Remembering 9/11: 16 years later from the notebook of a local journalist who will never forget

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — On the morning of September 11, 2001, when that particular month and day held virtually no significance to most of us, I was working my way through a cup of coffee and contemplating what I might be covering at work that afternoon.

I wasn’t then, nor am I now, a morning news person. So, at 8:45 a.m., when the first tower was hit, I had no idea horrible history had been made and would continue to explode with additional assaults.

My first knowledge of what happened came from Karen Rezendes, who is now WPRI’s News Director.

“We’d like to send you to New York,” she said on the phone.

Within an hour, I was driving south with head photographer Les Breault, calling everyone I knew in New York, from relatives to former co-workers.

But our flip phones didn’t stream video, so we had no idea what 1 World Trade Center looked like. The details were still peppered with speculation and questions about what happened; Who did it? How many casualties? Could anyone be rescued?

But one fact was obvious. Normally bustling route 95 was virtually empty from Providence to New York City. For long stretches of interstate, we had the road to ourselves. Everyone was somewhere else, probably watching the news.

That empty road is merged with the main memory that will never leave me from that day, and it was more about sound than sight. Imagine a quiet drive to New York City, or a nearly silent Manhattan.

As we walked on the streets leading toward Ground Zero, our foot steps were muffled. It was as though a September snowstorm had hit, leaving a layer of light gray instead of white.

Many of the few dozen people who were still there were wearing masks, and they all had similarly horrible stories.

One woman was dazed as she told us about seeing people jump from one of the towers. Another was trying to find her sister. There was a man on a bike in tears who rode by and shook his head.

And in the dust on a car hood in front of a store on Beekman Street, someone had written a one-word description of what the day and city felt like.

“Hell,” it read.

Looking back, getting there required time and luck. As we worked our way from bridge to bridge, through a sea of clamoring New Yorkers, police officer after police officer were dialed-in, with no interest in letting some SUV with a big “12” on the door onto the island. I didn’t blame them then, and don’t blame them now.

We crawled our way through Queens and Brooklyn with the huge plume of smoke and ash billowing above the East River on our right.

Surprisingly, there was no one blocking the Manhattan Bridge, but we drove forward slowly, thinking someone was going to stop us from behind. Near the peak of the empty roadway, we found one of New York’s finest.

There were no words as we stopped and rolled down the window, but he gave us a wry smile as he glanced at the “12.” Les and I tried not to look surprised when he nodded that we could go ahead. To this day, I believe he thought we were the cable news channel Long Island 12, not a couple of Rhode Island journalists.

Within minutes, we were on those oddly quiet streets. Les began shooting a series of images of us showing and telling Rhode Island what the city looked and sounded like: the pillar of smoke rising from Ground Zero, the dirty cloud shrouding the Brooklyn Bridge, the layer of dust that was everywhere, the troubled faces on the few who were on the streets, and that four-letter message on the car.

I called the station to tell them what we had, but heard humored shock on the other end of the phone.

“How do we feed this back to you?” I asked.

“Feed what back?” the assignment editor replied. “We never thought you’d get on the island. We’re busy. Call me back.”

Instead, we hustled toward CNN and CBS, the streets still astonishingly empty. I put our story together on a laptop editor, which seems primitive now compared to the current editing systems we use.

September 11, 2001.

Les, a kid from the metropolis of Bristol, weaved us through Manhattan like a veteran taxi-cab driver.

Our first story was done, but getting it on the air required a little more luck. Les somehow recognized a CNN employee he knew from somewhere, and within minutes we were on an elevator, moving toward their control room where we beamed the video back to WPRI.

The busy assignment editor called me back a short time later.

“How’d you guys do that?” he asked.

Our satellite truck arrived that night, but could not get on the island. Truck operator and really good guy Mike Budronis had to sleep in the truck. The next day he was able to park relatively close to the Ground Zero. But security got tighter and tighter, and soon a roadblock was set up behind us, unknowingly blocking us in, instead of out of the area.

The obvious heroes were the first-responders in full turnout gear whom we saw walk toward what became known as “the pile.”

They’d walk out hours later, covered in dust, as a new shift went in with hope that seems so naïve now.

Firefighter after firefighter, police officer after police officer, volunteer after volunteer told us as they trudged by how they were going to reach a survivor any minute. Each hour was going to be the time they found someone alive. Hindsight makes that sound ridiculous, but in the early going there was great faith and determination to find a survivor in the pile.

On Sept. 12, we were there as a couple of New Yorkers rode their bikes up to one of the other roadblocks to put up a sign supporting the first responders.

It was the first sign at that spot which I believe was on West Street. We went back the next day and there were dozens of signs. On the day after that, there were more signs and crowds of people, cheering the firefighters and police officers as they walked and drove toward “the pile,” hoping they would pull a miracle from the ashes.

There were no miracles.

Sadly, by Thursday of that week, we saw more and more people carrying signs with pictures of their missing loved ones. They had checked all the hospitals without success but told us they hoped their husbands and wives, brothers and sisters were perhaps dazed by the explosions and now wandering the streets somewhere.

I don’t know if any of the many we talked with found the people in their respective pictures, but I’ll always hope there were a few happy reunions.

We witnessed the resiliency of New Yorkers as well, watching their expressions evolve from shock and fear to comments about how the attacks would not keep the city down.

That transition happened in a matter of days. And they were right. New York got off its knees, and as we know it’s now just as packed with cars, people and energy as it was before 9-11-01.

I do talk with a number of Rhode Islanders who lost loved ones that day. I can tell it doesn’t get any easier to accept that the attacks that came out of nowhere and somehow fate put their children, brothers and sisters in the middle of it. Somehow terrorism found their families.

While it’s a day none of us will forget, whether we were there to witness it, there to cover it or somewhere else wondering how something like that could happen, the victims and their loved ones are obviously the ones to remember on Sept. 11.

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