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The First Time Covering September 11th

More of a journalist by education, Jennifer Branton does the occasional ramble in the form of fiction.

A Normal Morning

The morning of Tuesday, September 11 was just like any other.

My first class was around ten am on Tuesdays and Thursdays so I often arrived on campus about eight or nine to stop off at the newspaper office where I served three years as the Tempo editor in all before leaving college Journalism.

Our bi-weekly paper had just had an issue come out the week before as it did the first and last Friday of the month, so it was over a week until deadlines so I wasn't expecting anything from my staff writers yet. Still I liked to spend as much time in the office as I could at my computer mostly because of the high speed internet so I could listen to music and chat on Instant Messenger before I eventually went to class. Eventually could be awhile, as I admitted I was one of the students that look advance of our Journalism Department lead not carrying if we missed a class if it was something we were doing for the newspaper, so I often penned a column or arranged for a phone interview to overlap with being in the office first thing in the morning.

I left my house without turning on the television. To this day there are a few shows I watch but I was never a big fan of TV with it mostly being background noise when I was doing something else. I still lived at home this semester in school so my mother was gone to work already, my father who traveled for work who knows where, and my younger brother was was in the same University possibly still in the house. I don't recall if his car was still there as I never checked since we didn't ever carpool do to conflicting schedules and a need for personal space as well as wasting our own gasoline the half hour or so it took to get to campus.

I awoke and threw on whatever clothes were around as I was always a tee shirt and jeans girl, never bothering with makeup to go to classes and threw my hair in a ponytail. I grabbed my bag and threw it in my car- the most important thing selecting a CD for my commute.

I never heard the news.


Sent Home

I remember nothing about the drive.

I took back roads as the highway didn't cut through yet and it took me at least a half hour if I didn't catch every possible light. My Camaro got terrible gas mileage and I was blasting music and chain smoking as I drove into campus, making sure to flick the cigarette before passing the security booth. It wasn't a non smoking campus in those days, they just made sure to show disapproval.

As I pulled close to show my parking pass to the booth, I noticed the security saying something to a few cars ahead- some of them turning around. I stayed in line and passed the booth showing my pass as they looked at me and said that campus was closed for at least two days, maybe more and we would get an email when classes resume. We could stay on campus if we wanted or if we were a resident, but the classrooms would be locked for the next few days.

"For what?" I asked, and at that time they didn't even know the full answer. Something about there being attacks in New York and people were unsure if Chicago was also a target.

Terrorists, they said.

I was twenty-two.

What did I know of the world when someone said there were terrorists? My world was the small group of friends that I hung around with off campus going to concerts and bars in the city. If you asked then what I knew about terrorists, I could tell you about some terrible action movies.

Why was something that got attacked in New York a threat to Chicago?

I said I wanted to get to the newspaper office and pulled into the media building stopping on the steps to light another cigarette. I remember looking at my phone debating if I wanted to call my brother and tell him that the school was closed. Texting was still primitive in those days and rather than stamp out a text, I saw no missed calls and went into our sanctuary of an office in the media building.

The building was part dorms, and part offices in those days. I unlocked our office door, the conference room across the hall was once part of the chapel. Once I opened the door, I saw most of the newspaper staff huddled inside.

No one was saying a word, just staring at a TV.

Some of them had lived in the dorms and had rushed over for the high speed internet and the cable in the television and radio station.

"What is going on that everyone is so upset? Why is school closed?" I had asked and shouted answers came back. It was hours before any news was reporting any solid leads.

I remember at some point our head of the Journalism department came in and said nothing. Standing behind his students, I glanced over and watched tears form in his eyes as he watched people falling to the ground on live TV.

We were told there would be a special edition of the newspaper by the Editor-In-Chief so we better ready our assignments to the staff writers.

How do we cover such a thing when no one understands what is happening?


The Silence Was Deafening

I don't know how long we stood in the office.

It could have been hours, minutes, days as far as I was concerned.

Except for our small troop moving outside to smoke and use cellphones, I had no concept of time other than there were still people moving about in the sunlight. None of this seemed real.

I asked other editors what they were going to have their staff write about and everyone had the same basic ideas. I wasn't sure how to make this a story for Temp section yet. I hadn't bothered to pitch anything to my staff writers as they trickled into the office.

I made so many trips outside, I remember eventually getting in my Camaro and leaving campus only because I had smoked my entire pack of cigarettes, which I can still taste writing this even though I haven't smoked in years.

When I was driving it was still light out.

It just started to feel like fall weather and I remember having the windows down and driving over leaves that had just begun to fall. Rather than going home and hiding as everything seemed to suggest, I wanted to go to a public place just so I could look at how the world was reacting so I went to the last place anyone could expect and drove through the neighborhoods near the venues downtown and it was eerie to see no one save the random car passing by in the streets of Chicago.

I had my windows still down as I drove and I remember not hearing a single sound. I had the radio off ever since I got back in the car.

I kept thinking about the people jumping as I drove down city streets and past high rises and office buildings.

I eventually came home and started to write about the silence of a neighborhood that at any given hour was filled with music.

I wrote an article about the moment that no adults had any guidance for us. I wrote about that moment staring at the TV waiting for the world to end.

My story ended up being the front page of the Tempo section.


The Office

There was no school for at least a week.

There were students that needed to travel home. People actually from New York on campus that needed to see family. People connected to those lost on that day in airplanes, or buildings, or military, or firefighters and police.

There was always someone who knew someone who knew someone that hadn't heard from someone in their family or a friend that hadn't checked in.

I spent the first few days constantly reporting to the office, both for a place to be and for the internet connection.

I was lost just wandering around outside. Suddenly I didn't feel comfortable at night. I was always scanning a crowded room looking for the way out. I always had issues with anxiety, but this might have been one of the factors that made it worsen.

I don't know why I felt same in the office. Maybe it was the proximity to that old chapel now used as a conference room.

Friends in the dorms that hadn't gone home seemed just as lost. On campus there were always people in the dorms with the doors open just staring into the abyss of the hallways as if they wanted to remain connected to humanity but were afraid to venture outside the barrier of their door. There were students absently laying in the lawns near each other for the comfort but not speaking.

These were the things I observed and wrote about and when that special edition had come out I had managed to write four pages of newsprint just myself while trimming and cramming as much of the content of the staff writers in as possible.

There always seemed to be more to say on a topic that we knew nothing about at all. Why were these people targeted? What was it like to see these things first hand? To make the decision to put yourself in danger so that others might survive?

I had never been to New York before but now it was the pilgrimage we all had to make and when I finally went to Ground Zero a year later, there were still posters up nearby for information on missing people.


The Next Edition

The Special edition of the newspaper had gotten several awards a conference later, but it wasn't the acclaim for our excellence in news writing we were after. We were just storytellers reciting the narrative of those we talked to about their experiences.

It turns out that college students have important things to say if you just listen.

Each publication I have written for always wants some sort of remembrance story on this day. After almost 20 years, the feelings never change.

I always find myself examining what stage of life I am currently at and talking about how I would react. At almost forty, I could talk about how it may have felt to experience all this as a wife and mother.

It never gets easier to tell the tale of That Day.

I have told the story so many times, and I guess it was easier being a dumb college kid that was so fixated on the silence in public that I couldn't wrap by brain around anything else.

It would be so much harder to be someone with actual important insight. After all, if after all these years the story I tell about how to report such a thing in the newspaper is hard, how hard is it for people that experienced real loss?

I never saw a teacher cry before in front of his students and this is something that still haunts me.

I haven't talked to any of those people in years and I still find myself wondering if they are writing about the day we all stood silently in the office wondering if someone knew what to do next.

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