I Was A Cub Reporter In Miami When 9/11 Happened
I covered the dead and missing. Later I learned the hijackers lived not too far from me. Now? I’m tired of TSA searching my hair.
When the towers fell I was a cub reporter at The Miami Herald. I was two years into the job and had a slick little silver Nissan Altima with a black nose guard. I was running late for work, so I didn’t cut on my television set before I left the house on 9/11. I grabbed my flip phone and jetted down to I-95 and then 595 and then I-75 to get to the Broward headquarters.
I realized something was wrong when I looked left and looked right and was one of two cars on the freeway. I called my managing editor. Busy signal. I called the reporter who sat next to me. Busy. I called the city desk. Busy. I called my mother. Busy. I cut on the radio.
My one-hour commute was 12 minutes at 95 mph.
After parking and running up the stairs two at a time, I watched one of the TVs perched in the middle of the newsroom. I stood dumbfounded with the rest of the staff of the Herald. Many had tears streaking their faces. I’m not from Miami, but most of them were. And everybody knows that people in Miami have people in New York City.
We watched, terrified, for at least a half hour. And then? Shellshocked and on the line with colleagues at other Knight Ridder papers, we got to work. (At the time the Miami Herald was a part of Knight-Ridder.) My assignment was Flight 11, which hit the North Tower, and Flight 93, which crashed in Somerset County, Pa. How many passengers? Where is the passenger manifest? How many were from Florida? Who are they? Who had a Florida connection? There is always — always — a South Florida connection.
I had so many thoughts. I prayed all day. I remembered dancing in the window at Window on the World with my best friend just the week or two before — celebrating some milestone I can no longer recall. I have a picture of myself in a tall window, wearing knee high boots, a skin tight maroon skirt with silver sparkles and a matching maroon shirt. I was trying my best to be sexy. I have another picture with the bald yet bearded bartender. I was too young to know what to order, so I ordered what the gals always ordered on Sex and the City: a cosmopolitan. The last image I have from there is with my best friend in front of a sign. These images are real pictures, in a memory book, covered in plastic. I don’t know where the negatives are. But we were there, at a private party. Never a care in the world.
I lived in a suburb of Miami. The days, weeks and months following the attacks became legend and lesson for journalists. My newsroom closed down when we got an envelope filled with a substance that appeared to be anthrax. I remember eventually covering a press conference at American Media, in Boca Raton, where I stood outside to cover the news of the postal delivery of anthrax to the National Enquirer. I was there with reporters from CNN, MSNBC, The Chicago Tribune, the LA Times, the Associated Press. I wish I had known about face masks back then. I was afraid the throng of reporters might be targeted much like newsrooms were targeted. I held my breath and then breathed into the wind. I wasn’t allowed to open my mail anymore at work.
I covered the story. I don’t recall if I had bylines or taglines or contributors lines or all of the above. I just doggedly covered the story along with everyone else in the newsroom because that shit was personal and it was important. These dudes lived with us. They trained near us. And for decades later — perhaps forever — that one act would result in my continued fear of airport searches. After 9/11, extreme racism just … exploded against anyone not white as those hyper-invasive searches at our airports exposed, legalized and deputized white men to touch women however they wanted as a condition of flying. I’d never had my hair searched or been told a strange man must rub and poke my pregnant stomach, unbuckle my bra, put their hands in my panties, cup my breasts and squeeze my butt to determine if my body parts were real and undress me in front of strangers “or else” until after Sept. 11, 2001. I’d also never had friends blow up in a war that was my own country’s doing. And let’s not even talk about the Patriot Act and banking.
It’s difficult getting flight manifests. It’s even more difficult locating and then calling 100 people and asking them to talk about their loved one who died in a terror attack. But I did. I called. I listened. I wrote it all down. Some had family in Florida. I drove there and knocked on their doors. Some hung up on me only to call me back at midnight, whispering into my cellphone that they finally have to accept their husband is dead.
We talked to most of them. We tried to honor the dead on every flight and on every floor. We tracked down family and images. I remember my coworker Lisa Arthur was in charge of the flights I covered. She was a fierce and thorough editor. “Confirm it, Adrienne,” she said to me. “Now confirm it again.”
Every day after 9/11 I came in to work and resolved to honor the folks on those flights the best way I knew how: to write about their whole, beautiful lives.
Being a part of a big city newsroom during such a massive news event is a rarity. Reporters stick together. I got a major lesson in all the things. I talked to the Federal Aviation Authority. I requested documents. I visited apartment complexes. I watched the best journalists in the world direct the biggest story in the world. The biggest story of my lifetime.
Every so often, after I finished an interview, I went out to my car in the parking lot, to cry.
Mostly that week I talked to the families of the deceased. I left my number on answering machines all across the world. People I don’t know got my number from someone else to call me to ask me if I could help figure out if their son made the flight or got out the tower. I promised to help and to get back to them.
For the next day or two, I tried to drown myself in repeats of The Sopranos but I was distracted. One night, my phone rings. It’s after midnight.
Tears. Are you the reporter? It’s been a few days. He never made it home. We just needed to know. I don’t know what to do. No one is talking to me besides you. Everyone’s phone is busy. Do you need his picture for your report?
NOTE: There is no image on this piece. Yes, that’s on purpose.