Biking To, Reporting From Ground Zero

Tell Me More begins its 9/11 essay series "Where Were You?" with NPR's Jacki Lyden. She recounts her coverage in New York City on September 11, 2001. She rode a bike to ground zero — where planes flew into the World Trade Center, engulfing the two towers in flames before they collapsed.

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JACKI LYDEN, Host:

I'm Jacki Lyden and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

TELL ME MORE is sharing in the nation's somber observance of the 10th anniversary of terrorist attacks with the essay series Where Were You? We invited colleagues and listeners to recall September 11, 2001, the day Muslim extremists led by Osama Bin Laden struck fear in the nation after they hijacked passenger jets from major U.S. airports and flew them into landmarks.

In New York City, it was the World Trade Center, the two towers that were the exclamation point of the skyline. Just outside Washington, it was the Pentagon, the heartbeat of our national defense. Another hijacked plane was forced down in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, a crossroads that now stands for the enormous sacrifice brave passengers made to wrest the plane from the hijackers.

I was working in Brooklyn, New York, that day and probably there's no single moment I've been asked about more in my time with this network than this one as I stood looking out my window toward where the towers had once been.

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LYDEN: I think that, for New Yorkers, the nightmare continues to unfold. Every street is now gridlocked with traffic. Subways are shut down. There are reports of difficulty crossing the bridges, especially, of course, impossible by car.

I'm going to try and bicycle into Manhattan. Thick, gray clouds of smoke where the World Trade Center used to be.

Everything that morning was infused with both unreality and clarity. If I wanted to report the story, and I did, then I had no choice but to turn the entire network into a ham radio operation. But by the time I said those words, I had neither Internet nor phone access to Washington. If I wanted my colleagues to have any idea where I was, well, now they knew. Maybe my friends and family would hear where I'd gone, too.

On my bicycle, I found a great city imbued with extraordinary quiet, the sort of silence that almost lets you hear your breath. I saw, pushing my bike the wrong way over the Manhattan Bridge, things I'll never forget. Faces grimed in ash and soot, faces that were stoic, stunned and in shock.

Mostly, people helped one another. People screaming from the city made me think of a flock of birds rising. The sudden migration from then to now, from morning to afternoon, from Manhattan to the outer boroughs, from 9/11 to everything that came after.

As I rode my bike as close as I could to the craters of ground zero, I could see that the smoke would soon make going any further impossible. I was about to inhabit a new world, along with everyone else.

LYDEN: 00 a.m., make my way to ground zero by subway, walking as far down as I could from Canal Street.

NPR: the workers walking into the smoldering tangle of steel beams, the helpers at the edge serving coffee, the anxious relatives searching the handbills asking for information about the missing.

And for all the loss, for all the blitz that had befallen not only New York, but the entire country, I was never prouder than when spending a small portion of my life telling that story and bearing witness. I was proud of my city, my neighbors, my local firehouse, where no one came back.

I was proud of them then. I'm proud of them now. And I still think of them every time I look out of that window.

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