FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) – There may not be an adult in America who doesn’t remember where they were — and what they were doing — on 9/11/01.
While much of the world was glued to their televisions, news crews around the country — including many of our own colleagues at CBS 11 — jumped into action.
A few of them who were sent to cover the tragedy as it unfolded from New York shared their memories of one of the worst times in American history.
It was the day that changed the world as we know it.
But, it started out as any other Tuesday might.
“All of a sudden, you see the second plane hit the second tower and you think — what just happened?”, remembers reporter Jay Gormley.
“At the time, we didn’t know it was a terrorist event. I think after the second plane hit, then it started to kick in. Okay, this wasn’t an accident. This was intentional,” says Chief Photojournalist Billy Sexton.
And satellite truck engineer Jorge Perez recalls simply feeling numb, and taking a moment to process what was happening. “So, it took a few minutes of me thinking, ‘Wow, this is kind of crazy’. And then, ‘I need to get to work. We’re going to have kind of a bad day’,” he says.
Three members of the CBS 11 news team who were sent to New York to report on the devastating aftermath at the World Trade Center.
But for Jay — whose father was raised in New York — it wasn’t until more than 20 hours later — when he and his photographer drove into the city — that the situation became real.
“It was actually my childhood image was completely altered at that point, because those massive structures were not there anymore,” says Jay. “There’s a huge gap in the skyline, and there’s nothing but smoldering ash. I think that’s when it really hit me.”
Jorge’s experience was a little bit different, because his drive to New York — took him through Washington D.C.
“When we entered The Loop in Washington D.C., we could see the Pentagon and the smoke. That really brought a reality to us. That ‘Oh my gosh, this is real. Here it is,’ he says. “We noticed that from that point, all the way to Manhattan, every bridge that we went under on the highway, there were American flags there.”
For Billy, it’s the little things he remembers most — like seeing the smattering of cars remaining in a parking lot at the ferry landing in New Jersey, and wondering why they were still there.
“I remember looking in some of the cars, and there was dry cleaning hanging in the back, and coffee cups in the cup holders,” says Billy. “You know, these people they parked, they rode the ferry in, and they were going to come home at the end of the day. And you know, they probably didn’t.”
Our crews were there for more than two weeks.
And it was in the days that followed 9/11 that feelings of frustration and helplessness began to set in.
“People would come up to you and say, ‘Hey, I’m looking for my daughter. Can you help me find my daughter?’ And I remember telling one guy, ‘Well, I’m from Dallas, where’s she from?’ He said, “I don’t care, just put her face on TV. I’ve got to find her.’ I don’t know if he ever found her,” Billy says with a shake of his head. “But it was that, a few days in, you know that one-on-one with people when they’ve lost somebody. It begins to weigh on you.”
But each of them says it was encounters with first responders that impacted them the most.
Jay recalled the moment he interviewed a firefighter, while riding in the back of a truck with him. “Our camera is interviewing the firefighter as we’re moving along. And he’s talking about losing all those firefighters, and he’s talking about how so many firefighters from his own fire station had passed away. And you could see the grief on his face, and we’re literally driving through downtown New York, and I think that’s the closest I’d come to losing it emotionally,” says Jay.
“You know we’re working constantly. You’re caught up in the job and the deadlines and doing everything. But at night, they would tow out the damaged fire trucks and ambulances and police cars. And every time they towed out one of those vehicles, there was dead silence in the streets. Everything came to a stop. People put their hands on their hearts (chokes up) … It was like it was a funeral procession. And there weren’t any sirens. Just lights and towing the vehicles out. And those little moments I don’t think we captured enough– but those are the things that I remember,” says Billy.
And those weeks in New York gave each of them a greater appreciation for the important things in life.
“In your day-to-day life, you say goodbye to your family, you hug your kids, you hug your spouse, and then you’re off to work, you come back, it’s dinner — and like that,” Jay says with a snap of his fingers, “all of that could go away. And I think there was an appreciation of how fragile life can be.”
“For me,” says Jorge, “it’s sharing with my family — my kids — the importance of remembering the event. And why it’s so important to know that it hurt the country and how the people reacted. And how it brought us all together.”
“I don’t think anything that I’ve ever covered compares to what happened in New York on 9/11,” says Billy. “It was manmade, it was intentional, it was meant to kill Americans. Most of the other things we cover, like natural disasters, are things that are out of our control. But this was — and still is — the worst attack on America. And to me, it’s just the worst thing that could ever happen.”
And that’s why Billy says he’ll never forget. And why — on this 20th anniversary — he’ll do what he does every September 11th.
“In Kennedale,” says Billy, “there’s a piece of iron from the Twin Towers. And I take a moment to drive past that. I drive to where that little park is. I get out for a moment. I reflect. Think. Get back in my car and I drive to work. And that’s probably the only thing I do on 9/11 every year. And I’ll do it again this year.”
So, none of us ever forget.