Still trying to make sense of what happened on 9/11

    Like everyone else, the TV images from 9/11 are seared into my brain, but they can never be quite real to me. The only two real images for me came as I drove up to fetch my daughter from school in Brooklyn a few days after the attacks.

    It isn’t much.

    Just a blue plastic report cover with a clear front. There aren’t even snap rings. You just slide the holder and clip the pages inside. Today, these go for $6.49 for a five-pack at Staples. When I bought it a decade ago, it cost even less.

    There are 14 pages clipped inside. The words on them are one-sided, single spaced. That folder, those pages, are my only real link to 9/11/01.

    a8348reute 0039 words, 8 lines BC-CRASH-TRADECENTER (URGENT) Plane strikes Trade Center, building aflame – eyewitness REUTERS NEW York – A plane struck the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan on Tuesday morning, an eyewitness reported.

    The building was burning following at least one explosion, a Reuters reporter at the scene said. Deftext .xrul 010911 085930D.1 Tue Sep 11 09:02:06 EDT 2001

    As an online producer at philly.com, that day it was my job to scan the newswires. I was teaching a journalism course at the time, and as the events unfolded, I thought this would be a tremendous opportunity to show the students where news came from. Like most people outside the business, they hadn’t grasped the concept that people—people a lot like them—were doing it.

    I wanted to show how news of a large-scale event was fashioned out of chaos by real people—reporters and editors—each doing his or her job, trying to make sense of chaos. So, as I scanned the wires, I copied various wire dispatches creating a real-time log of what was happening.

    a0523 —- 0020 word, 4 lines BC-APNewsAlert Washington –FBI investigating reports of plane hijacking before World Trade Center crashes.

    Defttext.xrul 010911 090939A. 1 Tue Sept 11 09 09:12:15 EDT 2001

    Of course, like everyone else, the TV images are seared into my brain. But they were on TV and, though logic tells me they were true, they can never be quite real to me.

    I am not alone. Googling the words “surreal” and “9/11” yields about 12,500,000 results.

    The only two real images for me came as I drove our Hyundai Elantra to fetch my daughter from school in Brooklyn a few days after the attacks.

    She had witnessed the burning towers, a short time after the planes crashed, from a rooftop at Pratt Institute where she had begun her freshman year a few weeks earlier. The school is just miles from lower Manhattan, directly across the East River.

    The news spread through the dorm, and a small group of students gathered on a rooftop with a clear view of the World Trade Center. Talking to my wife later that day, my daughter said as she watched the first tower come down, all she could think about was lots of people dying. A few days later, she asked if we could come and bring her home for the weekend. She said she was okay, she just wanted to come home.

    Route 440 through Staten Island is a divided highway, but only the eastbound lanes were open to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. As we inched along the jammed road, we watched a slow procession of open trucks filled with debris come down the westbound lanes headed for the huge Fresh Kills Landfill.

    At the time, the irony of the name escaped us. We didn’t say much to each other. I think the radio was on.

    Then as we crawled bumper to bumper along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which snakes along the East River, we saw where the towers had stood. Lazy smoke still rose, eerily illuminated by rescue floodlights. As much as the television and newspaper images had shocked and frightened me, this was different.

    This was real.

    On the way home, we made some somber small talk. That weekend, my daughter played with the dog and told us stories about school in the crazy big city. Even though we talked about the day’s events, my daughter never again described what she saw.

    d07663papa- 0129 words, 27 lines BC-PA – Plane Crash, 131 BULLETIN ASSOCIATED PRESS PITTSBURGH — A large plane crashed Tuesday morning just north of Somerset County Airport about 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, airport officials said.

    The plane, believed to be a Boeing 767, crashed about 10 a.m. about 8 miles east of Jennerstown, according to county 911 dispatchers, WPXI-TV in Pittsburgh reported.

    The crash came the same morning that terrorists crashed two planes into the World Trade Center in New York City and the twin 110-story towers collapsed. Explosions also rocked the Pentagon and the State Department and spread fear across the nation.

    There were no other immediate details on the Pennsylvania crash and it was not clear whether the crash was related to the others.

    Deftext.xrul 010911104158A Tue Sep 11 10:44:34 EDT 2001

    It isn’t much. But, 10 years to the day, as I hold that cheap blue plastic folder in my hands, I know it is my only true, concrete link to that time.

    I already have trouble remembering the precise details of where I was and what I was doing and even what I was thinking—but I have come to realize none of that is important.

    When I skim through the folder’s pages, I remember precisely how I felt on 9/11/01. It is the same way I feel today, 9/11/11.

    I don’t understand.

    Bill Wedo is a recovering journalist and Communications Manager at Studio Incamminati, a school for contemporary realist art in Center City.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.