Sunday, September 14, 2008

Reporting on Flight 93.. thoughts

I was packing to head out to my first “real” job in news in Johnstown, PA. I’d worked for 2 years as an anchor in West Virginia, but the station didn’t have live shots and was very small. In fact, we still used a paper teleprompter. This was a job with a real newsroom and live capabilities. I was excited to be in the field working as a reporter. Little did I know what field it would be.

While at the hairdresser in my hometown of Decorah, IA, I heard the news of the crash on the radio. But without pictures it was hard to understand what was going on.

By the time I came home, what had happened was all too clear. Two towers turned to rubble. My father was on the phone with my brother who lives in New York. He’d called to say he was ok.

An hour and a half later a plane crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I’d never heard of the town. A map on television it was 24 miles from Johnstown, PA. My station, WJAC, was first on the scene.

When I reported for duty the next Monday, the small newsroom of reporters, photographers and producers were exhausted. 3 reporters had covered the crash non-stop for 6 days and they desperately needed sleep.

“Sophia, we’re going to work the crap out of you for the next week or so. We’ve got to give the others a break.”

I put on a pair of comfortable shoes, pinned a flag on my lapel and jumped right in.

Live shot at noon? Yes.

Live shot at 5? Yes.

Different story at 5:30? Yes.

More at 6? Yes.

Overtime until 11? Yes.

I was honored to say, “I’m live where the offensive for the war on terror began—as 33 passengers and 7 crew members on flight 93 stormed the cockpit where terrorists were trying to take-over the plane.”

Keep in mind the plane disintegrated, along with everthing in it. For months they found stray parts in trees and bushes across the lush Somerset County countryside.

This work was hard. It was emotional.

“Today the Coroner tells me, he’s identified four

passengers by dental remains.”

Those were the first ID’s of 40. The coroner worked tirelessly to make those ID’s and give the families some peace. Each family took what was found and had their funerals.

But the site where the plane crashed is like a sacred burial ground for the heroes. The people who live in Somerset county embraced those families, and are good stewards of the memorial. In all the sadness there is about 9-11, this is the one place where there is the most healing. Because the heroes were

fighters. You will never see a protest at near the hallowed ground of Flight 93.

Instead, you will see little homemade flags and angels.

Next time you’re on an airplane, look around you. I often think about those 33 passengers when I’m sitting on a plane. Who would you be? I hope I’d be a hero—or at least sit by one.

For some twist of fate the passengers on Flight 93 were an incredible bunch of people. I was fortunate to meet some of their surviving relatives.

Richard Guadagno was a longtime employee of the Fish and Wildlife Service. An environmentalist with a generous heart. Look over at his picture. Don't you wish you'd gotten to know him? I do. I met his parents at the first meeting about a memorial. They were warm and sweet and deeply hurt, but still shared their story with me. They told me what a charming and caring person their son was. They told me that their daughter went to clean out Richard’s apartment “just in case,” there were things they shouldn’t see. She called later to tell them there wasn’t anything they couldn’t have seen. They miss him so much.

Jason Dahl was the Captain of Flight 93. His sister-in-law told me that he flew her to visit her husband (his brother) once when they were dating. Jason flew her out there so his brother could see her in her “pretty new dress.”

On the second anniversary of the Flight 93 crash, I was assigned to a tree planting. Many family members were there. I went to talk to a woman in a United uniform, assuming she was a friend of one of the staff. Her story was not what I expected.

“I’m Mark Bingham’s aunt. He was flying on my sky-pass.”

My heart went out to her. All Americans have survival guilt, but hers is enormous.

What can we do?

Continue to fight.

And to remember.

Read more about all the heroes here:

No comments: