I probably have plenty of company — hope so, anyway — in figuring the initial moments of 9/11 about as wrong as one could possibly be. For a short while.
I had just come to my daily grind at the AJC with a cup of java when early shift reporter and desk mate Mike Morris told me an airliner had just hit one of the World Trade Center Towers. Mike had his radio tuned to all-news WGST, routine for catching the latest in wrecks, fires, shootings and other mayhem, when I heard the local broadcast reporter asking some expert if the incident could be terrorism.
Aw, lighten up, I’m thinking, as I recalled reading years before in a book about Pulitzer prize coverage how in July, 1945, weeks before WWII ended, an Army Air Forces B-25 bomber crashed into the Empire State Building in overcast skies on a Saturday, killing the crew and about a dozen weekend workers on one of the higher floors.
Probably something like that had just happened, I figured. Then, in mere minutes, another plane smashed into the second Tower. So much for assumptions.
Not long after the second strike, the city desk transferred a pay phone call from a former AJC employee, Kirsten Anderson of Marietta, direct from the Manhattan Island war zone. A student then at New York University (NYU), she was walking along Wall Street “when I saw this big silver flash, followed by a loud boom.
“I knew it had to be an airplane…then I saw a lot of smoke, and paper falling from the sky,” which she recognized as volumes worth of memos, business letters, corporate paperwork and office minutiae from the mortally stricken Tower, blown by brisk winds all the way across the Island.
The sidewalk quickly filled with fleeing runners, Anderson recounted. She saw at least two who had halted their flight and sat on the curb to weep. “It seemed like everybody else was on their cell phones, but I know they can’t get through because the WTC has offices involved with cell phone operations.”
I threw her description and some other stuff together for the afternoon Journal (then in its final couple months as a sometimes great separate publication), fighting to keep my attention focused on the job and uninterrupted by the attack on the Pentagon, and the crash of another airliner in rural Pennsylvania. Around noon I was asked to come in well before dawn the next morning for whatever needed to be done. Get a good night’s sleep, the bosses said.
I spent the afternoon and into the evening glued to the tube, riveted by the terror drama, the terrorized crowds that Kirsten Anderson had described, rushing by on the sidewalks, the flaming explosion of a hijacked airliner into a Tower.
One can make a case that it took too long, but at least we know that the atrocity’s brainchild Khalid Sheik Muhammad (who looks a lot like John Belushi to me, in at least one famous photo) is rotting in prison, and Osama bin Laden, taken out by the U.S. Navy, is in a watery grave.
But my enduring memory of the first, horrible 9/11, was a live shot from a London park, and the Royal Grenadier Guards, you know the troops in the red tunics and the tall bearskin caps who guard Buckingham Palace. Their regimental band was playing The Star Spangled Banner to a weeping crowd
Watching on TV, I broke down. I didn’t bawl, but the tears were streaming. And I don’t much care for the Star Spangled Banner. Nothing political folks, and nothing against Francis Scott Key and his lyrics. But the tune is mediocre, and comes from an ancient English drinking song: “To Anacreon in Heaven.”
So who the hell is Anacreon, and why is he in heaven?