There are certain events in history that people look back and remember exactly where they were, what they were doing, and how they felt. The morning of September 11, 2001, counts as one of those. I'm no exception, though my recollection of the day is not based on the moment each plane crashed. I actually slept through everything. It was what followed – the events and the uncertainty - that remain clear in my head. Little did I know that day I would be experiencing one of the greatest national tragedies from a unique perspective - a news perspective. The series of events on that fateful day would eventually lead to a complete overhaul in how I handled not only my job, but my relationships and outlook on life.
On September 11, 2001, I was a year and a half into my tenure at FOX 8 and ABC 23 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. My role as Chief Meteorologist had me working from 3:30 in the afternoon until midnight each weeknight. Working such a schedule meant going to bed no earlier than 2:30 in the morning, and often times sleeping until eleven o'clock the next morning. Being on such a different schedule had its perks, but one noticeable flaw was frequent interruptions by telemarketers as early as sunrise. Not fun. The best way to avoid this was to turn off the phone chimes to ensure a good night's sleep.
(One quick word about location. Johnstown, Pennsylvania sits about a dozen or so miles from Shanksville, Pennsylvania – the location where Flight 93 would eventually crash. This will be an important fact later in this story.)
That Tuesday I woke just before noon and I remember how gorgeous a day it was. There was not a single cloud in the sky, and it was unseasonably warm for western Pennsylvania in mid-September. I went through the seconds following my awakening and it dawned on me how oddly quiet it was. For one, I lived along a fairly busy state highway. There was zero traffic, which was very unusual for the middle of a weekday. Secondly, I lived in the flight line for the Johnstown-Cambria County Airport which sat less than two miles away. Usually I could hear the buzz of single-prop airplanes and other aircraft taking off and landing, but today there was nothing. An eerie silence that I still to this day remember vividly.
Shrugging off the silence, I went to my living room in a half-groggy state to check my answering machine – a regular part of my morning routine. There were two messages. I found this somewhat odd because I never got messages overnight; everyone knew I was in bed. Telemarketers didn't usually leave messages, either. The first message was from my friend Corey in Detroit, Michigan. She called because she heard there was a plane crash near me and was concerned; she wanted to make sure I was alright. OK, things make a little more sense, I thought. Then the second message played:
“Hi Trav, this is mom, please call home as soon as you get the chance so I know you're alright.”
This was the first time ever while on my own that my mother left a message of this urgency. My pulse started to pick up as I dialed home. Keep in mind I still had no idea of what had happened. A very relieved mother answered the phone and told me what happened:
“Oh Trav, it's like Armageddon out there. Two planes crashed into the World Trade Towers, another one slammed into the Pentagon, and a fourth plane on its way to the Capitol crashed somewhere near you in Somerset County.”
Speechless, I didn't know what to say. I turned on the television and saw the replays of what happened. It was the first time in my life I remember replays of a news event being shown on every single basic cable channel. Very quickly the pieces came together and the severity of the situation sunk in. I told my mom I was fine, and still was at a loss for words. All I remember saying was that I should head into work, as something of this magnitude would require as many people as possible. I knew the event would have a much bigger impact happening so close to our TV station. I hung up the phone and without even thinking I grabbed a suit and immediately hightailed into work which was fortunately two miles down the road.
I walked into the newsroom around 12:30pm and was greeted by a non-stop clammering of telephone rings and people. Half of our news staff was on its way or already in Shanksville, which was about a fifteen mile drive from the station. The other half was in the news room watching every television possible for any morsel of information. Every single person had a look of grave concern on their faces. Everyone looked scared. Concerned. Hesistant. Rightly so, as there was so much uncertainty following the plane crashes. Were more attacks on the way? Was something else going to happen? Would attacks happen involving biological weapons? Who was responsible? No one knew for sure. Not even us in the media.
