That song, by Alan Jackson, perfectly summed up the mood of the country immediately following September 11, 2001. Nine years ago. It doesn't seem that long. That day and the days that followed are etched in my mind like it was yesterday. I'm sure every American who was old enough to understand what was happening can say the same thing.
I was working as a director at WINK-TV in Fort Myers, Florida. My shift was 2:45-11:45. It suited me because I am not a morning person. My normal routine was to come home from work, stay up half the night and sleep until noon. It didn't quite work that way on September 11th. I was asleep when the planes hit the towers in New York City. Mark (at the time we were just friends) called me on the phone and woke me up to talk about what happened. I had no idea what he was talking about but turned on the TV and was quickly drawn in to the horror that was happening in New York. I watched the first tower fall. It didn't seem like this could really be happening but it was.
After the first tower fell I decided to try and get a little more sleep. After all, my night had been cut short and the rest of the day would likely be busy and difficult. In my mind I didn't really think the 2nd tower would fall because the plane had hit it at a different spot. Right before turning the TV off, they were talking about reports of smoke near the Pentagon and speculating a helicopter might have crashed. Of course, I didn't fall back to sleep. That was not mentally possibly no matter how tired I was. When I turned the TV back on the 2nd tower had already fallen and they knew a plane had crashed in to the Pentagon.
The Pentagon plane was the one that personally concerned me. My brother Rob works as a government consultant in Washington, D.C. and worked at the Naval Yard. I knew he occasionally went to the Pentagon for meetings. Thankfully that was not one of those days. When I talked to him several hours later he was safe at the Naval Yard on the highest level of military lockdown. He had driven past the Pentagon shortly before the plane hit but that was as close as he came.
The rest of the day at work was surreal. We sat and watched TV all day along with the rest of America. Occasionally we would do a little work. Most of our newscasts were cancelled. When I went home that night I watched more coverage. Then I tried to sleep. That didn't happen. My exhausted body was no match for the images that were going through my mind of the horror of that day. There is a line in the Alan Jackson song "Did you open your eyes and hope it never happened Close your eyes and not go to sleep." That was me. I didn't sleep until the following night and alternately cursed Mark for waking me up and being glad he did because it was important to know what happened.
Like all local stations, our news team immediately started looking for the local connection to the events in New York, Washington and Shanksville. They didn't have to look too far. President Bush was at an elementary school in Sarasota when the planes hit and he learned about it. One of our reporters was there covering the President.
One of the flight attendants on the Shanksville flight was from Fort Myers. Her name was CeeCee Lyles. Her husband Lorne was a local police officer. In the weeks that followed, we did a lot of satellite uplinks for national news shows. Mr Lyles came in several times. Watching the quiet grief and confusion of this man was heartbreaking. We all felt so bad for him and there was nothing we could do to make it better. CeeCee and Lorne Lyles had a blended family of 4 boys ranging from about 6-16. I'll never forget one night when he was on Larry King. The other guests had younger children who had a parent killed and Larry was asking how they were dealing with explaining what happened. After the show ended, Mr. Lyles told one of our camera people that he wished Larry had asked him that question. His children were older and could comprehend what happened. How was he supposed to help his kids? The confusion and sorrow in that grieving man will stay with me forever.
The other local connection was the owner of a SW Florida flying school. Two of the hijackers had learned to fly at his school. He came in often to go on the national news shows too. What an arrogant, rude man! He was full of himself and his 15 minutes of fame. I just wanted to smack him upside the head and tell him the story wasn't about him. It was about the victims who died and the ones left behind like the Lyles family.
In the midst of everything that week, a tropical storm hit SW Florida. Normally that would have been a bigger deal and we would have been doing a ton of weather coverage. That week it just seemed like an afterthought. The night after I finally slept I ended up staying at the station for most of the night to run weather crawls. That was the point I couldn't take the news coverage anymore. Alan Jackson wrote "Did you turn off that violent old movie you're watching and turn on "I Love Lucy" reruns." I spent the night scanning the cable channels for any old show that wasn't depressing.
9 years ago. For all of us it is a day we can never forget, but isn't something we think of every day. The feelings are stirred up on the anniversary but it isn't a part of our every day lives. For the families of the victims the pain will never end. I know from media reports it took years for Lorne Lyles to put his life back together. It is for all the victims on the planes, in the Twin Towers and the Pentagon that we remember this day. It is for the families left behind that we still feel sympathy and give our support. We won't forget. We can't forget. Where were you?