Waiting for something to make sense

April 2, 2014 | 11:14 pm

By Beth Malicki: The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was watching a morning national news program while feeding my 5-month-old son, Brooks, in my bedroom. My husband was getting ready to head out the door for law school when a breaking news alert said a helicopter or small plane had hit the World Trade Center. I thought, “Oh, it was probably a news chopper that got too close to the building.” Then the other plane hit.

I think everyone knew something was very wrong once that happened. I actually walked over to the bedroom window, holding the baby, and looked out at the sky -- half expecting to see planes randomly falling over mid-Missouri.

My shift as the KOMU-TV8 evening news anchor didn’t start for hours. I sat with my son and watched the coverage, waiting for something to make sense. I called the station to make sure they didn’t need me. What could I possibly do from middle America to help with a story centered on the East Coast? Nothing. So I kept watching and learned the Pentagon was hit and then that crash in a field in Pennsylvania. My mom was traveling in Washington, D.C., and there were a few moments of panic before I located her.

When I finally got to work, everyone looked a little off. We are used to death and destruction, and newsrooms are notorious for playing fast and loose with humor during heavy stories. No one was even close to grinning. We were scared. There were local stories to cover -- a group of emergency responders from Boone County, Mo., were heading to New York for search and recovery. Security was tight everywhere, and families were struggling to reach loved ones in New York because communication lines were jammed.

We ran our newscasts with little weather and no sports or commercials. Our mouths felt heavy; we were always bracing for an update from the network that there was yet another attack. When the newscasts were finished that day, no one wanted to leave. When your shift ends around midnight, you always return to a dark, quiet home.

The next few days we, like every other journalist in America, lived this story. At home we watched wall to wall coverage and at work we’d spend 10 hours watching, writing and editing even more. Some images on the news feed we couldn’t share with our viewers. Some of the images we wish we hadn’t seen. The non-stop carnage and fear were taking its toll.

KOMU isn’t your typical NBC affiliate in the Midwest. It’s unlike any news station in the country. All reporters, editors, producers and some of the anchors are college students. The University of Missouri-Columbia owns the whole operation, and the newsroom is a learning lab for budding journalists. Those 20-, 21- and 22-year-olds started their careers on the biggest story of their lives. I was 24.

By the end of the week, many of the people in the newsroom were starting to show signs of fatigue, stress and anxiety. I had a recurring nightmare that I was on the plane that went into the first tower and I could see the people in the office looking at me through the airplane window. Others admitted they hadn’t slept, and when they did, the images from the attacks haunted them. My boss and friend, Stacey Woelfel, gathered us all at a local watering hole as a way to reflect and thank us. Instead, we sat outside on a beautiful fall evening together and wept.

One month later my station sent me to New York to do a series of stories about local people who had connections to Sept. 11. My husband, 6-month-old son and photographer Gary Grigsby boarded a plane the same day President Bush first issued the terror alert levels. The security person at the airport checked Brooks’ diaper and smelled my bottle of pumped milk. They confiscated my tiny scissors, and we flew in silence, scared to death. Even the baby was quiet.

When we flew into New York, we went right over where the Twin Towers once stood. From the sky the interruption of skyscrapers was jolting.

I didn’t take my family to ground zero. The photographer and I had to walk quite a distance from where the subway deposited us, because there were no taxis allowed. It must have been about a mile around the World Trade Center that was deserted. It looked like a very dusty ghost town. We smelled the epicenter of the attacks before we saw them. A month later and the acrid scent of burning flesh was still in the air.

We interviewed a young woman who had graduated from the University of Missouri and followed her dream of writing to New York City. She lived two blocks from the Twin Towers and hid in an elevator shaft with others in her building when they crumbled. From her balcony you could peer right into the pit that was still burning. Singed office papers with numbers all over them littered the balcony. She still lived in that apartment until the city tested the air a few weeks later and evacuated the entire area.

We interviewed another man with ties to mid-Missouri. He was a mortician who responded to mass casualties. He spent his days collecting and managing body parts, and by the time we talked to him in his hotel, he seemed shaken. His job back in Missouri was at a funeral home, so death did not really bother him. But more than 2,000 civilians killed in an unexpected instant was different. When I said his work was that of a brave hero’s, he cried.

The past nine anniversaries of Sept. 11, I admit I didn’t pay much attention to the tributes and memorials. I’m not hardened, I just wasn’t ready. There’s still a part of me that is so hurt by what al-Qaida did that I sometimes pretend, in my mind at least, that it didn’t happen. This year is different.

A friend of mine connected me to Jean Cleere. Jean lives in Newton and is the definition of “sweet and nice.” She’s also the only Sept. 11 widow in Iowa. Her husband, Jim, was in New York on business and died in the Marriott hotel that is known as World Trade Center Building 3. Jean knows the painful details of what happened when her husband tried to evacuate. She heard his voice reassuring her he was OK and would be home soon.

 

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