Reporting religion on 9/11
[Guest post by Tony Carnes, editor of A Journey through NYC Religions blog.]
ON SEPTEMBER 8, 2001, I was having dinner with two Chinese intelligence agents at a restaurant on the Potomac River across from the Pentagon. We were surprised how close the planes flew to the Pentagon and White House as they came down the Potomac River into Dulles Airport.
“It would only take a flick of the wrist by a terrorist to hit a target,” I mused. Although I returned to NYC thinking how insecure Washington, D.C., was, I was looking forward to celebrating my birthday on a quiet Tuesday, September 11th.
Everybody in our office down the street from the World Trade Center was taking the day off. It was going to be a beautiful sunny day, and we were lingering in a summertime mood. Anatoliy Khotsyn, our office manager who did hard work with military efficiency, deserved the time off.
I had just finished reading the morning papers and gotten my last cup of morning java. I was wondering what to do with the time on my hands. Within a minute my memory of those stories and my leisure were obliterated.
At 9:01am Tuesday morning a federal agent rang, saying, “Turn on your television. I’ve got to go.”
Click. He hung up; I realized he was serious. But what would his heavy duty world have to do with me, a religion reporter?
I saw that the broadcasters were talking about a plane that had hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. It turned out to be American Airlines 11. It seemed too deliberate for an accident so I wondered if it was a terrorist attack. Two minutes later, United Airlines 175 curved across the television screen into the South Tower.
The television newscasters didn’t realize that a second plane had hit the South Tower. They thought that they were watching a replay of the first plane from a different angle. Maybe, they were in a little shock because I could see the smoke coming out of the North Tower as the second plane hit its twin. I think I was shouting, Look out the window!
I started to worry that one of the planes or another one might be carrying a nuclear weapon. From some ancient memory I remember a military reporter Charles Wiley and Edward Teller, sometimes called “the father of the H-bomb,” had reassured me that the initial blast of a one megaton nuclear weapon at Wall Street could only level everything up to 14th Street, leaving the buildings above 14th Street intact. After the initial blast, the main danger was radioactive ash. My wife worked on 15th Street.
With that grim reassuring memory, I called her and left a message that she should not get in the subway because they probably will be frozen and that if there was a major explosion that she should head to her building’s basement which had an old but still usable nuclear fallout shelter. Later, when we talked, I prettied up the grim reassurance about a nuclear blast that my old friends had given me.
In less than an hour the South Tower went down. I was transfixed like prey before a snake. I went into shock. For the rest of the week, my face was numb and my lips felt like they had been injected lightly with Novocain.