Bill Ritter on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, NJ Burkett's return

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Monday, September 5, 2022

NEW YORK (WABC) -- Fifteen years later. Sometimes it seems like yesterday. Sometimes it seems like forever.

Last week, 17 more names were added to the FDNY 9/11 Memorial -- first responders who have died in the past year because they showed up and tried to save lives, or showed up and tried to find survivors in the rubble, or showed up days later looking for victims and remnants and clues.

Turns out they and scores of other first responders since the attacks have died from toxic chemicals in "the pit" of the destroyed World Trade Center towers. The sad truth is that there will be more names added next year.

The 15th anniversary falls on a Sunday, so workers in the biggest labor market in the country will not be working. TVs will not be on in offices across the Tri-State, and people won't be live streaming the powerful, emotional and often wrenching reading of the names of the victims at their office desks.

Once again, we are airing the ceremony Sunday morning, beginning at 8:25 a.m. and finishing after the last name is read.

I have written about the terror attacks every year, talking about the emotions, the fear, and, like so many others, recalling what I was doing when the hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, and, after passengers fought the terrorists, crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.

It was a gut-wrenching event, and it affected all of us. Some, of course, were affected more than others. I want to talk about one of those who was affected more than others, and it's an important backstory to our coverage of the anniversary on Sunday.

Those of you who watched on that fateful Tuesday back in 2001 know that our Eyewitness News reporters were in the thick of the destruction, and perhaps no one more than reporter and my friend N.J. Burkett.

Newt, since then, has not participated in our annual coverage of the September 11 anniversaries, with the exception of the 11th anniversary. It was simply too painful. The images of people jumping out of the towers, which N.J. and his photographer, Marty Glembotzky, saw, and the crumbling of the burning buildings so very close to them.

We missed N.J.'s smart and on-point reporting -- he's a five-star reporter -- in our coverage; but respecting his feelings and his deep emotions about what happened was also important.

Now, on the 15th anniversary, Newt is going to report on the ceremony. And his reasons are important and deep and oh-so-personal. Here are his words:

"On the six-month anniversary, I was so overwhelmed by the ceremony that the relatives of the dead found themselves consoling me. It was not my finest moment, because I was there as a journalist. What I realized was that I really could not separate myself from the others because I'm grieving with them.

"Every few weeks, someone comes up to me and shakes my hand or even hugs me and says, 'Thank God you're alive' or 'Thank you for what you did on 9/11.' Some of them actually remember the coverage on that day. Many of them have seen me in the many documentaries or in the Newseum in DC, where the work I did that day with photographer Marty Glembotzky is on permanent exhibit. A continuous loop on a big screen. When I went there for the first and only time, I couldn't watch after the first two minutes. It's just too much for me.

"So why am I making another attempt at the live coverage? It's because I've come around to the belief that oral histories are important. That I need to stop running away from 9/11. It's also worth noting that I sat for two hours with curators from the National 9/11 Museum, and they took my oral history of that day. It is now part of their permanent collection.

"In the weeks that followed 9/11, I did interviews for several documentary filmmakers. These ultimately aired in Japan, Germany, Italy (all the axis powers, oddly) and the BBC. Discovery, NatGeo and HBO have all used the reporting, as the raw tapes were turned over to the National Institutes of Standards for the federal investigation. So the two field cassettes are fully part of the public record. I was on 'Regis and Kelly' and 'Oprah.'

"But I shut all of that down by the one-year anniversary. It was too much. Years later, it's still too much. But I have an obligation, I think, to history, to contribute whatever I can to help people comprehend that awful day in 2001. Until my brother passed away in 2009, it was the worst day of my life."

And so this year, as we watch the names being read again, as our reporters are out in the field again, you will note that our N.J. Burkett is there, again. The pain isn't gone, but after 15 years, it takes a different form.

Always, the victims of the 9/11 attacks -- people from scores of countries, all races, all nationalities, all religions -- but people, first and foremost. And we remember them and think of all the people who loved them who are left behind to grieve. Still. Always. Peace.