SATURDAY, September 11 – It’s that time of year again. The eleventh day of the ninth month. 9/11. I get calls from various media, asking if I’d like to appear on their program and discuss the events of that notorious day. Again, I decline politely. I’ve had my fill.
The attacks on September 11, 2001 were a journalistic high point in my broadcasting career. I was the US radio correspondent for NOS News in Washington D.C. and it was around three o’clock in the afternoon, Dutch time, when I went on the air. For days on end, twenty-four hours a day, I ended up reporting on the collapse of the towers in New York, the attack on the Pentagon, and the search for survivors. And I was also trying to describe in words how the American people were reacting to this tragedy.
During the ensuing weeks, the adrenaline was pumping through my veins. I barely saw my wife and children. I had a radio studio in the basement of our house and because I had to go on-air constantly, I had a fold-out bed next to my desk so I could get a bit of sleep – and next to that a bucket to piss in. Some people called my conduct bizarre, while I saw it as the logical consequence of a devotion to duty.
In that journalistic whirl of excitement, there was little time for reflection. What was it doing to me? That wasn’t important. My job was to report as accurately as possible on the number of victims, those responsible for the carnage, the political reactions, the upcoming military response, airport safety, a world turned upside down, and the actual facts of the event. That was my job.
Behind all this, there was the human drama. I remember how our neighbor leaned over the back fence and asked Jenn if she or I had any idea what had happened to the people who were trapped in the towers above the devastating flames caused by the two planes. Her brother worked in the World Trade Center. He was never found.
I later visited Ground Zero and recounted the years when I had lived on the other side of the Hudson River, in Hoboken, New Jersey with a magnificent view of those awesome skyscrapers. I talked with a great many New Yorkers, who normally have a reputation for being brash and cynical and they were visibly shaken and deeply affected. America was cut to the quick.
Nor did the events leave me unaffected either During one of those initial midnight broadcasts, I broke down and cried. It was all too much. On the way to the NOS office in Washington, D.C., I would feel tears welling up, without warning. Crying out of the blue. That was a revelation and a manifestation of emotions I didn’t know I possessed. As a journalist, you’re used to switching them off. You report on other people’s misery: you’re not part of it. But 9/11 was of a different order.
Less than a year later I was sitting at the dining room table with Kelly, a widow and mother of two young children. It was Jennifer’s idea to approach Kelly for an interview, as the first anniversary was approaching. We had met Kelly and Chris in a playground in Hoboken and the children got along well.
‘You’re welcome to come by,’ Kelly said. ‘I’m always happy to talk about Chris.’
In search of an arresting radio interview, I asked her to read the brief obituary published in The New York Times. Each victim was given a couple of paragraphs in the newspaper, Chris included. She began to read. After three sentences she was crying. She continued to read. About how they had met in high school and gone to the same college, about how they had married and came to live in Hoboken.
I held the trembling microphone to her mouth. Started crying myself. Should I have stopped there? I thought about my broadcast and let her go on, with that sob in her voice.
The evening before the attack, Chris Colasanti was giving their daughters Cara and Lauren their bath. Then he showed Cara his collection of baseball cards. ‘We have to be strong, the three of us,’ said Kelly. ‘We have to go on living, because he was so very special. It has to be a great life, because he was great.’
Relieved, she looked up, and saw my tears. What happened to ‘detached, neutral, impersonal, objective’?
Great story, I said to myself, as I left her house.
Today I’m thinking about Kelly and her daughters.
19:00 – We’re at a birthday party, and the youngsters have long since headed upstairs where they’re playing a video game. I join the circle of adults in the backyard. Then, slightly bored, I go up to check on the kids. I’m still on the stairs when I hear enthusiastic shouting and laughing.
‘Oh, hi Papa,’ says Eamonn. His face is flushed with pleasure. As is his brother’s.
‘What are you guys doing?’
‘Grand Theft Auto’, but we’re not playing with pistols, Papa.’ They’re aware of my objections, and Jennifer’s. Guns are taboo in games. Then and now. I reach for the box and am surprised to see that it’s for age group 18+.
‘But we’re not fighting and we don’t use pistols. Honestly,’ Sander immediately adds.
I stick around for a while and see how Eamonn laughs his head off when he has his main character steal a motorbike and careen off at top speed while in the crosswalk passers-by are catapulted into the air. I say nothing.
On the way home, the boys sing at the top of their lungs. I join in, with no pangs of conscience.