Bill Ritter reflects on the anniversary of 9/11: FDNY members are still dying 22 years later

Bill Ritter Image
Monday, September 11, 2023
We remember: 9/11 ceremony honors victims 22 years later
Eyewitness News anchor Bill Ritter reflects on the lives lost in the 9/11 terror attacks and the impact still felt 22 years later.

NEW YORK (WABC) -- Twenty-two years after deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history - and people are still dying.

More than 2,700 people were killed in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, as terrorist Islamists - set on massacre - hijacked four planes and flew two of them into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

Among the victims: 343 members of the FDNY.

Many fire department members continue to die from 9/11 related illnesses. They're the ones who spent much time on the "pile" - the ruins of the towers - looking for possible survivors and then, later, looking for body parts and any evidence to identify victims.

This past week, the FDNY, again, added a flag for each of their now-retired members who, 22 years later, died of 9/11 illnesses: 43 in the last year.

Each getting a name placed in a memorial garden in Brooklyn. And each getting an American flag -- 341 of them now in the garden.

And a year from now, the number of FDNY members who died post 9/11 will likely outnumber the members died on 9/11.

As FDNY Commissioner Lauren Kavanagh put it: "Our members are still dying."

We talk about never forgetting this horrific event. And the deaths of people still dying from these 9/11 illnesses makes it even more important that we must always remember.

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."

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 that 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 22 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.

RELATED | In memory of Don DiFranco, WABC engineer killed on 9/11

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 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.

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

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.

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

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 22nd 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.

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

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

RELATED | 9/11 Timeline: How the September 11 attacks unfolded