Editor’s note: Managing Editor Michael Eng originally wrote this piece one year ago, on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. In 2001, he was working as a staff writer for the East County Observer in Lakewood Ranch, Fla., and was with President George W. Bush that morning at Emma Booker Elementary School in Sarasota.
By Michael Eng | Managing Editor
Up until last week, I had not watched any 9/11 footage in 10 years. The day — that day — was so tragic, so terrifying, so life-altering that I simply could not bring myself to relive it.
But in preparing for this edition of the East County Observer, I recorded and viewed much of National Geographic’s weeklong tribute to 9/11. The channel featured hours of analysis, interviews and commentary — including a sit-down with former President George W. Bush.
I turned the programs on only during naptime and after bedtime. My children — ages 3 and 20 months — both were born into a post-9/11 world. But they don’t need to know what that means. I want them sheltered as long as possible.
And with every fabric of my being, I wish we all still were sheltered. I wish those two little numbers separated by a backslash — 9/11 — didn’t conjure such devastation. After all, it doesn’t seem right that the day’s events only are represented by four little keystrokes. For those of us who remember it, for those of us who have a “Where were you?” anecdote, those four little characters don’t do the day justice.
My 9/11 started way earlier than I wanted. Back then, the East County Observer went to press on Monday nights. As a cub reporter, Tuesdays were relatively light days I used to set up interviews for the following week.
But with Bush in town for what was essentially a public relations stunt for his education reform initiatives, my editor thought it would be good experience for me to attend the press briefing. The week before, I called the White House and asked for press passes.
One phone call. That’s all it took to get into the same room with the president.
Of course, the government wanted all the press in place well before Bush’s scheduled statement at 9:30 a.m. I pulled into Emma Booker Elementary School in Sarasota before 7 a.m. and walked through a metal detector and received my credentials.
“Sept. 11, 2001,” they read. “Trip to the president.”
That’s all it was supposed to be.
Within seconds of American Airlines Flight 11 striking 1 World Trade Center, reporters’ cell phones started erupting into a chorus of ringtones.
The first report: A Cessna has hit the World Trade Center.
Strange, we all thought.
But then, calls kept coming. No, not a Cessna. Something bigger. A commercial plane.
By 9 a.m., we all were huddled into a storage room where the school kept its audio/visual equipment.
There was one TV on.
And for the next 30 minutes, we watched — over and over again — that first plane. Then the second plane. Over and over again. It looked fake — like something out of a Michael Bay flick. The planes simply disappeared into the building and an orange fireball. The room, crammed with at least 40 people whose profession is communication, was silent.
At precisely 9:30 a.m., Bush emerged to take the podium. The school had assembled a backdrop of students and teachers — all of whom seemed unaware of what was happening.
“Today, we’ve had a national tragedy,” Bush said, his hands folded on the top of the podium. “Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country.”
With my left hand, I held up my tiny digital point-and-click, firing shot after shot as quickly as it would allow. With my right hand, I steadied my notepad on my knee as my pen attempted to capture every word.
Bush was in and out in less than five minutes.
I rushed back to the East County Observer office with my notes and photos. By the time I had reached Lakewood Ranch, the South Tower had collapsed. The Longboat Observer was going to press that afternoon, and fellow reporter Mischa Viera and I were tasked with working on a story for their deadline. My editor ran to Walmart to buy a television for the office, and Mischa and I banged away on our keyboards to cobble together what we could.
By that afternoon, I must have seen those buildings collapse thousands of times. That day was relentless. All I wanted was for it to be over; I thought the sun would never set.
After Longboat went to press, I called their designer — my friend (and who later would become my wife). Neither of us wanted to go home.
Do you want to go have dinner? I asked.
As the sun finally set, we huddled in the corner of a Cracker Barrel restaurant — the most American place we could find that day. There were no TVs, no websites, no replays. From our two-top, we could see the sun setting outside. I had hoped the darkness would provide shelter.
We didn’t talk much, but it was comforting just to be with each other. We both knew the world — as we knew it yesterday — was gone.