Bill Ritter reflects on the 17th anniversary of 9/11

Bill Ritter Image
Monday, September 5, 2022

NEW YORK (WABC) -- Seventeen years later, and I'm struck by something that has hit me only recently.

I usually start this annual recollection and commemoration of the September 11th terror attacks by trying to conjure up a soothing observation to remember a day that was anything but soothing.

But after watching the country -- and it was the country that was watching --- bury Aretha Franklin and Sen. John McCain, bury them in a kind of collective combination of sorrow and celebration of what they each stood for...standing up for what they believed was right...standing up to power...speaking their minds no matter what the consequences. After a week of that, I begin this year's recollection for the most horrible day in our lifetimes with an observation that goes beyond the carnage of that day.

I'm thinking about how the country came together after the September 11th terror attacks in 2001. Came together amid an evil that was and still is unthinkable. Came together despite differences, and rallied as one country.

It was a collective grief back then. But it was also a kind of collective inspiration -- to stand up to fight reach for the best intentions and rally not just the country, but also the world.

It was an emotional collectivism that we felt...but because of the sorrow at the time, perhaps we didn't appreciate how wide and powerful the scope.

Do we now appreciate it? Appreciate it more than we did before? I think I do. Especially this year.

The sadness last week over the deaths of Franklin and McCain came accompanied in part by reassurance that the grief each of us felt was felt by so many tens of millions; that the grief wasn't just for the deaths of two lives well lived, but also what they represented...and how they were bringing us together in something powerfully collective.

It's the kind of power of the group that we had after September 11th -- the kind of feeling we don't have very much of these days. Not with all of our bickering and divisiveness, our vitriol and diatribes, our lack of clearing political landmines in favor of some trying to build walls.

Seventeen years later, and I'm thinking about what we haven't learned, haven't appreciated. But I'm a cockeyed optimist, and I try never to say it's too late.

Maybe the lesson this year is to try to recreate the common bonds we focused on after those terror attacks. Try to hold hands with people we've hung up on, with our fellow Americans and with countries that rushed to our side after 9/11 to fight this evil. At least, that's my hope for this 17th anniversary remembrance.

For many of us, it's not hard to flash back to that numbing day at the first reports of any kind of mass violence.

The deja vu feeling is immediate, as if turmoil and chaos and despair are the new normal. It's followed by a big mental sigh: I will feel this forever; I will never get over it.

And then a second sigh: This is as it should be. I should never forget THAT day. And then my immediate flashbacks are suddenly eased. Slightly.

And then the third sigh: This is now our way of life, and I have to compartmentalize these feelings because, after all, I have a reporting job to do.

I know I'm not alone, although the more time that passes since the 9/11 terror attacks, the more people there are who didn't experience firsthand the raw fear and anger and thick mental fog that followed the attacks by radical Islamist terrorists who hijacked four planes and wreaked havoc in Lower Manhattan and at the Pentagon and in a field in rural Pennsylvania; the terrorists from Al-Qaeda who spread fear across this country and around the world and changed the way we go about our daily routines, perhaps forever.

On this 17th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we will again broadcast the reading of the names of those who were killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center towers, the area that would soon after be known as Ground Zero, the area that has now been reborn with office buildings, a huge new tower (the biggest in the country), and a powerful memorial and museum.

It is a solemn and emotional memorial event. It always is.

We mourn, still, for all those who were killed. We remember, still, where we were when it happened, what we were doing, what we were thinking, what we were feeling. And how we felt afterwards.

I have told this story before in these annual remembrances, 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."

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 make 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 17 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 NJ 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 11th 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 17th 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.

We also think of the 2,000 or so who have died since that day of illnesses related to 9/11. They, along with so many others who are now sick, are also victims.