9/11: A News Junkie Then, A Mother Now | Our Nation's Tragedy from a Girlfriend's Point of View

9/11 reporter9/11 — a tragic day for Americans and the entire world. Do you remember where you were when you heard the news? In this guest post, Jennifer Buehrle Williams shares her experiences as a reporter that day and a mother now.

It’s that time of year again. No, I’m not talking college football or Christmas shopping. The 10th anniversary of 9/11 is upon us and for the first time in a long time I am taking special notice.

Maybe it’s the decade mark and the memorials, maybe it’s because the mastermind of this unimaginable atrocity was finally found and killed, or maybe it’s because for the first time in my children’s young lives I feel obligated to talk with them about the horror of that day. At ages 8, 6 and 1, they were born after the day America changed forever and like many protective mama bears I have sought to protect them from the very real evils that exist in our world. I have spent my life as a mother working to build a safe and secure world for them, even though I am well aware my best efforts can be undone in a “New York minute.”

As I look at the cover of magazines featuring beautiful children born after their fathers died that day, I realize not all mothers have had the luxury of allowing their children to live in a state of blissful ignorance…however briefly. But my children are in school now, they hear things, and of course, the killing of Osama bin Laden earlier this year needed to be explained. He did this to us, so we did that to him. But now it’s time, at least for my oldest, to see some of the images from that fateful day. The gleaming World Trade Center towers reaching into the Carolina blue sky, the explosive fireball, the plumes of white smoke, then black. People falling calmly from the skies, people running frantically in the streets. Chaos everywhere. Some of those videos have been archived for years but I have no doubt it will all come back out this week. What do I allow my children to see, what do I hold back, how do I explain a series of events that is still breathtaking in its magnitude and intensity? I imagine to some extent I will fall back on the old acronym they taught us in journalism school…K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid). Or maybe I will just tell them how I spent the day on September 11, 2001.

I was excited about my assignment that day. As a reporter for WTVD-TV in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, I was headed out of town to cover Elizabeth Dole’s announcement that she would run for Senator Jesse Helms’ senate seat. It meant an early start to my day, but I enjoyed covering political stories, and we were likely to be the “live” lead on the evening news. Some of our stuff might even make it to that night’s network newscast. That’s always cool. This was before cell phones were so smart and all consuming, so my photographer Kyle and I were actually passing the time on the drive down by talking to one another…in complete sentences. Then his cell phone rang. It wasn’t the station, but a friend of his, who told us about a plane hitting a building in New York City. We turned on the radio. There was obvious confusion about exactly what happened. The information coming through the airwaves was clearly serious, but fragmented and lacked context. And New York City, relatively speaking, was still pretty far away…we drove on. By the time we arrived at Dole’s childhood home in Salisbury, satellite trucks and tripods were already lining the sidewalk. But reporters, photographers, and producers were huddled around the CNN truck where a monitor was broadcasting a live feed from NYC. By now it was not one, but two planes that had struck the World Trade Center. “Seeing” planes fly into buildings is a lot different from “hearing” about planes flying into buildings. I was mesmerized by the image–the plane looked so little, the sky looked so blue and then poof!–the enormity of it all was still beyond my grasp. But there was no time to sit around and watch TV, we WERE TV, and we all knew our jobs that day would not be in Salisbury, North Carolina.

As crews packed up gear, news of the Pentagon crash came through. The day was rapidly going from bad to worse. My news junkie adrenaline was in high gear. This was big–really big–and I knew I wanted–no, needed–to be a part of it. Kyle and I were already on the road and offered to turn around and head straight to DC. This was what news crews lived for. No luck, we were too far south, the station already had crews en route to New York and Washington. Of course, by now, there were no more planes taking off.

