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9/11: Retracing my steps and emotions, years later

Paralyzed By Fear

D. Kevin McNeir | 9/11/2013, 9:56 a.m.

This article was first published in the Sept. 7 - 13, 2011 edition of The Miami Times.

September 11, 2001 started like any typical day for me. I was a beat reporter working for a weekly newspaper in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, and had just begun finishing my stories for the front page. Since it was a Tuesday, and we went to press that day, it was hectic. The newsroom was buzzing as my fellow reporters and the editor made final preparations for the Wednesday edition.

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D. Kevin McNeir

One of my colleagues said they had heard rumors of several passenger jets being hijacked in New York and so we did what any good reporter would do — we began to ask questions. With the radio and television both on, and with fingers flying furiously along our keyboards, we soon realized that this day would not end in typical fashion. It would be a day that we would remember for the rest of our lives. It would change the way we viewed our world.

A communication came across the fax machine from Michael Powell, then-director of the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] warning us to “tread softly.” I remember wondering if there had been some sudden repeal of the First Amendment — you know, freedom of speech and the press? Looking to our publisher for direction, we continued to move very slowly, to listen, to watch and to pray.

Meanwhile, things in Chicago, just a few miles away from our office, had digressed into utter bedlam as panic had overtaken the City. People were rushing out the hundreds of skyscrapers and running towards the trains. At that point we didn’t know if the U.S. was under attack or not, nor did we know if other cities like ours might be in danger.

As the lead news writer, I was told to get on the train with our photographer and to head downtown. My job was to gauge the reactions of people, to document the day as people ran for cover and to prepare a front page story.

Go downtown? Was my editor serious? Did I sign up for this kind of work?

Boarding the southbound train, there were only two passengers — me and the photographer. Conversely, all trains headed north, west and east were jammed to capacity. Yes, I was frightened.

And with cell phone service temporarily interrupted, I was unable to find my ex-wife who worked in a government office in Detroit. I didn’t know if she was safe. I had no way to find out if my children were in school or had been advised to go home. I could not reach my mother, my sister — it was just me and my buddy, the photographer.

With no other options, I grabbed a fresh hold as my mother always advised and put my mind on the job at hand.

Planes were darting back and forth over Chicago and as we searched mostly in vain for people to interview, we moved tentatively along the City’s mostly-deserted streets.

I still do not recall what kind of story I wrote — but the vision of the Twin Towers crumbling and of people jumping from windows to their deaths still remains indelibly etched in my mind. I remember wondering if I was witnessing the end of the world.