Sun. Dec 3rd, 2023

There’s an old saying, “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.” That’s exactly the situation the staff at this small newspaper in Pennsylvania found itself in last year before the string of events that have come to be known by the date 9/11/01. What started as a routine morning trying to put together a local paper during what we call a “slow news day” turned into something no one could have fathomed. As we raced to put out a newspaper with a deadline that was extended well past Noon, we also struggled to keep up with the events through the wire, the radio and through a small TV plugged into the only station we could get — WTAJ-TV, the local CBS affiliate.
By 1 p.m. Sean Johnson, who had graduated high school only a few months earlier, and I were on our way to Shanksville where we waited with hundreds of other news people, for our turn to view the crash site of Flight 93. While we waited, we talked with neighbors who had witnessed the crash. Once our names were called, we were loaded onto a bus and taken a little ways to the staging area that had sprung up. We unloaded and were able to take photos of the site from a few hundred yards. What struck me most was how difficult it was to make out exactly where the plane had crashed. The only clues were a few small figures walking near a scorched tree line. Most of the debris was too small to note from that distance. After a few minutes we were herded onto the bus and taken back to the end of the lane to await Governor Ridge’s arrival.
Sean returned to Shanksville a couple of times over the next several days and Thursday night, Sept. 13, I was headed by train to New York City to see what I could. Getting to New York wasn’t an easy task. I lucked into a spot on a train that was leaving Altoona at 7 p.m. or so. I was unable to pick it up in Tyrone, so I had my parents drop me off. The train didn’t arrive until almost 8:30 p.m. and I remember laughing as it stopped in Tyrone to let someone off — two blocks from where I live.
The train was packed with others trying to get to New York — mostly from Chicago. Everyone was a bit on edge and it was difficult to sleep. I arrived in Philadelphia at 1:30 a.m. and hung out at the 30th Street Station — which isn’t in a pleasant part of town — for my friend and Tyrone native Brad Maule to pick me up. My connection to New York, a commuter train, didn’t leave until 5:20 a.m. After two cab drivers, a Middle Easterner and African with a French accent, finished arguing over who would take us (a fight that involved a good many racial and ethnic slurs and almost fists), I found myself on a central city rooftop outside Brad’s apartment catching up and swapping stories of the previous Tuesday. We were all still a bit anxious.
After missing my scheduled train, I eventually caught the 6:30 a.m. train and was soon fast asleep in a nearly empty car. I awoke around 8:30 a.m. as we pulled into Penn Central — only now I was surrounded by people.
By the time I hailed a cab and dropped my luggage at my uncle’s Chelsea apartment, I had a second wind. I called an old Kinko’s coworker who managed a store in the city and his branch happened to be making the copies for the city’s massive command center at the Javits Center. It was through him that I learned what was open, what was closed, where the families were supposed to go, where the volunteers were being taken and basically everything else I might want to know. It was at about Noon that I made my way by bus to the Lexington Avenue Armory — one of the places families were supposed to go if someone was missing.
As I walked towards the armory it was raining, and most people were hurrying about as they normally do in cities. I was walking for a few minutes when something about the scenery struck me — the way it would when you suddenly realize that while almost everything is normal, there is something different, something strange about the surroundings. You don’t see many posters along the streets in small towns, but in cities bills are plastered everywhere — often in a repeated, over-kill fashion with dozens of the same sign side-by-side. Movies, concerts, art shows, etc. are advertised and after a while they blend into the background.
As I was walking I realized the bills I had noticed out of the corner of my eye were not advertising a new film or an obscure concert, but they were of people — people who were missing. They were stuck to walls, mailboxes, signs, bus stop shelters and any other available surface. Some were color, some were black and white. They were letter-size posters, much like one sees when someone is looking for a lost dog or cat. Except these flyers were of people who never came home on September 11th.
The closer to the armory I walked, the more flyers there were. Rain spattered and often overlapping, they each described a loved one lost, how much they meant and where they were when the planes hit and the towers came down. Their faces — mostly smiling and happy — stared back from sheets of paper and reminded me that the thousands lost were real people, not just numbers on a tally sheet.
At the armory, I learned that media types like myself, would be confined to a block across the street. Once behind the police barricades, I found myself in the middle of something for which I wasn’t prepared. I had my camera, my notepad and my tape recorder, but I could never have imagined what the next few hours would have been like.
While there were reporters and news crews from around the country and world along the street, there wasn’t much of a need to scramble for interviews with those who had come down to the armory to check a name on the lists of missing, found and dead. There were just too many of them. One of the parts of news reporting I’ve always found intrusive is the “distraught family interview.” In times of grief, I find it invasive and wrong to have to ask questions of someone who is obviously upset about a tragedy. After the attack, though, it was the family members of the missing who sought out media exposure — in the hopes that the lost were out there and unable to make contact.
The scene was surreal. Almost like a buffet line, family members, sometimes alone but usually in a group, would move from one cluster of reporters, cameras and microphones to another. Each time they would hold up a picture, say who they were looking for, where they were when the chaos erupted and when the last time they spoke with them. The stories were all different, yet they were all marked by the same characteristic. They were all referred to in the present tense — a testament to the hope that is built into us all when the unimaginable has happened. Until they knew for certain, their fathers, mothers, wives, daughters, husbands and sons were still alive. They would reached frantically for ringing cell phones, only to learn it was another of their expedition just checking in.
