Curtis Tate Published

Sept. 11 Postcards: Memories Of That Fateful Day

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A Brother Worried For A Teen Sister Working at the U.S. Capitol

By Curtis Tate

On the crystal clear day of Sept. 11, 2001, I was hardly on the front lines of the nation’s pain and sorrow. Yet I still felt it.

I was a 22-year-old journalism student at the University of Kentucky, after a failed attempt at another degree at another university. Because of a late-night shift on my part-time retail job, I didn’t even know what had happened until I found out why my midday class was canceled.

I did, however, worry instantly about my 16-year-old sister.

Melanie was a page in the House of Representatives in Washington. On an ordinary Tuesday, she would have been at her page school in the Library of Congress before dawn. And then by mid-morning, performing her regular duties across the street at the Capitol. One of them was raising a U.S. flag above the House chamber.

It pained me that she was in harm’s way, and I wasn’t.

We’ve long believed we can thank the passengers and crew of United Flight 93 for sparing her and others at the Capitol that day. They took back the plane from the hijackers, and it crashed at a reclaimed coal mine site near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Everyone on board was killed.

On that day, and in the days after, like many of my fellow Americans, I struggled to conceive the inconceivable. The attackers were able to hijack four commercial airliners? They were able to destroy the World Trade Center and severely damage the Pentagon? It simply made no sense.

In the intervening two decades, though, I have had to conceive a lot of inconceivable things.

We launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and stayed bogged down in those places for years, at a cost of thousands of American lives, trillions of dollars and our standing in the world.

A major American city, New Orleans, drowned in the aftermath of a hurricane, and that was only a preview of destructive weather events yet to come, driven by climate change.

The U.S. economy cratered, and millions of lives were shattered, because we put too much faith in the stock market, fueled by a housing boom that was really a house of cards.

We elected America’s first Black president. But we also elected someone who represented a backlash to that change.

We saw the U.S. Capitol attacked violently, not by foreign terrorists, but by fellow Americans.

In more personal terms, I never thought the U.S. Supreme Court would make it possible for me to marry my partner.

I also never thought that marriage would end in divorce, and at the worst possible time.

I never thought I’d become a reporter at the same Capitol that was spared on 9/11, only to be attacked on Jan. 6.

I never thought my sister, whose life was probably saved by the passengers and crew of Flight 93, would face a breast cancer diagnosis at age 32, and with a young child.

I never thought we’d lose her to that cancer at 34, leaving her daughter and the rest of us to move forward in a world we never thought we’d have to contemplate.

Yes, 9/11 changed all of us who are old enough to remember. We learned to conceive what we could not conceive. And that we should never take anything for granted.

Writing Stories of Heartbreak, Courage As a Reporter Working In Washington, D.C.

By Andrea Billups

I was a reporter in Washington, D.C. on 9-11. As thousands of cars drove away from the city in a frantic escape that morning, the Pentagon in smoke and flames — I drove in alone, fearing for myself and the uncertainty. Like most Americans, I was asking as I watched the giant neon signs on the Beltway urge me to stay away — what is happening here? In my lifetime, I had never known war, as it were, on my own soil.

In the years hence, I have continued to work in media and have also taught journalism at five universities. I always tell my students — one day, the news is going to write itself right up to your doorstep. So you better be ready.

Sept. 11 was such a day.

In recent years, our media has gotten much criticism — some of it deserved, a lot fomented by people who choose to get their information and form their opinions from social media.

But in the midst of this act of terror 20 years ago, I saw many of us who work in the news business rise to do the work. And do it with honor. Never was I more proud of my colleagues.

I remember my editor, Ken Hanner, who was unshakable, moving through a long day and weeks with measure and resolve. On your toughest day in a newsroom, or any job completed in crisis, you want a leader just like that. I have never forgotten how he carried himself for us all. The sky was falling but we would not.

I also remember those who shared their stories with me in the day and weeks after this tragedy. And I want to say that it remains the deepest honor, to hear people with such emotion take the time to share what happened to them with the world.

I remember most a gentleman who was inside one of those Twin Towers in NYC when the plane hit. He managed to ascend the stairs and get out. Then he walked, covered in soot, across the Brooklyn Bridge as he made his way home. He was still processing it as he talked with me, just hours after his life could have very well ended. Many of his co-workers died. It was jarring and painful, but he was one of the lucky ones. He was breathless in fear, and anguished as he came to realize how close he came to death.

I also recall a gentleman who played a university carillon. Who simply left his home that morning, climbed the tower on campus to his organ. And began to bang out every patriotic song he knew. Because it was the only thing he could do, his grief and heartbreak pouring from his fingers into his instrument. He said he played — for America.

On the fourth day after the attack — it hit me. After multiple 12-hour days. I was in the shower when the tears finally came. I was too busy reporting to allow myself that space and feeling. But it welled up and came out in deep, chest-heaving gasps. My God, the stories I heard. And told.

My God — my country.

It’s often tough. To listen and share stories of grief. But that’s the mission. Most of us consider it just that — and still believe in journalism’s dignity.

This postcard isn’t meant as a defense of media. But hopefully a reminder of all of the investigative reporting that followed the 9-11 attacks that shed light about the motive and ideology of the perpetrators. And the steps we needed to keep us all safer.

I’ll never forget everyone, from my fellow reporters to the people on the streets, who rose to the challenge and showed us in that era, what our collective mettle was all about.

It was a horrible day, filled with so much uncertainty and sadness. But 20 years later, I’m still a journalist. America is weathering a different collective storm. And I remember most how our nation in that moment on 9-11, showcased its humanity and goodness.

Evil people might have attacked us. But they could never kill our exceptional spirit, the very heartbeat that leads many from around the world to come to our shores for a taste of freedom.

I believe that indomitable spirit still lives in all of us.