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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering the Watershed Moment in My Career and Life...

It was a day like any other day, until it wasn't. And, when it stopped being like any other, it was a day that changed my perspective on life, and that of millions, forever.

For the past twenty-three years, I have worked in television news (with the exception of a short-lived sabbatical in politics, where I worked as the Media Spokesman for the Mayor of Hialeah, but left skid marks on my way out!).

I have worked as a reporter, special projects producer, assignment editor and, for the past 14 years, I have served as the Assignment Manager for the top rated local TV news station in the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale market (although our premier status has been challenged in recent years).

It is my job to find the news wherever it happens and send reporters and photographers to cover it.

Like any other job, it can become monotonous at times; murders, political scandals, fatal accidents, public servants arrests, police involved shootings, mudslinging political races, etc., etc.. Sadly, after a while, we become a bit callous with human suffering and stories, except for the names of protagonists, repeat themselves over and over.

Nevertheless, despite the repetitiveness at times, the reason I still do it, and probably many of my veteran colleagues do too, is for those stories from time to time that leave a lasting imprint on me, as a journalist, professional, husband, father, son and member of my community. However, more so, for those extraordinary stories that transcend time and space and allow us to be participants, albeit indirectly, of history.

Hurricane Andrew was one of those stories, the Brothers to the Rescue planes shoot down, the ValuJet crash, the day Elian Gonzalez was taken from his relatives’ Little Havana home and, of course, September 11, 2001.

Shortly after sitting at my desk, to start organizing and making the logistical decisions that I need to make on any given day, there was a stir in our newsroom.

America under attack
One of our morning news anchors, approached the morning producer and me and said, "A plane hit the World Trade Center in New York, should we interrupt programming?"

I turn around and look at the panel of TV monitors behind my desk and, in fact, at least one station was already on with a stagnant shot of the billowing smoke coming from the building.

My first reaction was, "This is probably a freak accident. It's too far away from us to warrant our local station to cut into network programming." If it is not in our market, the network news department usually handles the cut in.

As other co-workers started gathering behind me to get a better look at the monitors, more networks started breaking in to air what was happening.

I decided to call my News Director to get his thoughts.

He tuned into the coverage from home and was agreeing with me that this was our networks' ballgame, but, as we were talking, one of many unimaginable things to happen that day, happened. A second plane came into the shot from the far side of the screen and plowed into the second tower.

I think both of our hearts, and that of those gathered behind me, skipped a beat.

"Oh, my God," I remember both of us saying, which was being echoed by several other colleagues as well.

He says, "It’s a terrorist attack!" Having covered countless of hurricanes over the years, there are certain plans that we have in place for covering emergencies.  However, what was the plan for a full-fledged attack of this magnitude, about 1200 miles away?

It was surreal, like many have described; time stood still. We watched the flames and thick black smoke from both towers hovering over the New York skyline, and already could see people in the first tower, hanging out of their windows in the top floors. They were trapped over ninety plus floors above the street with no way out. How could emergency crews get to them? I wondered.

At some point, while we were all still in shock of what we had just witnessed on live TV, within probably a matter of seconds, our network cut into programming and began their continuous coverage of the tragedy.

My News Director said, "Let's get a crew to the airport. I'll be right there as soon as I can," and we hung up the phone.

By now, our newsroom was in a near frenzy; phones start ringing off the hook, with concerned viewers, network producers and assignment editors, asking for local experts and live truck availabilities, spouses and friends of our employees trying to find out what is going on.

Meanwhile, I needed to keep my composure and start dispatching a crew to the airport, contacting our engineering department to provide us with a live truck operator, fielding calls and thinking about other locations that we needed to dispatch crews to and experts we needed to contact; which to be totally honest, ten years after the fact, I can’t remember a single decision I made after that point. It is now all a blur, except the most pressing concern I had, which was my family.

Through all the hysteria and adrenaline, I started thinking about my wife and our seven-and-a-half-month-old daughter.

I called my wife to see if she knew what was going on and she told me every one in her office was glued to the TV. Our daughter was safe at home with our nanny.

Then, I thought about my younger brother, who at the time was living in Manhattan. I start calling him on his cell. Nothing! The lines were dead (I spent a good part of the remainder of the day trying to reach him to no avail, whenever I had a chance).

I called my parents to see if they had heard from him, one of the many calls we would exchange throughout the day, as we desperately tried to locate my brother.

Then, I heard the same anchor that first approached me with the news that morning, say, “Oh, my God, someone just jumped.”

“What?” I asked incredulously but soon heard the broadcaster on TV say that people were jumping. It was not long thereafter that I started seeing people jumping to their deaths. I couldn’t imagine the desperation it took to prompt a person to jump over ninety floors to a certain death. I couldn’t register it.

Soon after, another report came in; a plane had gone into the Pentagon and the images began filtering in from Washington, DC.

Fr. Mychal Judge
At that point, the gravity of this really hit me. This wasn’t just an attack on New York City. This was an attack on our nation.

