Our thoughts are with the men and women who so bravely worked at Ground Zero -- the pile -- after the terror attacks, and our thoughts are with the people who loved those who were murdered on that day 20 years ago.

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WABC-TV engineer Don DiFranco was working at the Channel 7 transmitter site on the 110th floor of the World Trade Center North Tower when terrorists flew a hijacked American Airlines jet into the building on September 11, 2001.

There's also another 20-year full circle we are all confronted with. Just less than a month after the September 11 attacks, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan.

The mission was to boot out the Taliban, which was giving shelter to Al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, who had overseen and planned the terror attacks of 9/11.

That was the mission. But like other nations that had over time decided to invade Afghanistan with something broader than a short-term mission, the U.S. found itself sucked in -- partly on its own ill-conceived and often imperialist point of view, and partly because it mistakenly believed it could engage without consequence in nation building.

Both theories would lead, this past month, to another defeat for the U.S., despite putting so many American troops in harm's way, and despite more than 2,100 American troop deaths in what would become the longest war in U.S. history.

We went in to Afghanistan with the mission of revenge for the terrorists who killed Americans, and we left Afghanistan, 20 years later, with terrorists again killing Americans -- a horrific full circle.

And we are once again fearing terror attacks on our homeland. Twenty years later.

This year, we have a documentary featuring the Eyewitness News reporters, anchors, photographers, producers and managers who covered the attacks. You can watch it HERE or on Hulu and various other streaming services.

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Eyewitness News reporter N.J. Burkett and photographer Marty Glembotzky rushed down to the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. While shooting a standup right below the burning towers, the first tower began to collapse.

Every year in these annual remembrances, I have told the story of where I was when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center. So for those who have heard it, forgive and indulge me. We all have our stories.

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. 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.

RELATED | Eyewitness News 11 p.m. newscast from September 11, 2001

Watch the 11 p.m. Eyewitness News from Sept. 11, 2001.

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 20 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.

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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.

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 September 11 every year since the attacks, we will remember again this year.

RELATED | 9/11 attacks by the numbers

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