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Remembering Ground Zero

JACKSON, Tenn.Sept. 11, 2003 – I remember the moment like it happened yesterday. I was on my way to Waco, Texas where I was scheduled to cover a speech to be delivered by former Attorney General Janet Reno.

Dodging Nashville traffic in a mad dash to the airport I flipped on a local talk radio station when the first unconfirmed reports of terror crackled through my radio's speakers.

In a matter of seconds, I was on the phone to my editor. "Turn on the television now," I yelled into my cell phone as I pushed the speedometer to more than 80 mph. "And cancel my airline reservations. We're going to New York."

Within 12 hours, I had commandeered a van, secured two photographers, a stack of reporter pads, a back-up battery for my laptop and the company credit card. Finding the photogs was the easy part. From covering hurricanes to school shootings, I had the privilege of working with two of the finest photographers in the business - Morris Abernathy and Jim Veneman, Union's director of visual communications.

Over the next 36 hours, we would drive non-stop to New York and begin covering the story of the century. At times we worked on sheer adrenaline, walking more than 60 blocks into Ground Zero with 30 pounds of equipment, coercing our way through security check points in search of the story.

Through a contact at the FBI, we managed to secure credentials that allowed us to enter what was then called the pit - Ground Zero. It was a Sunday morning and the site was buzzing with activity. Since our cameras had been confiscated, I took out a note pad and started writing about everything I saw.

A few nights ago, I pulled out that pad and poured back over my notes. "The smell is horrific. Acrid. Mixture of fuel, paper, human flesh. God, it's terrible."

Military personnel made us wear Army-issue breathing masks as we peered over the smoldering ruins. "Concrete lattice is gigantic! Several stories tall. Hard to fathom how rescue workers can survive in this environment. Dust is like snow. Everywhere! Shoes on sidewalks - in street."

The rescue workers lived in deplorable conditions. The once-exquisite lobby of a neighboring tower was littered with rotting food, sooty clothes and human waste. There wasn't any electrical power - only the monotonous sounds of hulking generators.

Later that morning, I sat down outside a makeshift morgue under a bank of telephones and completed some notes. A Catholic priest happened by and explained that some remains had been found in the rubble. He was there to administer last rites. A few minutes later I watched a firefighter gently carrying the remains in his hands. And then, it hit me. And I struggled to maintain my composure.

I was finding it difficult to maintain the safe zone between a reporter and the story. "Don't get emotionally attached," I reminded myself. You have a job to do."

That afternoon, we found ourselves in Washington Square. Thousands of flowers filled the square and New Yorkers quietly walked through the tiny park gazing at the faces of the missing.

An eerie hush fell over the square - as we walked through the mourners - some weeping, others just staring. I felt awkward, like we were intruding on a family funeral.

Then, it happened.

Out of the silence, came a sound - a simple, beautiful sound. A flutist with the New York Philharmonic walked into the park and played a familiar melody.

O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain. For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain.

As she neared the chorus, a few scattered voices began singing and by the chorus, Washington Square filled with the voices of weary souls, proclaiming America, God shed his grace on thee. It was as if the angels were singing. And for one single moment, all the good of New York, all the good of this nation, was summed up inside that park.

I put down my note pad, sat down in the grass, and wept.

Reporters, by nature, are somewhat detached from the rest of the world - recording the days of our lives from the anonymous confines of the front porch. Every so often someone will ask me how the events of that fateful Autumn day changed my life. I really don't know how to respond. I'll leave it up to the political pundits to debate global implications of September 11.

As for this scribe, well, I've decided to get off the front porch. And you know something? The view's not all that bad.

By Todd Starnes
Director of University Communications

Media contact: Todd Starnes, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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