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She was there on 9/11 when the Twin Towers collapsed and stole her innocence

I got married on Sept. 1, 2001. My husband and I exchanged vows, standing in a gazebo overlooking a pond at the junior college in our south Georgia hometown. A jazz trio played Louis Armstrong's What a Wonderful World. I was 25, and life was amazing.

Ten days later, I was standing less than a block away from the World Trade Center, staring at the twin towers ablaze. My world was about to fall apart.

The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, had dawned as another workaday Tuesday. My husband, Marcus, had left our Brooklyn apartment about 5 a.m. for his job in New Jersey. When I finally stirred, I turned on the television news, the chatter always the backdrop for my morning routine. I showered, put on my red power suit, socks and tennis shoes. I was eating Cheerios in the kitchen when a newscaster said a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Authorities suspected it was a small plane.

I was a cub reporter on the Continuous News desk of the New York Times. Responsible for putting early stories on the Web, I called my colleague in the office and told him I was coming in early. A minute later, he called back: Go to the scene.

I bounded toward the subway station, my high heels, notebooks and tape recorder tucked in my shoulder bag. I was on my way to report a story. I had no inkling it would become the news story of my generation.

I'd been in New York a little more than a year. It had always been my dream to live there, but I still felt like an outsider. I got lost easily and relied heavily on my map. I never really went to the Financial District, let alone the twin towers. I feared I wouldn't even find the scene, much less report from it, assuming the news wasn't already over by the time I got there.

When the train finally stopped, I got off in a panic, ran outside and began walking in what I thought was the general vicinity of the World Trade Center. At first when I looked up, I didn't see the towers. At eye level, people were milling about. Some gathered around vendors' carts, sipped coffee and listened to news reports from portable radios atop the carts. Others seemed to be dashing in the opposite direction.

I figured I was close. About another block or so, and I was at Broadway near Liberty Street. I looked up, and there it was. Against a brilliant blue sky, I could see both towers. I saw a hole in one side of one of the buildings. Smoke billowed out.

All around me people were walking fast. Their gait was more than New York City impatience. These people were moving out of danger. Strangely, I wasn't afraid of the situation. At that moment, I didn't know about terrorists. I didn't know two jets had struck the World Trade Center. I hadn't heard about coordinated attacks in Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. I was armed only with what I'd heard on the news, some 40 minutes earlier.

I stood there looking up at the buildings. I took a few notes. To the left of me was a police officer. To my right, my colleague David Rohde came bounding down the street. I asked him about the direction his editors had given him. Get down there, he said. The cop told us to move on. We ignored him, knowing our press passes gave us the right to be there. We did not know what was about to happen.

So we stood, stared and scribbled.

I heard a loud noise and seconds later saw what looked like an explosion of fire in the gaping hole in one of the buildings. In a matter of seconds, the first tower came crashing down.

I stood transfixed. I was too dumbstruck to realize I was in danger. Not David. He grabbed my hand and pulled me, running down the street. A big ball of gray smoke barrelled down the street behind us. Pandemonium broke out. People sprinted as the air filled with smoke and light dust. For the moment, I was ahead of the gray ball.

Somewhere in that foot race, David and I got separated. I kept dodging into the alcoves of stores only to look back and see that big ball coming still. Finally, I spotted the door of a Modell's sporting goods store. It was slightly ajar. I grabbed it open, pushed myself past the man standing there and ran inside. Just. In. Time.

The gray cloud whooshed by, leaving the store filled with a light dust. Outside, the brilliant sky had turned black.

Inside was a collection of strangers. Among them: a shopkeeper, a woman who had worked in the World Trade Center. Men and women. Latino, white, black. We were each in various states of emotional disarray. Instinctively, most of us grabbed our cell phones.

I placed two calls. The first was to the news desk. The colleague who had told me to go to the scene answered. He was terrified. Get the hell out of there, he shouted into the phone. I'm okay, I told him. "Everything's black. It is impossible to see anything."

Unbeknownst to me, he typed as I spoke. My words went up on the Web in an early version of the New York Times' Sept. 11 story. My brother was sitting in a classroom at Cornell University studying for his MBA. His girlfriend was on the Internet during class. Isn't this your sister, she asked him?

The second call was to my home in Tifton, Ga. My dad answered the phone. I'm okay, I told him. What are you talking about? he questioned. Turn on the TV, I said. I have to go.

