The photo above came from an extraordinary photo essay on Flickr by photographer Hiro Oshima, who lived across from the World Trade Center and was an eyewitness to the September 11 attacks.
On that day, I wrote an essay about my own experiences, for the youth news magazine LA Youth. The bi-monthly paper had asked its alumni reporters to write about their experiences.
I am reprinting my essay, because it captures (as do the haunting images by Mr. Oshima) part of the trauma of that day. A trauma that we continue to live through, even as we try to forget it.
Well, I was covering this moment-by-moment as the story broke today at 6 a.m. It was 7 p.m. tonight before I actually got home and had dinner and was able to think about it. I just heard, as I write this, over the NPR special report broadcast that many firefighters, police, and other rescuers were killed as the twin World Trade Center towers collapsed.
It’s hard to explain it … I’m numb. It has been a horrific day.
It was 6 a.m., and I was preparing to begin work on new stories for our morning drivetime on KFWB News98. My desk is in a part of the station separated from the newsroom and the monitors, and I had no warning before the station sent out its breaking news alert. I was surprised to hear breaking news so early in the morning.
And then the anchor, Jack Popejoy, said that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I thought, What? That’s ridiculous. How could something like that happen? And I rushed into the newsroom and looked at the main, large TV monitor that is usually tuned to CNN. And there it was, a gaping hole in one tower — fire and smoke billowing out.
My jaw actually dropped. I gasped with my hands over my mouth—I have never had that reaction in my life. I just stood there frozen. I thought to myself: how in the world am I supposed to report something this horrific? What can I possibly say to describe it? Where do I start?
There were so many questions in those first few moments—how could this happen? Was it an accident? Was it really a jet airliner?
Then it happened, as I was writing the story—another airliner—within 18 minutes from when we first heard the news—crashed into the second tower. Disbelief is an understatement. I have no words for what I felt. It was a sinking feeling, because it became obvious that two planes don’t strike two twin towers almost at the same time without it being a deliberate, and coordinated, act.
There was this sense of hopelessness within me. Anything was possible now. It felt like I was in a bad film—that’s a phrase I heard a few times throughout the day at the station.
And so the news department marched on. Trying to rely on our skills to just tell the story, get the details, not jump to conclusions—and yet, it seemed with each passing minute and new detail the story became more incredible and hard to believe.
I just heard, again as I write, National Public Radio’s Neil Conan describe the day’s events as “cinematic” and “horrible.” Those words ring true.
Within the first few hours of the attacks at the towers, we had reaction here in Los Angeles. Buildings in downtown were being closed. Evacuations taking place. LAX was shut down. And soon we had LAUSD Superintendent Roy Romer on the phone with the station saying that school will go on as usual. It’s better, he said, to keep things normal for students so that the event will not be traumatic for young people.
That seemed to make sense. But at the same time, as the story was unfolding—details of attacks in Washington coming in—I couldn’t help but call my sister and tell her to be careful, and even suggesting that she maybe should stay home from Occidental College today. She went anyway.
Somewhere during those first few hours, I was compelled to just walk into the men’s bathroom at the station and say a little prayer for the victims. I felt powerless. It seemed the only thing I could do, before I had to go back and continue covering the story. And it seemed so unimportant to just be reporting what was going on—so futile.
As the horrors I was reporting and witnessing became more and more real—and after the towers collapsed, obviously killing thousands of people and rescuers who were there to help — I just wanted to cry, but seemed unable to. I felt defeated and exhausted.
As the hours went by, and I was still reporting—exhaustion turned to anger. Not just within me, but in others around the newsroom as well. Not everyone, but some. Anger not at whoever might have done this, but that they got the opportunity to do it. How could four planes get hijacked at once? How could authorities not realize that there was a pattern in the hijackings? How could even the Pentagon be susceptible?
Within me, there’s a horrible sense of resignation. I can’t describe what I’m feeling. Sadness. Anger. Exhaustion. Grief for those who died. And I just wish that I could cry. But I think I’m just too numb.
As the day has wore on, I went from covering the story minute by minute to heading out to the Islamic Center near downtown to speak to people worried of stereotyping and prejudicial hate crimes. By then, I felt completely removed from the story. It felt far away. And now I was just covering yet another issue, doing yet another series of interviews.
I have no idea how this will impact the country, my friends and family, and the city. And perhaps that’s the point — the future now seems so much less certain regarding things that I took for granted, perhaps foolishly so.
I assumed that planes didn’t run into buildings, unless you were watching it on the big screen. I assumed our federal government in Washington D.C. was secure, safe, and in control of the nation’s security. I assumed you couldn’t hijack four planes at once.
Today, all those assumptions were proven wrong. And anything seems possible.
—Nova Safo, 23