9/11/01 began as glorious day, and then ...

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Even before the towers fell 11 years ago, it was a vivid Tuesday morning. The sky, which we would eventually learn was deceptively beautiful that day, was a pleasant shade of cerulean with touches of white dabbed strategically on the horizon.

There was no deviation from routine that morning as I walked the six or seven blocks from the bus stop to work. The iPod didn't exist yet, but I distinctly remember listening to music on a portable electronic device as I strolled down Fifth Avenue. Maybe it was a disc player, of which I've owned many cheap versions over the years.

So many things are memorable about that morning, but not everything. I don't remember what I was wearing or what that day's column was about. I do remember seeing my colleagues staring raptly at televisions as I walked into the newsroom. Only one tower was ablaze when I arrived and only one plane was unaccounted for, but it was clear from their reactions that they already sensed something unprecedented was happening.

Before the second plane hit the World Trade Center, I recalled a documentary that had a small segment about a plane that crashed into the Empire State Building shortly after it was built. The initial reports on that Tuesday morning 11 years ago similarly suggested a small plane had crashed into one of the towers.

A pilot must have made a series of bad decisions. It was an unfortunate accident, I decided after a few minutes of long distance TV rubber-necking. That sounded reasonable to me. I imagined the lawsuits that the crash would generate and shook my head.

I was already at my desk when a series of shrieks and gasps in the newsroom caught my attention. I did not see the second plane hit, but many of my colleagues did. The newsroom scrum grew. Editors shouted instructions by phone to reporters who don't arrive that early. There was a mad scramble as phones rang nonstop in the background.

There was no gallows humor in the newsroom that morning. Fear was palpable and growing, but it did not overwhelm the professionalism of the journalists gathered around televisions trying to make sense of an event that could be considered a reasonable stand-in for the Apocalypse.

A reporter who arrived at work minutes after the second plane hit the towers had no idea what was happening. When she stepped into the newsroom, she was greeted by blaring televisions, profanity and stunned journalists talking over each other, their eyes fixed on television screens.

This former colleague was a young woman from Manhattan. Her aunt had a job in one of the burning towers, she said, as a co-worker filled her in on the disaster. She sobbed as she ran to her desk to call home. It was already unbearably personal for her.

As a former New Yorker, my mind flooded with memories of the World Trade Center formed as both a tourist in the 1970s and as a bored security guard reprimanded for wearing white socks and reading on the job in the mid-'80s.

I first visited the towers a few years after they were built. Even then, the observation deck always felt as if it was swaying a little too much to one side in the high winds. Though tourists were encased behind glass and steel, it was difficult to shake the feeling of vulnerability. It felt unnatural to see clouds below us from the vantage point of a fixed place high in the sky.

When live broadcasts from what would soon be dubbed Ground Zero were interrupted by breaking news about a plane slamming into the Pentagon, the newsroom officially become a surreal place.

Rumors about a possible hijacked plane heading toward Pittsburgh managed to empty the U.S. Steel Building and much of Downtown, clogging most arteries and bridges by 11 a.m. There seemed to be a primordial need to grab the kids from school, raid the shelves at Giant Eagle and hunker down in front of the TV as the disaster unfolded.

When word came that Flight 93 had crashed near Shanksville, the newsroom was on war footing with the paper's reporters and editors fully deployed. The late shift came in early to help. Cots were set up for those who wouldn't leave because they wanted to get every detail of a chaotic day absolutely right.

I was amazed when the bus arrived on time at the end of the day. I shouldn't have been. There was no competing traffic as it wound its way through unnaturally quiet streets. I sat on the empty bus, grateful the sun had finally set, taking with it the day's unusually vivid, now empty blue sky.

tonynorman

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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