I realized very quickly that weather would be far from a priority that evening. I spent most the afternoon answering phones, paging our reporters in the field with information (since cell phones didn't work that day), making notes of prayer services, closings, early dismissals, and other information that was to be passed along on air that night. I remember it was a nonstop blur. One phone call after another. Multitasking was the name of the day, we simply couldn't do it all fast enough. It was a very intense time, so intense that I honestly don't remember eating anything or taking any breaks. Everyone was afraid to step away or take a breather for fear of missing any new information that would work its way down the line. With Shanksville just down the road, there was a heightened level of attention since the site was declared a crime scene. Events like this just didn't happen in Shanksville. It's a small town, mainly farmland, where the biggest news may be someone buying a new car. Its location not only brought out the television stations in our area, but also from Pittsburgh, which was 65 miles away. Seeing reports from Shanksville on every television station magnified the situation even more.
Eventually, I was able to break from the newsroom to tend to my meteorological duties. The length of my weathercasts was thirty seconds for the ten and eleven o'clock shows. I'm surprised I even did that.
It was against my wishes that I was told to whip up a thirty-second weather spiel. The reason from my then-news director was “people still need to know what to wear tomorrow.” I disagreed but didn't feel that very moment was a good time to start an argument with my boss. Thankfully the 30 seconds on air went by quickly. I don't know if I could have gone any longer. I was in too high-strung of a mental state to completely focus on my job.
If you're wondering how awkward it is to give a weather report during a time of national crisis, take it from me. Never do I remember a time in my life feeling so out of place – almost embarrassed, if you will. It's like that moment where you stand up in front of your class in elementary school and realize your pants zipper is down. Take that and multiply by one hundred and you may be in the ballpark. I felt that weather would be the farthest thing from people's minds, that I would stand out like a sore thumb from the tone and content of the rest of the newscast. Now you can understand why I was happy once it was over. (Side note – one of my competitors at the time even went so far as to give a crash site weather forecast for Shanksville for the next day. Personally that was one of the most classless moments I've seen from any individual during my entire life.)
The days that followed were no less hectic, though after about a week the level of urgency began to taper. It wasn't until the “Tribute to Heroes” concert a few nights later when the stress, uncertainty, emotions, and exhaustion from the previous days finally hit me. I had been wired and jacked on adrenaline for so many days, trying to push my personal thoughts aside to do my job that I sat down during Paul Simon's “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and had a good cry for a minute or two. My moment of reflection may have been a bit delayed compared to others, but you have to understand that we the media just couldn't rest. There was simply no time, especially with one of the four planes crashing so close to our television station. Information was flying in to us at such a rapid pace that we could barely process one bit before having to transition to the next. We needed to be there to serve as the link between what was happening and the general public. Granted the journalistic (reporting) end wasn't part of my daily duties but with my instinctive attitude of protecting lives and property I couldn't not help.
As weeks passed and life slowly returned to the new normal, I began to notice how much that events of September 11 changed me. Of course there were changes personally but I realized the impact was far greater professionally. I saw how much easier it was to work under extreme pressure. Work became a clinic in efficiency, and I learned how to be a more effective communicator both on- and off-camera. Time management and prioritization skills were sharpened, and overall I felt as though I aged about ten years professionally. It was quite an education considering a little more than a year before I was walking across the podium receiving a college degree. They say that a good chunk of what you learn in your field happens in the real world and not the college classroom; I'll agree to that. September 11 was one education I'll never forget.
Most importantly, I learned how to set aside personal thoughts to do my job. My overall focus became sharper. I actually began to view my time on-air as an opportunity to get away from the stresses of daily life. Think about this: for the time I stand in front of the camera and talk about the weather, I don't need to think about anything else. I can clear my head and focus simply on the weather – something for which I have a deep passion. It's almost relaxation therapy. If I'm stressed when I get to work, nine times out of ten I am more relaxed by the end of it. Make sense?
While I don't wish to divulge too many ways in which September 11 changed me personally, I will share one with you. One thing you need to know about me: I've never been one to take anything for granted. That day reinforced my attitude. Flight 93 flew directly over my apartment on its way down. With a plane moving at 500+ miles per hour, twelve miles doesn't take long to travel. I may have a much different story to tell – or I may not have been able to tell it at all - had the timing been a little bit different.
Sometimes you never realize just how close or quickly your life can change. My advice: enjoy every day as if it were your last!
To all those lost on September 11, 2001 – you will not be forgotten.
Three, two one, fade out...
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