Seventeen Years Ago: a Personal Essay

by Jay Cantrell

Copyright© 2018 by Jay Cantrell

True Story: A personal reflection on the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and thereafter.

Tags: True Story  

Many readers from the United States (and from around the world) that are old enough to legally access StoriesOnLine can probably tell you their exact location at 9 a.m. Eastern Time, Sept. 11, 2001.

I certainly can. It is one of three instances off the top of my head that I can tell you precisely where I was and what I was doing at a specific time, all three of them tragic.

The first was April 20, 1999, the date of the Columbine Massacre.

The third is a day in May 2003, the day my oldest sister died unexpectedly.

The second is Sept. 11th, a day that the world I thought I knew became a horrible fantasy.

On Sept. 10, 2001, I was a relatively young newspaper employee. I lived about an hour from Shanksville, Pa., the site of the crash of Flight 93.

I was in my early 30s, naive and immature. I was clinging tightly to my fading youth and just as tightly to my rapidly evaporating idealism.

I had worked late Monday night because I was supposed to be off work on Tuesday. I had put away three or four beers when I finally got home and stumbled to bed shortly before the sun arose for the day.

The incessant ringing from my telephone pulled me out of my slumber. I ignored it, as I typically did. It rang again after a short lull.

Then my cell phone began issuing its obnoxious ringtone (“Take Me Out to the Ballgame”).

I was relatively new to cellular technology. I had never possessed a cell phone until I was issued one by my employer. I rarely carried it and I rarely used it. I remember that I had to search through the bedroom for a moment to locate it.

Two years later, on Mother’s Day 2003, I would get another horrible call on the device telling me that my oldest sister, the sweetest person I knew and the person I considered my moral compass, had died.

I cannot recall a single time I have received good news via cell phone. Perhaps that is why I despise them so thoroughly.

On this day in 2001, I remember I looked at the caller ID on my phone with surprise. I had three brothers and four sisters and, at the time, I talked to about three of them with anything remotely resembling consistency. The number of the phone was from my middle brother, a man I had spoken to exactly once since my mother died in 1996.

Then I saw he’d called half a dozen times.

I knew the fact he would call me at all would portend bad tidings. The fact he’d called me six times in 20 minutes had me expecting the worst.

My telephone had finally stopped its incessant ringing so I kept my cell in my hand while I made my way across the room to the check the call log on the land line.

The missed calls, 10 it appeared, had come from two places: my job and from my middle sister, another sibling I rarely spoke to. My sister’s name popped up on the log with a fresh call as I stood looking at it. The phone in my hand rang again a moment later. It was my middle brother again, a retired U.S. Army Colonel.

I decided I liked my sister better so I answered her call. Whatever horrible news was coming, I preferred to hear it from her.

I can still recall her first words in my head.

“Are you OK?” she asked.

I didn’t understand the question – and I was perturbed from being awakened from blissful slumber by such an inane query.

“Of course, I’m OK,” I answered in the angry tone of voice that my family probably associates with me when they think about me.

Then I told her to hold on and answered the cell phone that showed no signs of stopping buzzing, vibrating and ringing in my hand.

“Thank God, Bub,” my brother told me. “I was worried.”

I am the youngest by a number of years and my relationships with my siblings had been strained by my mother’s passing. They knew I lived in Pennsylvania, somewhere east of Pittsburgh but they had no idea of the town’s name or its exact location. I had only lived there for almost three years at that point.

“What in the fuck, Dave?” I recall asking.

There was a moment of silence.

“You’re not at work; you don’t know,” he said. “Bub, turn on the TV.”

My brother had been a staff officer during the Vietnam War. He had commanded troops in battle and in peace time for 25 years. His voice told me it was not a request but an order. I put down the phones I held in each hand, reached for the remote and turned on the TV.

The scene on television looked as though they came from a Hollywood blockbuster or a Tom Clancy novel. But they were real and they were live.