I heard fear in his voice. And then I hung up.

Then, the phones wouldn't work. In the store, we looked at each other. One woman said she'd called someone who told her the Pentagon had been attacked. They said it was terrorists. I thought she was delusional, a classic case of overreaction. The skeptic in me knew there had to be an explanation for all of this, one that would become clear once the journalists began to sort out the story.

With little information, we sat there. Some people cried. My insides started to get heavy in preparation for a wail. I had a decision to make. I could either sit there and weep, or I could work. I still had a notebook in my hand.

I gently began asking people where they had been, what they had seen. I wrote it all down. First name, last name, quote. Whatever else I could get out of them without pushing them too far. I realize now I was coping the only way I knew how, hiding behind a pen and pad and aware that if I ever got out of there, I'd need to produce some copy.

What's the news?

After a while, the store clerk brought out a battery-powered radio. For the first time, we heard what I believed to be credible information. Newscasters said two jets had slammed into the World Trade Center. Another plane hit the Pentagon and another plane went down in a Pennsylvania field. And finally, I believed. We had been attacked.

As our little group sat huddled in the back of the showroom, we watched emergency personnel and police stream in and out of the front of the store. Some came in for a brief respite. Others brought in wounded. I remember an old man with a shock of gray hair. He was bleeding and seemed shaken up but had only minor injuries. We still didn't know the extent of the horrors outside. Somehow my brain didn't make the connection that thousands of people had just been killed. I didn't know that others were leaping to their deaths.

We peppered the rescue workers with questions. By then, I had put my notebook down. We wanted to know if we were safe. Could we go? Leave at your own risk, they said. As soon as a few of us had mustered the courage to start walking, the streets filled with dust again. The other tower had fallen. We settled in for what seemed like hours.

When we finally decided to disband, the shopkeeper gave us something to cover our mouths and faces with as we walked. Mine was a men's undershirt, a wife beater.

Outside, dust hung in the air and clung to everything — my hair, my clothes. The air was smoky and acrid. I closed my mouth, tied the undershirt around my face and began walking the 5 miles to Times Square.

Moving north, I passed stores with blown-out windows. My feet shuffled through a thick layer of gray soot. It was everywhere, on cars, on the sidewalks, in the street. A store near Modell's was a bakery. Its windows were cracked into hundreds of pieces. Somehow the glass was still together and lay folded over like a crumpled sheet inside the store. Trash — literally the pieces of people's lives — covered the streets. I imagined that this is what war looked like.

The farther north I got, the more normal people seemed. Some people offered water to drink. Others offered hoses to wash off. Somewhere along my route, smiling resumed. Some people were laughing. How could they? I realized they hadn't been where I'd been or seen what I'd seen.

Some people stopped on the streets and looked into store windows at televisions. I saw the images too. For the first time, I could see the towers fall from a distance. It was horrible. I couldn't believe I had been right there and had walked away physically unscathed.

When I finally got to the office, someone was sitting at my desk working furiously. My husband had called, the person said. He wanted to know if I was okay. I was a grunt, a lowly intermediate reporter. My husband had known without even having talked to me that I would be sent to do legs for that story. The person at my desk told him I'd called and that I was okay. And for hours, that would have to be enough.

I pulled out my notebook and began to transcribe my reporting, dumping my notes into a huge file of dispatches from reporters all over the city. I'm not sure how long I stayed at work that day, what time I got home or even how I got there. But when I arrived at the garden-level apartment I shared with my husband in Brooklyn, I was scared. He was stuck in New Jersey. Officials had ordered the bridges and tunnels closed. Outside my window, I could hear what I thought sounded like the heavy wings of helicopters or military planes. I thought this must be what a war zone felt like.

The next morning, I was at it again. This time, the area around the World Trade Center was sealed. I milled about what seemed like a deserted city, with empty sidewalks, closed stores, trapped tourists and rerouted trains.

I went back to the office to write. At some point in the day, David Rohde came by our pod. He was asking about me. I stood up and poked my head around the corner. He was wearing the same clothes he'd worn the day before, still covered in that dust. He folded me into a long embrace.

There were tears. He talked through them. He thought I had died and that it was his fault. We were running together and somewhere along the way, our hands separated. He thought he had dropped my hand. I ran into the store. He ran down the steps into a subway station. The dust ball came. He realized I wasn't with him and came back out. He didn't see me. He looked in gutters. He didn't see me. The second tower fell. Again, he ran for cover. He thought I'd fallen. He looked for me, and he didn't even know me. Good Lord, I thought, blinking back tears, there was not supposed to be crying in newsrooms.

