There’s a small piece of paper at the new National September 11 Memorial Museum with my name scrawled across the top. Underneath my name, in black ballpoint pen, it says: Abd pain; Diff breathing; Inhalation.
The triage tag put around my neck on 9/11 will be on display when the museum opens to the public Wednesday, May 21. Curators tell me it will be installed with a written portion of my recorded 9/11 story. I’ll come face to face with that triage tag Monday night when collection donors are invited to the museum to see how their personal artifacts are being used. A sneak peak, of sorts, for those of us who got too close, but are lucky to be alive.
I’m not sure how I’ll react. When the second tower collapsed, I was nearly killed. I was a producer at WNBC-TV and was driven into the sidewalk by a tornado of smoke and debris. I landed spread-eagle on my stomach, my head and back struck by a relentless storm of pulverized glass and cement. I gasped for air. Within minutes, a police officer instructed me to cough, blow my nose, make myself vomit—anything to get the soot out of my lungs, nose, and throat. I was then taken to the hospital by ambulance. ER doctors cut off my clothes and put tubes down my throat.
And as soon as physically possible, I pleaded with a nurse to bring me a phone.
For me and so many other journalists, making sense of the day meant doing our jobs. I reported live from my hospital bed; Ashleigh Banfield went on air covered in ash; Mika Brzezinski, barefoot, found shelter in an evacuated school and reported what she saw from inside an office. The line that once defined our rules of engagement—being distant observers; maintaining objectivity—became harder to navigate in the dust cloud. We were no longer solely members of the news media, many of us were also survivors. Banfield says 9/11 was the first time she felt like a guest on television, providing other reporters and anchors information based on her first-hand experiences.
In the days following the attacks, I couldn’t shake what I’d seen and heard. A friend suggested I write down everything that happened to me to help purge the images from my mind. So I did. And writing helped.
Many journalists who covered the attacks craved a similar outlet, and Covering Catastrophe: Broadcast Journalists Report September 11 provided the opportunity. The book is the definitive record of how broadcasters did their jobs that day in New York, Washington, Pennsylvania, and with the President of the United States on Air Force One.
For the co-editors of the book, making sense of the day also meant giving back. When it was first published, all proceeds were directed to 9/11-specific charities, and now, tied to the opening next week, all publishing rights have been transferred to the Memorial & Museum to help fund, in whatever small way we can, its critical, history-preserving work. The U.S. State Department turned the book into a documentary and shipped the film to dozens of consulates and embassies around the world.
I often wonder if I should have donated the triage tag to the museum or recorded my oral history for its collections. Was it OK to have gotten so involved with the State Department? After all, I’ve always been taught that journalists aren’t the story. But those words hastily written on my triage tag thirteen years ago have transformed the way I see myself; I am a journalist and a survivor, and it’s acceptable to be both.
What I’ve also come to understand, and it’s likely a realization museum officials had long ago, is that on 9/11 many journalists were eyewitnesses, and what happened that Tuesday happened to all us.