Old enough to never forget

Eleven years ago, bad news traveled differently. As we remember the events of Sept. 11, 2001, this week and as they fade further into history, Jim Heffernan (’96), public affairs associate for JMU, shares his memories of Sept. 11, 2001, from a journalist’s point of view. 

To never forget

by Jim Heffernan (’96)

Tuesday was one of those picture-perfect September days here at James Madison University, with deep blue skies and a cool breeze carrying whispers of fall. I had a meeting at noon on the other side of campus — far enough away to drive most days, but the beautiful weather convinced me to make the trek on foot. As I walked, the chiming of church bells in memory of those Americans who lost their lives during the terrorist attacks of 9/11 entered my consciousness. My mood quickly turned somber as I recalled that infamous Tuesday in 2001, when I was still a cub reporter for a small daily paper in northwest Virginia.

I was in downtown Winchester that morning covering a visit by Lisa Collis Warner, wife of then-Gov. Mark Warner, when my cell phone buzzed. It was the paper’s managing editor.

“Jim, where are you?”

“I’m here in Winchester with our first lady. What’s up?”

“Two planes have flown into the World Trade Center. They’re saying they might have been hijacked by terrorists. We need you back here in the office.”

I paused. “So you don’t want me to stay here with the first lady?” I asked, innocently.

“No, this is big. We’ll need to meet and come up with a game plan.”

As word of the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York spread, Winchester residents began spilling out into Old Town’s cobbled streets. I followed a few members of the first lady’s team back to their van, where we huddled in front of a television set to watch a replay of the strikes, which occurred only 18 minutes apart. By now, there was no mistaking their intent.

While listening to the radio on the drive back to my office, the news broke that a third plane, one that had been circling over Washington, D.C., had slammed into the Pentagon. This was starting to hit close to home. The massive military complex was less than an hour away. Some of our readership worked in the building. Nervous, I phoned my dad, who informed me that he had already heard from my sister, a frequent business traveler who lived in Alexandria. Thankfully, she was not in the air that day. I glanced up at the sky, a brilliant blue, and wondered what else lay on the horizon.

Back in the office, the newsroom television was tuned to ABC’s coverage of the tragic events in Washington and New York. The west side of the Pentagon was a raging inferno. Then, without warning, the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. Half an hour later, its twin crumbled to the ground. A fixture on the Gotham skyline was gone. New Yorkers, many of them caked in ash and soot, were scrambling for cover. The destruction wasn’t over: A fourth hijacked plane, later said to have been targeting the White House, crashed in a field in western Pennsylvania. ABC News anchor Peter Jennings did his best to make sense of what we were seeing, but as Americans all of us were shaken to the core.

We held an emergency staff meeting in the early afternoon. As regional reporter, I was charged with anchoring our team coverage, which included Gov. Warner issuing a state of emergency in Virginia, a timeline of the day’s events, reaction from local officials and attempting to track down area residents who were rumored to have been eyewitnesses. Reporters in the paper’s bureau offices would assist, but the lead story would carry my byline.

When I got back to my desk, the gravity of the task at hand set in. Years of journalism classes at JMU and three semesters at the student newspaper hadn’t prepared me for this. Granted, I wasn’t writing an account for the next day’s New York Times or Washington Post, but this was history, a seminal moment like Pearl Harbor or the JFK assassination. All of us in the newsroom felt compelled to give our best effort for our readers. In the early days of the 21st century, there was no social media, and even the Internet was not yet a reliable source of news and information. For millions of Americans, newspapers would once again tell the story. Many readers would purchase extra copies and put them away for posterity in the basement or the attic, where one day they would be uncovered and help inform a new generation about the day al-Qaeda attacked the United States on our home soil.

I gathered myself, made a list of sources to call, and picked up the phone. The remainder of the day passed quickly, anxiously, with the television hovering in the background. Wire stories from the Associated Press were pulled and photos chosen; headlines, in huge type reserved for such occasions, were written, erased and recast; copy began to trickle in and was carefully edited. For news agencies across the country both large and small, the day proved a test of our mettle. In the end, I was proud of our package in the Sept. 12 issue, and of our subsequent stories over the next week, which included the deaths of a Clarke County couple aboard one of the hijacked planes and the heroism of local firefighters who rushed to the Pentagon to help. I feel we passed the test with flying colors — in this case, red, white and blue.

I left the newspaper industry last year to return to my alma mater, where these days I bleed purple and help spread the gospel of JMU. Looking back, 9/11 was one of the defining moments of my young career. As I walked around campus yesterday, it dawned on me that the majority of students currently on campus were 7, 8 and 9 years old that fateful day — still too young to understand, but, like me, now old enough to never forget.

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About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

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