My landlord, a psychiatrist who lived on the floors above us, asked my husband what she could do to help. She could give me something to help me relax, she told him. I sent word that all I really wanted was quiet. She had two young sons, who ran back and forth on the floor above us, shaking our light fixtures. Maybe she could help with calm.

It wasn't until I was walking home one night at the end of the week that I let go. It was dark. Candles sat atop the stoops of brownstones that lined my walk home. One here. Two there. They illuminated my path home. I slipped my key inside my apartment door and found my husband on the couch. I climbed into his lap, wrapped my arms around him and cried.

No longer fearless

Sept. 11 changed me. The fearless woman who would walk into any situation and just start talking to people became a little less brave. I remember walking down the street in my Fort Greene neighborhood one day and seeing a plane flying what I thought was too low. I stopped on the sidewalk and looked up, my eyes following the plane until I was sure there was no danger.

Once, on the subway, I saw two Middle Eastern men chatting with each other. I tried not to stare, but I wondered if they were going to "get us." I thought about what it would feel like if the train blew up as we crossed the bridge over the East River. I wondered what I would do if the cars slipped the tracks and fell into the water. And, almost as quickly as I allowed myself to go there, I was ashamed. I was stereotyping random people because of their race or ethnicity. How could I, a black woman from rural Georgia, who knew well what it was to be stereotyped because of race, gender and cultural background, allow myself to have such thoughts?

My husband and I went to a memorial service at a church we'd been visiting. One of their members had perished in the attacks. That Sunday, when the pastor called for new members, we joined. I was kind of embarrassed. A longtime Christian, I didn't want to be seen as one of those people who only sought comfort in faith during times of trouble. We joined anyway. After all, we knew now more than ever that tomorrow really was not promised.

A brother in the Marines

In 2003, my brother, whom I adore, went off to war in Iraq. A Naval Academy-graduate-turned-Marine, Sean is my only sibling. I didn't want him to go. He gave me a speech about having been highly trained and needing to put that training to use. He also said God had given him an opportunity to put his faith into action, to show evangelism by example and to live out the values that were important to him.

An infantry officer, he led a platoon of men in house-to-house combat through the streets of Iraq. Their job was to defeat the nascent Iraqi insurgency. I tried hard to ignore the television screens that streamed news of the war through the newsroom all day. I tried not to click on the wires on the Bloomberg machine at my desk when I saw headlines about heavy casualties. This, too, I believed was part of the legacy of Sept. 11. So much war. So much fighting.

And for what? I thought a lot about life, its meaning and our short time on its stage. I wanted a different life.

My parents were getting older, and I wanted to see them more than once or twice a year. And I wanted to slow down, to have more balance between work and home, and to one day, raise my own children. All of the successful working women around me seemed to have nannies and stay at work until 7 p.m. or later. Not me. One day, I'd want to be the one to pick my kids up from school, to ferry them to ballet lessons and set up a routine dinner time. I realized I'd have to leave my adopted home.

In January 2004, I took a trip with my husband to Orlando. I needed a break from the stress and the cold. We slept on my aunt's futon. We played in 85-degree weather. I came to the realization that I liked this lifestyle, driving myself around town, slowing down, jettisoning my coat and being closer to my immediate family. I broke up with New York City on that trip. I survived Sept. 11, the power outage of 2003 and the general mania that is everyday life in the city. I had lived my dream, and it was time to dream again.

Don't talk about it

It's been a decade since the terrorist attacks. I don't like to talk about Sept. 11 much. I don't like to think about it either. My husband, who enjoys watching documentary films, likes to discuss conspiracy theories about what happened that day. I usually leave the room. He knows better than to expect me to answer questions about the attacks.

People died. Thousands of them, and I don't care whose fault it is or which president was in office. People died. And I could have been one of them.

Sometimes, I struggle to identify the ways in which Sept. 11 affects me. I don't think about it when I make big decisions. But I do live with more purpose. Maybe Sept. 11 has something to do with that. Maybe it's just a function of growing up. I refuse to spend my time trying to please others. Family and faith are first. So that means my dream of owning a brownstone in New York is over. I can't imagine living above the Mason-Dixon Line again. Being near my roots is important, especially as my parents age and my husband and I raise three children.

