Americans who watched the events of 9/11 unfold were forever changed, writes Ryan Blethen, Seattle Times editorial page editor. He reflects on that day when he was a reporter in Maine and how it changed American life.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had a profound effect on nearly every American. There have been other painful communal events. The Civil War, Pearl Harbor and World War II come to mind. Even though 9/11 affected us all, it touched us and changed us in different ways.
Sept. 11 was literally a new beginning for me — not in the way it was for those closest to it, but it did mark the dawn of a new era in my life.
My first day on the job as a reporter at the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram was Sept. 10. I had arrived in Portland, Maine, the day before after attending my 10-year high-school reunion in Bellevue. My first day was spent in orientation, having my picture taken for my employee ID and getting set up with a workstation. I was told I would be assigned a beat the next day. That didn’t happen for more than a month.
As a morning person wanting to get off to a good start, I left for work early and listened to Don Imus on the drive into work. I don’t know why I remember this. I didn’t normally listen to Imus. I remember the sunlight broken into millions of glittering pieces on Casco Bay. I would make that drive many more times but now cannot pull from memory a specific day other than Sept. 11.
During my walk from the parking lot to the nearly empty second-floor newsroom, the first plane hit one of the Twin Towers. The managing editor and I huddled around one of the newsroom’s many televisions.
I imagine our conversation was like that of most people watching. Was this a terrorist attack? An accident? How could this happen regardless of the reason? Then we watched terrorists fly United Flight 175 into the south tower.
I thought to myself that this was an attack. I turned to my boss and said the obvious, “We know what will be on tomorrow’s front page.”
The rest of the day was a blur. Reporters and editors hustled into work. I was told to “go get reaction.” I tucked away my worries about a dear friend living in New York and for the people in the Twin Towers and set out to speak with Mainers.
I was in a bay-front diner interviewing a congressional staffer who was back in the district. By this time, hijackers had flown American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon. He was worried about his friends and colleagues in Washington, D.C.
The helplessness of it all hung on his face like a mask. His eyes never met mine. He either looked down at his food or at the television mounted behind the counter. I was watching him when the first tower fell. The look of helplessness slid away and was replaced by an empty dead stare. I shifted my gaze to the television. I imagine everybody in that diner wore the same look.
When I finally got home, I was relieved to hear a message on my answering machine from my friend in New York. She was OK, but clearly rattled. We all were.
For somebody of my age — I was 28 at the time — it was unimaginable to have the United States so brazenly attacked. My generation grew up fearing a nuclear Soviet Union only to see it crumble. There was nobody left for us to worry about. We were supposed to be embarking on another American Century.
That day changed us. It has made us more fearful, more willing to toss aside civil liberties for the false promise of security. We are not the country we once were, nor is anybody who experienced that day the same person they were the day before.
Ryan Blethen’s column appears on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is: email@example.com; follow him on Twitter @RyanBlethen.