Bill Ritter reflects on the anniversary of 9/11: A divided United States needs healing, unity

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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) -- It was a time of mass murder, and terror, and fear and nightmare scenarios. The hijacking of four U.S. commercial airplanes by Islamist terrorists -- most of them from Saudi Arabia -- changed our lives, and brought us challenges most couldn't imagine.

Their actions killed about 3,000 Americans -- most in NYC at the Twin Towers -- the World Trade Center that was flattened and destroyed, and became known for years as Ground Zero.

The killing field on September 11, 2001, would later become a killing field again, as thousands of people have since died from what are called 9/11-related illnesses -- those spending time at the "pit" at Ground Zero, looking for the remains of so many who still haven't officially been identified. Scores of hundreds were turned to ash in the rubble.

As the years go by, something else becomes obvious about that fateful day -- something beyond the anger and fear and mourning. That's because something else happened in the United States back in 2001. The battered country came together, and did it in a way that was profound and inspiring and comforting and hopeful.

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I've been thinking a lot about that part of the September 11th story, as we approach the 21st anniversary of that horrible day. And I've been thinking about how divided so much of this country is now, and I -- along with many others -- am trying to figure out how that happened in relatively such a short period of time.

We can debate the foundational answer to all that -- and we should -- as we try to figure out how to stop the hate that infects so many people, and re-visit and re-light the sense of community that sparked the peaceful coagulation of this country 21 years ago.

For our coverage of the 9/11 memorial in the week leading up to it, I recently interviewed former New York Governor George Pataki, a lifelong Republican who has thought a lot about how we have become so divided, and how his own party has become polarized, with some of them so filled with hate.

There are, of course, many like the former governor, who favor discussion rather than rants, problem-solving dialogue instead of diatribes. But their voices are typically not the loudest.

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And as we remember once again and pay homage once again to the victims of the horrific terror attacks, it is also critical, I think, for us to truly pay tribute to those who were killed on 9/11 by trying, again, to come together and trying, again, to unite.

We have more in common with each other than we have differences, in this country, and in the world. If that can't be the "lesson" and takeaway from 9/11, then what are we doing, and what is all this leading to?

That's my message on this year's remembrance of the attacks.

Meanwhile, 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."

RELATED | How reporter N.J. Burkett and his photographer escaped Twin Towers collapse

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.

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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 steady stream of images and emotions and tears held back. Not a stream that's out of focus, because I remember most of it so clearly. But a stream 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, which melded together makes a complete moving image.

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 likely 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 was difficult not to cry back then. It is difficult not to cry now.

The emotions 21 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, 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. Wrist watches 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.

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I covered the attacks and catastrophe that followed. And I've been there to anchor the annual memorials. And I will be there for the 21st 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

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