Twenty years ago on the 11th of this month, the telephone rang at my house a little after 9 in the morning. The call was from the news director of the Washington, D.C. radio station where I worked. He told me to turn on the television.
I asked, “To which channel?” “It doesn’t matter,” he replied. He then said, “We need you in the anchor chair by 10 a.m.”
I quickly dressed and headed to the station, arriving just as the American Airlines plane crashed into the side of the Pentagon. This had now become a local story.
When I sat down to anchor our coverage, I had more questions than answers. How did terrorists get a hold of airplanes? How many more were there? Was this just the first wave?
A massive traffic jam was clogging the streets of Washington as frightened office workers tried to get away from downtown. I began to get calls telling me the Capitol building and White House had been evacuated. Also, that another errant plane had turned around over Pennsylvania and was headed our way.
Slowly over the eight hours while I was the anchor, we began to piece together what was going on. One question still confounded us: Where was President Bush?
My friend and colleague Ann Compton of ABC News was on the plane with the president. She later told me that even on Air Force One they didn’t know exactly what was happening, so they just kept flying around the country to secure military bases. In today’s world it’s hard to imagine Air Force One depending on local TV channels (whose signals they kept flying in and out of) for information.
When I got off the air at 6 that night, I was completely exhausted and emotionally drained. I decided to go for a run to clear my mind. As I was finishing, I waved to my neighbor who returned it with a sad wave of his own. “I know how you feel,” I thought. Except I didn’t. His brother worked for Cantor Fitzgerald in the World Trade Center. He was killed that morning.
I was a broadcaster on Washington radio for more than 40 years. Most of the time the job can seem lightweight, just a way to keep commuters company as they trek home through rush hour traffic. But occasionally what we broadcasters have to offer is truly important. I was reminded of this in an email sent to me on Sept. 11, 2016, from a listener named Joanna. It read in part: “This note is 15 years overdue. I think of you each anniversary of 9/11 because you were with me as it was happening. I worked two blocks from the White House. I got stuck in the horrible traffic jam as I tried to head back to my home in Alexandria. I was constantly looking up at the sky to see if another hijacked plane was coming. My cellphone was useless. My only comfort was the sound of your voice. I told myself that as long as you kept talking on the radio, everything was going to be alright. And you kept talking and eventually everything was alright.”
That evening my wife, our 7-year-old daughter and I ate dinner on our back porch. As we sat there in the gorgeous autumn dusk, we heard, but couldn’t see, planes flying over our house. My daughter asked, “What’s that noise in the sky?” I told her that was the sound of freedom. Those were the good guys flying over our city to protect us. And we heard those planes flying over us for many months. A daily reminder of this new and suddenly more dangerous world.