It’s hard describe the atmosphere, except to say that it was heavy. It was like a great sadness hung above the sidewalk, propped up only by the hope of the families. That hope sometimes gave way in the middle of sentences and a searcher would break down, overcome by realism and fear. The sadness would strike in waves, crashing down the street, engulfing everyone — even the reporters, photographers and cameramen who would usually keep a necessary emotional distance. The grief was inescapable and intense. I had never experienced anything like it and I hope I never will again. It’s the only time I’ve known an emotion to actually have a distinct presence — as though it was not just in people, but surrounding them. They tried to stave it off the best they could, everyone did. The reality was that everyone there had something they had to do, whether it be find someone or report about it.
Ground Zero was pretty much sealed off after the first day or two, so I knew that my chances of getting to see it were slim to none. FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) has photographers that are responsible for gathering the images to release to the press and a large chunk of lower Manhattan was shut off — even to those people who lived there. The media peopIe at the Javits Center Command Center were no longer talking to anyone. They weren’t even accepting donations or volunteers. By this time, only the professionals were on the scene and it seemed as though the streets were an endless parade of firefighters, police and construction crews going to and fro. I was successful in sneaking past the first line of police on two occasions, but was thwarted by humorless Military Policemen who knew less about what was going on than almost anyone else.
With an old classmate from Tyrone, Nathaniel Newlin, I was able to get within a few city blocks of Ground Zero that Saturday. I’d rather not divulge as to how we did it. We made it past the police and from the street on which we walked, the corner of the rubble field could be spied through the haze. Smoke hung in the air and although the rain from a day before had washed away a lot of the ash, you could still see it in places. A corner market I remember had outside fruit and vegetable tables that were still covered with a thick layer. The streets were pretty crowded in these areas, with people trying to get into their apartments to retrieve this or that. Pets were a big concern for many of the people we heard talking with the MPs, who had informed us there were too many people already to let anyone else through.
There were gargantuan backhoes awaiting use, crushed and burned out cars that had been pulled from the wreckage and a gunship helicopter appeared from time to time. Emergency vehicles would rush past every minute or so and one of the more remarkable scenes was the column of filthy, obviously exhausted firemen walking past the barricades that was met with thunderous applause and rousing cheers.
We stopped and talked to a physician that had been working the recovery effort. Nathaniel knew him from college and it was a chance meeting on the street. Until that point, we had been hearing, as everyone else, of people trapped in the rubble. He told us they barely finding whole bodies, let alone survivors.
Washington Square Park, where Woody Guthrie had played his folk music and the birthplace of the beat and hippy movements, was awash in patriotism. It was striking and a tad unnerving to watch the shrine grow each day as people stopped by to place candles, art and momentos marking the tragedy. That Friday afternoon, September 14, the sun broke through the clouds in the late afternoon and the sky cleared. The park was full of people milling about and this is where I saw New Yorkers , en masse, look up to the sky at the sound of a jet. In a city where the denizens pride themselves on being unflappable, the sight of a crowd looking to the sky at the sound of a plane was telling.
The cab drivers were interesting, too. The Middle Eastern cab drivers I saw usually had more American flags plastered on the inside (and outside) of their cabs than even the most dedicated Legionnaire. It was the foreigners I encountered who showed the most patriotism — probably from fear and also because it is often those who come from other lands who most often have the greatest appreciation for what America is all about. The biggest call for widespread deportation of Middle Easterners I heard came from the lips of other immigrants.
Sunday afternoon, I made a trip to Greenwich Village Ladder Company No. 5. It is fairly close to the World Trade Center and the firehouse lost 11 members in the attacks. Flowers were piled in front of the station and although they had been working marathon shifts, firemen were washing the trucks they still had left. Their main ladder truck had been crushed when the first tower collapsed. A burned Chevy S-10 pickup truck had replaced it as a way to get back and forth from Ground Zero large number 5 from the truck had been mounted to the hood. I talked with a couple of the guys and they asked Craig Monahan if he’d be willing to talk to me about his experience at the Trade Center. He graciously agreed and I listened as he choked back emotions and described the collapse of the two towers and of the fallen comrades he helped pull from the debris.
Leaving New York on a train later that day, exhausted from three intense days and miles and miles of walking, I settled into my seat and glanced out at the disappearing city. A plume of smoke still covered lower Manhattan, as it would for a long while afterwards, and I kept thinking how one New Yorker had described the skyline without the towers.
“It’s like losing a tooth,” he had said. “You keep looking to where it would be, even though you know it’s not there.”
Like a missing tooth, the towers will remain etched in memories and the New York skyline will, at least for a while, standout because of what it lacks, as opposed for what it is. Their absence reminds us of what once was, but will never be again. What remains reminds us that we have a way of life that will go on despite the loss.
What the terrorists failed to understand is that America’s power and potential is not confined to the walls of our buildings. It is much deeper than any icon like the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. The roots of liberty and freedom are too deep to be toppled by common thugs and murderers who use airplanes to kill innocent people in the name of God.
Editor’s Note: Daily Herald reporter Greg Bock did a great job covering the attacks and aftermath from Shanksville to Ground Zero.
Greg went on a journey that not one of us at The Daily Herald ever wanted to go on. He did his job professionally, but also had to see the wreckage that took over 2,800 lives. As reporters, we are asked to cover stories that at times are special and at times are heartwrenching.
Talking to Greg after he had penned this reflective story, you could see that because of covering the events of 9/11, it had changed him.
He even said that I am not an emotional person, but being in New York in the days after the attacks, it got emotional.
Watching someone put a picture of their family member on a poster and taping it to a mailbox in hopes that they have survived the attack has to touch you. You feel the sorrow that the families have to feel, but you also hoped with them that they are the one miracle that will happen that day.
Greg did a job that nobody wanted to do, and hopefully not one staff member of the Daily Herald will ever have to do again.

By Rick