By Pete Weitzner
I had flown back from New York on September 10, 2001. The next day, I woke up just before 6am and was about to shower and then prep for my two classes that Tuesday. But I turned on the TV first, and in a few minutes I watched the second plane fly into the South Tower. I drove to Chapman, met both classes at the starting time, and talked about the tragedy as long as they wanted to. Both classes were very brief. I dismissed class for students to be with family and friends. Nearly 3,000 innocent people had just died. The world was in shock.
Eleven years later, during interterm 2012, I took students to New York and Washington D.C. for the first time – a trip we ended up repeating for six years. It’s one of my best memories of a 20-year run as Director of Broadcast Journalism at Chapman. Like many things in life, the first year of the trip was the most memorable. We were blazing the trail, figuring it out as we went, choosing which networks and TV shows to visit and which sites and events to see while in two of America’s most remarkable cities.
By year three I had the trip dialed in, but even that first year there were a few things, as a native New Yorker, that I knew I wanted to make available to students, most of them visiting New York City for the first time. So, for the six years of “Networking in New York and DC,” we always took in a Broadway musical, the Christmas tree and ice-skaters at Rockefeller Center (first night, via subway), and the 9/11 Memorial.
The 9/11 Memorial was a last-Saturday item, day before we flew out, basically a free day, save shooting a few pick-ups for the TV show we’d been creating. And since Saturday was “free,” visiting the 9/11 Memorial – usually tripled with Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty by Ferry afterwards – was optional. I had 16 students on that first-year trip, almost 30 at the end, and most opted to go to the Memorial. Sometimes everyone went, pretty remarkable given it’s the last day of a breakneck-paced, two-week trip. They might rather sleep in… or recover. In 2012 (the first trip), all 16 went. The Memorial had just opened to the public on September 11, 2011.
You likely know the 9/11 Memorial is composed of two massive reflecting pools at the site where the attacks occurred, where The Twin Towers stood. The names of nearly 3,000 victims are etched in meaningful adjacency on the low bronze walls that surround the pools.
As a native New Yorker, with family in The City, I’d been to Ground Zero many times, but this was my first visit to The Memorial, which was a long time coming. Ten years. How these things work. There were a lot of people there, long lines to enter (I believe a one-hour time limit inside). All those people. And absolute silence, except for the cascading water.
Each of those intentionally-placed names could be traced to a card with a short biography about the victim. We talked with a man who was there with what seemed to be his family. He was alternately staring at the waterfall and the names in front of him. When he stepped back, I introduced myself, saying I was there with students from Chapman University. He looked at us and thanked us for coming. He told us he came every week. The man was a Coast Guard reservist and former New York City firefighter (FDNY). He was serving the Coast Guard on 9-11-2001. His FDNY firehouse lost eleven people that day, among the hardest hit.
I asked him if he wanted to tell his story – his comrades’ story – to one of my students and our Chapman News audience. Again, he was grateful. I recall he was a strong man – big in physical stature and certitude. Classically broad and strong, NY tough and firefighter tough. So central casting. He didn’t cry but he also didn’t have much to say. Very wistful, I guess. My most vivid memories are his looking down a number of times during the interview – he was strong but he was so sad – and my other vivid memory is his thanking us several times for coming and remembering. Last weekend, I talked to a student from that trip in writing this piece for The Hesperian. Naturally, she recalled the reservist/firefighter at The Memorial. “I was so proud to be able to tell his story,” she told me.
Most students weren’t yet born – or are too young – to remember the events of September 11, 2001. And so, too young to “never forget.” I hope that when you visit New York City you’ll consider a visit to the 9/11 Memorial, in the same way I’d urge that when you go to Washington, D.C., to try to make it out to Arlington, Virginia and the Arlington National Cemetery. They are solemn, respectful and rightful tributes to heroes — thousands of heroes, who exhibited depths of courage I can’t imagine.
If you do make these visits… you’ll never forget.
Pete Weitzner ran the Broadcast Journalism Program at Dodge College from 1997-2017 before leaving to become The Editor at the Orange County Business Journal. This fall he is teaching “Journalism in the 21st Century” at Chapman.