The drive back to Raleigh was somber and anxious. I felt out of touch. It would have been nice to have one of those information-rich smart phones. Suddenly, New York City didn’t seem so far away. Our producer Heather called. She was seeing all the horrific ground video that we had yet to see. Kyle was quiet as he listened to her. I could barely hear her voice through the receiver but I’m pretty sure she was crying. That’s not real common for us TV folks. When he relayed the information my anxiety gave way to a more visceral reaction. My throat started to close and my stomach started to turn. Another plane had crashed in Pennsylvania … FOUR PLANES! What in the hell was going on? What would happen next? And where? This was so much worse than I could have imagined. The news junkie in me took a back seat to the me who is allowed to have feelings. My Catholic faith kicked in and I told Kyle I thought maybe we should pray. I wasn’t sure for what exactly, but I just felt a strong urge to pray…out loud. I never do that. At least not at work. He didn’t argue and drove silently as I began, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…”

Later, when I read accounts about those on flights 11, 175, 93, and 77 also reciting the Lord’s Prayer in their final hour, I felt an odd connection. Yes, they were about to lose their lives and I was safe on the ground. But, as human beings, as people of faith, as His creations, I find comfort in knowing that ultimately, we all turn to the same place. When there is nowhere else to turn … He is there.

Back in Raleigh, we were dispatched to a local high school to get reaction from students watching history in the making. I wasn’t happy about that. If I couldn’t be right where the action was, talking with survivors, rescuers, or decision makers in NYC or DC, I at least wanted to be working the security angle at home. I wanted to be reporting critical information to people. This was the most significant news day of my career and I was going to hang out with teenagers. It felt like we were being sidelined. My attitude would change significantly by the end of the day.

We set up our equipment in a junior history class where the teacher was calmly leading the kids through a discussion of the day’s events. They talked about what they knew for fact and what they didn’t know. And finally, how it made them feel. I listened and watched; Kyle moved quietly around the room with his camera, trying to capture all of the emotion in their young faces and voices. At 16 and 17 years old, they were old enough to be able to access some higher level of critical thinking…but, they were still kids! And when one red-headed freckle-faced boy, who was clearly very intelligent, finally broke down and wailed, “The next President could have been in there, the next Einstein…why did they do this?” my heart broke. What a hard lesson these young kids were learning that day–all of us in fact–learning just what hatred can do.

I also remember the teacher of this class. Not only did she do an amazing job of keeping calm in the midst of chaos, she did so while waiting to hear news about close friends who worked in the World Trade Center. She didn’t know if they were dead or alive. She was later named Wake County Teacher of the Year. I only spent an hour in her classroom on 9/11, but I can tell you she deserved that honor.

I didn’t want to hang out with kids that day, but by the time we were done I realized their story needed to be told too. No one experienced 9/11 with the same intensity of those who were on site or experienced personal loss. But every American lost something that day, including those kids, for whom the “new normal” would just be “normal.” We gave them an outlet for their grief and in doing so, found an outlet ourselves. Obviously, we didn’t have the “lead” story that night, but when an editor back at the station told us it was the best story he’d seen all day, I was proud of our work.

The 9/11-related stories I reported on from then on came in every shape and size. It seemed everything was rooted in that day. There were anthrax scares at the courthouse, anti-terrorism training in Atlanta, hanging out in a gas chamber at Camp Lejeune, traveling to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where terror detainees were being housed. And of course there were countless safety related “live” shots from the airport…always the airport.

“Retiring” from TV to have children has been a wonderful blessing in many ways and I don’t regret it. However, I concede a bit of envy for the work Kyle will get to do on September 11. He is at Ground Zero working for a foreign news agency. Ten years later, I still wish I could be in NYC telling part of our country’s story. Because as much as the Revolutionary War, 9/11 is now part of America’s history. Instead, I will be home telling some version of the story to my children. I want them to know even when terrible things happen—and they will—there are always opportunities for goodness to take root. And I want them to be that goodness—the goodness that will never be snuffed out by evil. Later this month, I will go to the 9/11 Memorial. I will remember that day 10 years ago. I hope to look into those twin pools and see the reflection of our country’s goodness, shining all the way to heaven … and back again.

The 9/11 news story can be viewed below – and you can see more from Jennifer Buehrle Williams here.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FW72ENGSti4[/youtube]

Jennifer Buehrle Williams is a freelance broadcast and print journalist in Raleigh, North Carolina. However, her most challenging work is at home where she is trying to raise three small children before they realize she is making it up as she goes along. Check out this movie review that Jennifer shared of ‘The Help.’

Girlfriends – how are you doing with the 10th anniversary of 9/11? How are you explaining it to your children? How has it impacted your friendships?

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