My first coherent words were: “Jesus Christ” as I sat heavily on my couch and read the scroll across the bottom of the screen.

I picked up a phone and held it to each ear.

“I have to go,” I told my siblings.

“Wait!” my sister said.

She told me that another plane had gone down a few miles outside of Pittsburgh and that I needed to be careful.

Then my brother said something to me that I’m not sure he’d ever said to me before.

“I love you, Bub,” he told me. “You look out for yourself.”

I arrived at the closest of our chain newspapers a few minutes later, unshowered and wearing a baseball cap and blue jeans, still smelling of the beers from the night before, and was immediately told I needed to call the regional publisher for instructions.

My job was to cull through the massive amounts of (dis)information and shape our coverage of events for the seven newspapers in our chain that were near Pittsburgh.

To make matters worse, he told me he wanted me in Shanksville, Pa., to oversee the chain’s coverage of the crash of Flight 93.

It was the worst three weeks of my life.

My job required me to immerse myself in the thousands of stories (some true, most false) that were coming via our wire service providers every single day. I had to sort through the horrifying photos that accompanied those pictures. They were not only photos of the attack and its aftermath but of young families – husbands, wives, sons, daughters, fathers and mothers – who had had their lives ended by madmen.

The initial death toll estimate was 20,000 people in the World Trade Center Towers, a number I could barely fathom. It went as high as 30,000 in the coming hours before decreasing daily for the next few months.

I spent 20 consecutive 18-hour days reading about the horror and heroism.

I don’t cry but I wiped away tears often in the first couple of days.

As I pored over the details (again, some factual, others pure fantasy) of the attacks and the victims, I lost the ability to remain objective. Anger seeped through me. Then, I became desensitized to the stories.

I had no more tears to offer when I read the true stories of heroism from New York City’s first responders and the brave men and woman that had brought down the plane whose wreckage lay a little more than a mile from where I was stationed. I had no praise to give to the fine people that donated time, money and their blood to the victims of the calamity and for the men and women that lined up in droves to go forth and defend this nation against all threats, real and imagined.

I, foolishly perhaps, didn’t understand the bigger picture. Yes, it was terrible that so many people had been killed but it happened every year in other parts of the world. Terror had been a way of life for millions of people in Africa and the Middle East for generations.

Selfishly, I couldn’t see how a terror attack on American soil would affect me and those I hold dear.

I was wrong on too many levels to count.

At first, it was something relatively minor in the grand scheme of things.

I became increasingly disenchanted with my profession as I watched story after story hit the airwaves and the printing presses without a moment’s worth of vetting or verification. Anything overheard on a street corner or mentioned in a bar was thrown out as fact to a public that I thought still trusted the media to get things right.

On a personal note, I tried to stay true to the ideals taught to me by my first editor: Facts are more important than First. I took a slew of angry calls from my boss about why competitors in our region ran certain sensationalized stories that I had spiked because they lacked proper sourcing and attribution.

I offered my reasons; he told me he wanted them anyway; I offered my resignation.

He declined but told me that I needed to loosen my rules. I didn’t and the calls came almost daily after the first week.

As the days turned into weeks, I lost a lot of myself. I found myself calling my family at odd times just to hear their voice. I found myself exhausted but unable to sleep because the faces and lives of people I’d never met but read about would invade my dreams.

And I found myself despising a section of the public just as much as I despised cell phones.

The first attack on a dark-skinned family that I knew about happened a few blocks from one of our chain papers. A Pakistani Hindu family had owned a small grocery store and gas station that I had stopped at hundreds of times as I was going to or leaving that particular paper. The family – a father, a mother and two sons – were attacked as they locked up for the night. Their business was vandalized and a sign that they had put out front on Sept. 11 was altered.

It had read “God Bless America” when I had driven past it to my short stay at the newspaper office. It had been changed to “God Blast America” by the vandals, perhaps in a vain attempt to justify their actions (or perhaps just because they were inbred idiots).

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