There are things I won't give up. I don't want my children to grow up as I did in a small town where black folks lived on one side of town and whites lived on the other. I want my kids to see life in a multitude of colors.

When we got ready to build a house in Tampa, we chose New Tampa. It appealed to us in large measure because it is one of the city's most diverse areas. Perhaps if we get to know each other as people, then living together will just be normal and our children can live in a better world without giving much thought to race, separateness or cultural reasons why we can't get along.

My husband and I didn't plan our children. Sidney came in 2008. Our twin boys, Anderson and Carter, arrived last year. I don't think about Sept. 11 when I'm rearing them. But I do want to make them citizens of the world. I want them to travel, to speak foreign languages and have friends of all races and religious backgrounds. I will not raise ugly Americans.

Our neighborhood is a little United Nations. My neighbors are white, black, Haitian, Asian and Latino. Some of the women wear the hijab. Others wear beautiful saris. I can't wait for my kids to ask about what they see. I want to be the one to teach them. My 3-year-old has started saying that certain people are brown like her. She has smooth skin, the color of pecans. I'm a little more honey-colored. Her dad's skin resembles a fragrant dark roast.

I am fascinated by religion. A Christian, I had the privilege of being the St. Petersburg Times' religion reporter for several years. I've been to Baptist churches in Gibsonton, mosques in Tampa, synagogues in St. Petersburg, Wiccan covens and a Buddhist Temple in Plant City. It's been eye-opening, something I eventually want my kids to experience. I think it will help inform their understanding of the world beyond our suburban existence.

Mostly, I just try to live and put awful memories behind me. Still, sometimes Sept. 11 finds me. A few years ago a New York Times reporter called. He was writing a book and wanted to know if there was more in my notebook from that day. He wanted to reconnect with some of the people I interviewed. I couldn't find that notebook, almost inexplicable for a pack rat like me.

On the night President Barack Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed, I sat up in bed and stared at the television. A girlfriend called to say she was thinking of me. It was good news, but I'm not so simple-minded as to think that bin Laden's death means the world is safer. I was sure terrorists were already plotting to avenge his death.

And I was scared. My brother was deployed again. This time to Afghanistan, where he was second in command of an infantry battalion engaged in combat operations against the Taliban and terrorist organizations. His wife, the girlfriend who had spotted my quote on the Internet years ago, was pregnant with their first child.

Of course, I can't escape the headlines. As the St. Petersburg Times' Brandon bureau chief, I've sent reporters to cover too many processionals where people line the streets and salute the flag-draped coffins of servicemen killed in faraway lands. This, too, is the legacy of Sept. 11. And quite frankly, I want it to end.

Holding on, letting go

It's hard to believe it's been a decade since terrorists stole my innocence and changed our lives forever. The attacks have made me work harder to seize the day — every day. If someone crosses my mind, I call them, pray for them or send an e-mail. If I want to do something, I make haste. Who says I will get another chance? I've been around long enough to know that bad things happen to good people for seemingly no reason at all.

Life really is a vapor. It's too short for grudges, so I don't hold them. I say what I think and get it over with. I put people out of my life who don't make me happy or who bring drama. I allow myself to love hard — especially my children.

Sept. 11 hasn't made me hold on tightly. It's allowed me to let go, to let myself explore, to eat off the good plates and ditch the plastic cups. To let my kids occasionally eat cake for breakfast. And to make their bedtime late enough so we have time to see each other in the evenings. This really is it. We don't get a second chance, and the unthinkable can happen in seconds.

As we neared the 10-year anniversary of the attacks and all of the coverage, I have wanted to miss it all. I want to remember the lessons I've gleaned from that experience. But I'd like to forget the horror of that day, what I knew in the moment and what would be revealed in time.

This morning, I want to have a normal day. I'm hoping for a brilliant sky. I plan to go to church, where I hope they don't do too much reflecting on the terrorist attacks. I'd like to spend the rest of the day outside someplace with my husband and my children. I don't plan to read a newspaper, surf the Internet or turn on the television. That will stir too many memories.

I want to move on.

Sherri Day is the Brandon bureau chief of the St. Petersburg Times. She can be reached at sday@sptimes.com.

She was there on 9/11 when the Twin Towers collapsed and stole her innocence 09/09/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 10, 2011 7:19pm]

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