If you ask someone on the street what today is, they might quote the camel from the Geico commercial.
“It’s hump dayyyyy.”
And they would be right.
There is no special anniversary this year for 9/11. The news media often waits for milestone dates like 20 years to do something special.
I was even at a Badger football game a few years ago on this day and they made no special announcement.
But, we all remember where we were.
For me, I was getting a frosted cookie and a chocolate milk from PDQ on the east side of Madison on a sunny Tuesday when the first airplane hit the World Trade Center tower.
But in those moments after, and a mad dash to work, I found myself with an eyewitness view of what was happening — but not from watching a television.
A woman I worked with at Capital Newspapers had a son who was stepping off a ferry from New Jersey to go to work in Manhattan when the first plane hit. He described to me by cellphone a short while later what he had seen, as he quickly got back on the ferry to leave the area.
“You could see people jumping from the top of the World Trade Center — bodies falling,” a shocked HongSup Park said.
The Portage native was working a block from the World Trade Center towers.
“I saw the first plane come in and hit the north side of the Trade Center. It took out what was 10 floors. It was 80 percent up on the (side) of the Trade Center,” he said. “A lot of explosions. Fire was coming out of the Trade Center.”
As he waited to get back on the ferry, and spotted the second plane, many of the people in line with him had been in one of the towers when the first plane hit.
“Shock” is how he described their mood. He then saw the second plane strike.
“It was heading directly toward (the Trade Center). It was low and deliberate,” Park said. “It physically shook the ground. The air just got a couple of shades darker.”
I only was able to speak with Park for a few minutes. Everyone was on their cellphones trying to reach loved ones. And for the next eight hours, I could no longer get through to Park.
The newsroom was scrambling, trying to get local angles for the story while keeping an eye on the television.
And in those eight hours when the phones in New York were down, I have few memories of what happened while I waited to hear from him again.
A journalist works until the story is done. But for this day, the story never seems to be over. There was a war shortly following and more stories. Including a military man I met who was stationed in Afghanistan who emailed me and asked if I could help in a fundraiser. He was trying to clothe a village there, a place that had nothing. So, I wrote the story that was seen by marketing staff at OshKosh B’gosh clothing. They donated enough for the entire village.
I also met a man who was so angry at President Bush in that first term for entering the war, that he gave up his librarian job in Poynette and moved out of the country ... New Zealand, if I recall.
And I was part of a team that had to cover the services of the first soldier killed in action since World War II from the Portage area. Our staff won the Lee President’s Award, given to only one of their 50 newspapers each year for the best story, beating out papers like the St. Louis Post Dispatch. My co-worker won other awards for best photo in the state of a mother at the airport waiting for her son’s body to return. All images one never forgets.
I keep the award in the closet.
All of this began on 9/11.
And I have met so many people over the years who have their own stories to tell. Their connection to something that happened a thousand miles away. And many years ago.
So, on this day, I do not forget. I always look to see what other new stories come out each year and reflect on how a country came together.
I finished a book not too long ago about a World War II German soldier and his wife, who waited five years in hopes he would return after his capture. She said of that time in the 1940s, “we all lost something.”
And I think the same of today when I look at 9/11. Go to an airport and forget you have shampoo in your bag and see what happens. We all felt 9/11 then, and today.
I’ve never met Park in person. But I have known his family for years. I did get ahold of him later again on Sept. 11, 2001. He was back at his apartment, having called people he knew who worked in the towers. They were safe.
Each 9/11, I think about that day and him. I think about how much the world has changed since. I think about how I had a plane ticket booked only a few short weeks later on a flight that proved to be the quietest trip I’ve ever had.
Yes, today is hump day for anyone working.
And, yet, so very much more.
Craig Spychalla is a reporter and special sections editor for the Daily Union. He worked for Capital Newspapers as a feature editor for 17 years.