Sept. 11, 2001

by Bill Brenner on September 10, 2010

Everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing on Sept. 11, 2001. Here’s my own account.

Mood music:

I was assistant New Hampshire editor at The Eagle-Tribune and I arrived in the newsroom at 4:30 a.m. as usual. I was already in a depressed mood. It wasn’t a sense of dread over something bad about to happen. It was simply my state of mind at the time. I wasn’t liking myself and was playing a role that wasn’t me.

I was already headed toward one of my emotional breakdowns and the job was a catalyst at that point. By day’s end, I would be seriously reconsidering what I was doing with my life. But then everyone was doing that by day’s end.

I was absorbed in all my usual bullshit when the NH managing editor came in and, with a half-smile on his face, told me a plane hit the World Trade Center. At that point, like everyone else, I figured it was a small plane and that it was an accident. Then the second plane hit and we watched it as it happened on the newsroom TV.

I remember being scared to death. Not so much at the scene unfolding on the newsroom TV, but at the scene in the newsroom itself. Chaos was not unusual at The Eagle-Tribune, but this was a whole new level of madness. I can’t remember if my fear was that terrorists might fly a plane into the building we were in as their next act or if it was a fear of not being able to function amidst the chaos. It was probably some of each.

This was a huge story everywhere, but The Eagle-Tribune had a bigger stake in the coverage than most local dailies around the country because many of the victims on the planes that hit the towers were from the Merrimack Valley. There was someone from Methuen, Plaistow, N.H., Haverhill, Amesbury, Andover — all over our coverage area.

When the first World Trade Center tower collapsed on the TV screen mounted above Editor Steve Lambert’s office, he came out, stood on a desk and told everyone to collect themselves a minute, because this would be the most important story we ever covered.

Up to that point, it was. But I was so full of fear and anxiety that my ability to function was gone. I spent most of the next few days in the newsroom, but did nothing of importance. I was a shell. I stayed that way until I  left the paper in early 2004. In fact, I stayed that way for some time after that. I should note that the rest of the newsroom staff at the time did a hell of a job under very tough pressure that day. My friend Gretchen Putnam was still editor of features back then, but she and her staff helped gather the news with the same grit she would display later as metro editor.

I remember being touched by a column she wrote the next day. She described picking her son Jack up from school and telling him something bad happened in the world that day. His young response was something like this: “Something bad happens in the world every day.”

Sometimes, kids have a better perspective of the big picture than grown-ups do.

I got home very late that day and hugged Erin and Sean, who was about five months old at that point. I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of world he would grow up in.

In the days that followed, I walked around in a state of fear like everyone else. That fear made me do things I was ashamed of.

A week after the attacks, Erin and I were scheduled to fly to Arizona to attend a cousin’s wedding. The night before were were supposed to leave, I gave in to my terror at the prospect of getting on a plane and we didn’t go. It’s one of the biggest regrets of my life.

There are two types of head cases headed for a breakdown: There’s the type that tries hard to get him or herself killed through reckless behavior, and then there are those who cower in their room, terrified of what’s on the other side of that door. I fell into the latter category. I guess I tried to get myself killed along the way, but I did so in a much slower fashion. I started drinking copious amounts of wine to feel OK in my skin, and I went on a food binge that lasted about three months and resulted in a 30-pound weight gain.

A few months ago I found myself in lower Manhattan for a security event and I went to Ground Zero.

Gone were the rows of lit candles and personal notes that used to line the sidewalks around this place. To the naked eye it’s just another construction site people pass by in a hurry on their way to wherever.

I was pissed off at first. It wasn’t the thought of what happened here. My emotion there is one of sadness. No, this was anger. I was pissed that people seemed to be walking by without any thought of all the people who met their death here at the hands of terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001. It was almost as if the pictures of twisted metal, smoke and crushed bodies never existed.

As I started to process that fact, my mood shifted again.

I realized these people were doing something special. No matter where they were going or what they were thinking, they were moving — living — horrific memories be damned.

They were doing what we all should be doing, living each day to the full instead of cowering in fear in the corner.

Doing so honors the dead and says F-U to those who destroyed those towers and wish we would stay scared.

It reminded me of who I am and what I’ve been through. I didn’t run from the falling towers or get shot at in the mountains of Afghanistan or the streets of Baghdad. But the struggles with OCD and addiction burned scars into my insides all the same.

I was terrified when I was living my lowest lows. But somewhere along the way, I got better, healed and walked away. I exchanged my self hatred and fear for love of life I never thought possible.

It’s similar to what the survivors of Sept. 11 have gone through.

They reminded me of something important, and while some sadness lingers, I am grateful.

So here’s what I’ll be doing this weekend, the ninth anniversary of the attacks:

I’m getting on a plane and going to New York. CSO Magazine’s Security Standard event is Monday and Tuesday, and I’ll be there doing what I do best: Writing.

A few years ago I would have found a reason to stay home. Getting on a plane on the anniversary of 9-11? No way.

Today, nothing can keep me away.

In a twisted sort of way, I’m going to honor the dead by doing what they can’t do: Live.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Kelly September 10, 2010 at 8:17 am

It’s odd…I was still working at the Trib, I remember working that day, going to the private school in North Andover, talking to students to get their reaction about what was happening…but I don’t remember the chaos or Steve standing up on the desk. I just remember how much I hated being a reporter at that time, and how I had to go try and talk to a woman who spent all day thinking her husband was safe because he was supposed to be on a different flight, only to find out he was on one of the flights that crashed. I haven’t felt much lower than when I had to go and knock on her door.

I’m glad that you have found a way to celebrate and enjoy life in so many ways now, to get beyond fear, and I believe yes, that is the point…we live, we survive, we try to make each day the best it can be.

andreasoldier August 31, 2011 at 6:32 pm

It was chaos, but look on the bright side:. You weren’t doing Page 1 that day, or the days that followed.
But as Kelly said, I think some of the reporters who had to talk to the families, lovers and friends of those had it worse. Channelling that grief and rage is difficult, but most of us, including you, have come out on the other side.
We find ways to live life to fullest and hope in the basic goodness of men.

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