The broadcasters said, officials thought other planes may have been hijacked as well and Al Qaeda and Bin Laden's name was already being mentioned. Is this the beginning of a war fought on U.S. soil?  Where else would these commandeered planes be heading? I thought about my infant daughter. What kind of world had we brought her into? How could I possibly protect her from all this chaos?

But, is Miami a target? Already we were learning the U.S. Southern Command in Doral, the Homestead Airforce Base, the Turkey Point Nuclear Plant and the Federal Building in downtown Miami were on high alert.  Barricades were being placed around the locations to stop possible car bomb attacks.

Then, a more harrowing thought crossed my mind, my wife worked in a Federal Government Building (She was the Press Secretary for a local U.S. Congressman). Would that be a target?

I felt a sense of fear and hopelessness.

I tell you what, at that point in my life, I was not a particularly religious man. I believed in God but, as I liked telling people, “in my own way.” I was not very close to God or knew much about the faith I had inherited from my parents. In fact, I was mostly going through the motions any time I went to church, and hoping to go home as quickly as possible.

But, I prayed from time to time, especially in times of need.  And, at this particular moment, I began to pray. I remember asking God, something along the lines of, “Lord, please, protect my family. Please, keep my wife, daughter, parents, brother and all our loved ones safe.”

My News Director arrived around the time that the FAA grounded all air traffic and, it was about to get worse.

The second tower hit by a plane in NYC came tumbling down. How many people were still inside? My emotions got the best of me and, I’ll admit, I shed tears. I could see the horror, shock and incredulousness in the faces of my co-workers as well. This day would forever live ingrained in our memories. Already by that point, it was without a doubt the darkest day of my life.

Now, we all started bracing for the first tower’s collapse. If the second building, which was hit later came down, how long would it be before the first one plummeted down as well? My heart was beating faster, as I saw people still trapped on the top floors, many continuing to jump to their deaths. How many others may still be working their way down to the bottom?

But, the nightmare continued.  Shortly after the second tower came down, there were reports of another plane going down in Pennsylvania. This one however did not hit anything. Was it a freak accident? What were the chances?

Then, the inevitable happened.  The first tower collapsed.

The rest of the day is a blur to me.

The only thing I truly remember is when my parents were finally able to reach my brother and he was alright. He apparently got into the subway en route to New Jersey for an acting gig and didn’t hear the news until he arrived. Since, he had no cell phone service; he had to wait until he was able to connect via land line in the early evening hours.

In life, there are few true watershed moments, when everything that we may hold as true, as dear to us and as real, may come into question and, consequently, things will never be the same. September 11, 2001, will always be that moment for me, and I suspect for many other Americans, who lived through it.

Although, I didn’t fully realize it right away (and it actually took five more years and a second daughter to do anything about it), as of that day, I started searching for the meaning of life. There had to be more than our insignificant existence on this earth.  It was the first step in my spiritual journey.  I began to go to Mass more willingly and started praying on a more regular basis.

A sign from Heaven?
Sometimes people question how an all loving and merciful God would allow such pain, suffering and despair.  In our humanity, we can never fully understand.  (Although, I believe one day we will)

What I do know is that after the tragedy, Americans grew closer to God and to each other then at any point in recent history.  Churches, temples, places of worship and even mosques were full to capacity in the weeks and months that followed the attacks, as the faithful, and even not so faithful (like me), searched for consolation.

Doctors, nurses, firefighters, police officers, other public servants and even priests and other religious leaders worked tirelessly around the clock for days and weeks treating victims, searching for remains, maintaining order and consoling families. 

Many even sacrificing their lives in the aftermath, which as my faith teaches, what greater love than to lay down your life for others?

In fact, the first recorded casualty was a beloved Catholic priest, Fr. Mychal Judge, who worked as Chaplain for the NYC Fire Department, and died offering last rites and helping victims in one of the towers.

America rallied around the victims’ families. There were national fundraisers, including a nation-wide simulcast concert with the biggest performers in the world, and several public ceremonies and funeral services to honor the victims.  The entire country grieved the senseless deaths and prayed together.

And, from the rubble and the witness of self-sacrifice for others, arose a spirit of hope. Despite the most horrific terror attack in world history, the resiliency and mettle of the country became evident in the hope that Americans demonstrated in the days, weeks and months that followed. 

Therefore, in the midst of this great catastrophe, America encapsulated the three greatest Christian virtues; faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love. 

As I look back at my career and life, I realize there may never be another moment in my lifetime that will have such a profound impact on me than the events that took place on September 11, 2001.

May God bring healing and consolation to all the victims, their families, our nation and the countless of millions, like myself, whose lives were forever changed...




[photo credit: catholiconline.com]

3 comments:

Raul Javier said...

Again great Carlos. The emotions today have been all over the place.

Robert said...

Sometimes people question how an all loving and merciful God would allow such pain, suffering and despair. In our humanity, we can never fully understand. (Although, I believe one day we will)

You answered that question perfectly in the last few paragraphs.

Carlos Espinosa said...

Thanks, gents...