Twenty years ago today, I was 10 days away from my 33rd birthday. I was working as the Lifestyles Editor in the newsroom of The Daily Herald. Hard news wasn’t on my plate.
I was in my little office when someone walked into the newsroom and alerted us to the news of a plane (American Airlines Flight 11) crashing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York.
Everyone in the newsroom stopped and watched the news, thinking this was maybe an accident, until 17 minutes later when another plane (United Airlines Flight 175) crashed into the South Tower.
News reported a third flight, American Airlines Flight 77, was hijacked over Ohio, and at 9:37 a.m., it crashed into the west side of the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia, causing a partial collapse of the building. The fourth, and final flight, United Airlines Flight 93, was in the direction of Washington, D.C. It did not hit its intended target. Instead it crashed at 10:03 a.m., in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The plane’s passengers attempted to regain control of the aircraft from the hijackers and diverted the flight from its intended target. Investigators determined that Flight 93’s target was either the White House or the U.S. Capitol.
After an investigation, it was also determined these were a series of four coordinated terrorist attacks by the militant Islamist terrorist group al-Qaida.
Sept. 11, 2001, our country and the world was in shock — the entire Herald staff was in the newsroom, all eyes glued to our television. We then jumped into action.
I reached out to someone I care dearly about to remind me of some of what we did that day. See, I was just a small part of the story, my friend Susan Shaw-Snow was news editor at the time and was running the show. We were almost done with the front page for the day, waiting on one story. We changed course in mid-stream.
Susan directed one of our reporters to call Reuters to get photos for use in our paper. The woman in New York yelled into the phone, “Use it! Use it! The whole damn town is burning down. I don’t care. Use it.”
Susan recalled, “Sports went out to get man on the street, advertising was talking to people in New York, and somebody was on phone with our Chamber members who were in Washington, D.C., across from the Pentagon as they were supposed to meet with Jesse Helms. The meeting was canceled, and we were talking to them as they were leaving D.C. Advertising Manager Patsy Ferguson’s son and daughter dropped their daughter off at daycare, and she cried because they were not at their jobs in the towers. Joey White’s uncle worked across the street from the towers, and he was on the phone with him. I remember like it was yesterday. The whole building, including a pressman, helped gather news.”
Things started coming back to me while we spoke. This great team worked together — everyone in the building — to put a heck of a paper together that day. And the coverage continued for a long time, as we found out that Todd Beamer, who died on United Airlines Flight 93, had grandparents who lived at Lake Gaston.
According to news reports, through phone calls Todd made, he was eventually on a call with airphone supervisor Lisa Jefferson, with FBI agents listening in. He informed them that hijackers had taken over United 93, and that one passenger had been killed. He also stated that two of the hijackers had knives, and that one appeared to have a bomb strapped around his waist. When the hijackers veered the plane sharply south, Beamer exclaimed, “We’re going down! We’re going down!”
Following this, the passengers and flight crew decided to act. According to accounts of cell phone conversations, they formed a plan to take the plane back from the hijackers. Beamer told Jefferson the group was planning to “jump on” the hijackers and fly the plane into the ground before the hijackers’ plan could be followed through. Beamer recited the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm with Jefferson, prompting others to join in. Beamer requested of Jefferson, “If I don’t make it, please call my family and let them know how much I love them.” After this, Jefferson heard muffled voices and Beamer clearly answering, “Are you ready? OK. Let’s roll.” And those were his last words.
In our continued coverage of 9/11, reporter Brien Boyce interviewed Todd’s grandparents for a follow-up story.
“Mostly, I remember Brien interviewing John Beamer about their grandson days later,” Susan said. “I was going to sit in and he broke my heart. Up to that point I’d held it together. He broke my heart and I had to leave because I broke down.”
There are so many sad stories. I cried Friday morning listening to stories from some of the children of those who died that day.
But the most positive thing I remember from that day — because I still have it — is the T-shirts made by the Halifax County Firefighters Association with a drawing by Mike Haislip. The shirt was sold to raise money to help the New York City Fire Department. Later, they visited in person to ladder 11 to present those funds.
I told Susan I was going to talk about how much kinder people were for months — even years — following that day. She pointed out that it was more than kindness.
“They were not kinder Tia, they were unified. Unity. We WERE the UNITED states of America. Today we are nowhere near that.”
I agree with what she said: We are fighting a pandemic that has killed so many and we can’t get 80 million people to take a safe vaccine or wear a mask.
My thoughts? You would think 20 years later, we would have learned our lesson: Unity does make us better human beings and a better United States of America. Can’t we get back to that?
Editor Tia Bedwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-410-7056.