Horror burned into memory

A firefighter breaks down after the World Trade Center buildings collapsed Sept. 11, 2001, after two hijacked airplanes slammed into the Twin Towers in a terrorist attack. Tribune News Service

The strange thing for me is I remember it all.

The attacks and the events leading up to them.

n On Sept. 8, 2001, my mom helped clean my apartment.

I had just bought a new compact disc — Forever Changes, a 1967 masterpiece by the folk-rock group Love.

I made a joke about the band, but my mom was not amused.

n On Sept. 9, I helped my dad drop off my old Pontiac 6000 for repairs at my uncle Jack’s in Nunda.

n On Sept. 10, I drove out to Arcade to interview a family who had the state’s top dairy cow.

On my way back, I thought about terrorism. No lie.

An Al-Qeada suicide bomber posing as a cameraman had killed the leader of the Northern Alliance, the main resistance group in Afghanistan.

It was Al-Qaeda’s latest aggressive move, and I wondered how many terrorist attacks we had stopped but never heard about. It occurred to me that a goalie can only block so many shots before failing.

Sept. 11 dawned bright and sunny in my apartment on Columbia Avenue in Batavia.

It was any typical September morning. Brilliant blue skies and sunshine.

“Good Morning America” had a story about Michael Jordan making a comeback with the Washington Wizards.

Me? I drove down to Warsaw to our old bureau office on West Buffalo Street.

I was one of two Wyoming County reporters back then.

I first stopped at the state police barracks to gather the police blotter — those were the days before they e-mailed releases or posted them to the web.

The troopers had caught a hobo in a boxcar in the village, which was bizarre, and somewhat amusing. Like news from the 1930s.

Then I headed to the office, where I was first to arrive, as typical. The bureau had no radio or television — the walls were so thick you couldn’t get a signal.

I first learned about the attacks about 8:30 a.m. when Judy, our ad representative, called me to say a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

I knew it was terrorism — no pilot would hit a building if he had any control. But I assumed it was a LearJet, flown by radical Islamic terrorists.

I made a final police call to Chief Laird over at the Arcade police and he sounded upset and disturbed. He said people were jumping from the buildings.

My mind turned to a disaster in Brazil in the 1970s, when people jumped in a vain attempt to escape a high-rise fire.

The seriousness of the situation hadn’t sunk in yet.

Then Judy called a few minutes later to say another plane had hit the towers, and I knew we were into something deeper.

I had to get information, and the best shot was my parents’ house, about seven miles away. I went to the parking lot and set out toward their place, listening to the car radio. The reports were jumbled, confused and sometimes wrong: A truck bomb was reported outside the State Department. Commentators were estimating it might take a month to extinguish the fires in the towers.

A plane had crashed in Pennsylvania. The FAA was grounding all flights as an emergency measure.

I reached my mom and dad’s house, turned on the television and got some details on CBS. The towers were burning, and I saw smoke and dust.

I wanted to stay and watch, but I needed to get back to Warsaw.

I was at the Main Street traffic light, waiting to turn left, when the first tower fell.

Entering the office again, I tried to call our former managing editor Mark Graczyk to confer, but the phone lines were jammed. So I set about getting coverage.

My first stop was Memories tavern, where I ran into Ernie Morris of the Wyoming County Red Cross. I asked him if he wanted to comment, but like everybody, he was taking it all in, and couldn’t really say much.

I went across the street to Smitty’s Amber Lantern and asked a UPS driver for his thoughts. The second tower had fell and the waitresses were crying softly.

It was too early to be doing interviews — people were in too much shock.

One of the other office staffers had found a radio at the office, which was ineffective. I returned to the bureau office and then departed back to my mom and dad’s to get lunch while I could.

I had a song from “Forever Changes” stuck in my head, a haunting folk rock song called “The Red Telephone.” I won’t mention the lyrics, as under the circumstances, though sad, they might be upsetting in the Sept. 11 context.

But they were mournfully true.

Needless to say, lunch was stressful.

My mom had made minestrone, but I didn’t feel much like eating.

Mom was talking to an aunt on the phone and joked a bit: “Now Matt’s all upset.” I said, “There may have been as many as 50,000 people in the towers,” which killed the mood.

Then I got on my mom and dad’s computer, and sent a few quick emails to friends, including in the NYC area. Were they OK? It seemed surreal that we were in a war. That seemed like something that was supposed to happen in the 1940s.

I wondered briefly if we’d drop a nuclear weapon over Afghanistan, just to send a message, but understood the absolute horror of it — a terrible thought.

As I drove back, there were reports of SWAT teams on an airliner in Boston.

I reached the office, checked in with Mark — the phone lines were now clear again — and went back out to do coverage.

Walmart in Warsaw was simultaneously packed but quiet. News footage of the attacks was showing on overhead televisions, and shoppers kept stopping to watch.

It created a surreal mix of people trying to function normally amid horror. Then to the Perry Vets Club to talk to the veterans, who were understandably angry.

Everybody agreed we had to do something as a nation, and there was a sense of impatience about what it would be.

People at the Vets Club wanted to hit back — hard.

I wrote up my story contribution and stopped at what later became Crosby’s convenience store. I got a tuna sub from the Subway there.

My eyes throbbed with fatigue. I listened to more news on the way home, and then watched the news at my apartment.

My computer was broke at the time, and that’s where I stored my friends’ phone numbers. I wished I could talk to somebody.

My parents called to see if I was OK and I was, but it was numbing. What else could you do?

I can say I love ‘60s music, but I didn’t listen to anything for the next three days — didn’t seem like it was respectful, or the right thing to do.

To this day, it all plays back like a digital archive when I think about it.

A very bad day, in a very bad time in our nation.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1