By Elaine Van Develde
It was a beautiful Tuesday. The sun was shining. The air was crisp. The coffee even tasted especially good.
I remember. Most of us remember where we were on Sept. 11, 2001 at 8:46 a.m.. I know I do. I also remember how everything went from bright, crisp, fragrant and optimistic to dark, dank, acrid and fearful in one second. I remember how it wasn’t about us observers, storytellers. It was about them — the victims, their loved ones, their message.
For me, a professional observer, a professional storyteller, thankfully close enough, yet far enough, yes, it was so very much about them — painfully so. I wasn’t one of them. I was lucky. I was grateful. I watched. I listened intently. They shared.
I was a reporter living in Fair Haven and covering Middletown. On what started out as a typical day, they ended up unwittingly, graciously, lighting a less traveled path for me. For many.
It’s this one storyteller’s perspective.
Through this one fortunate observer’s eyes and heart, it went like this …
It was the day after a busy deadline day at the weekly newspaper. We reporters were due in the office for our usual weekly editorial meeting. Two of us were carpooling to Freehold.
The routine meeting was set for 10 a.m. My colleague was supposed to be picking me up no later than 8:45. She always teased me about not being ready.
Ironically, this time I was. I had even washed my coffee cup, rather than the usual dumping of half of it in the sink as I darted out the door, zipping and slinging a backpack full of pens, reporter’s pads, glasses and a trusty point-and-shoot camera, should I need it for breaking news.
Perched on the porch and proud of my promptness (I know, absurd alliteration), I waited and even started my new week’s story list, which I usually jotted down in the first few minutes of the meeting while daydreaming and decompressing after deadline. I was shocking myself by being far too fastidious for me that day.
It was just past 8:45. I had glanced at the clock before going outside. She wasn’t there yet. Neither us had cell phones. I popped back inside and called her house. When she answered I started teasing her about being late when she was the one always heaping that ineptitude trip on my head.
“Uh, where the hell are you Banito (as I called her)?? OK. This time you’re the one who’s gonna take the heat from Marilyn (our editor)!” I sniped and chuckled.
My laugh was met with two beats of silence followed by, “Van Deee Velde, have you NOT been watching the last couple of minutes of the news?”
“Uh, no,” I said. “I was outside waiting for you!”
“Uh, I’m pretty sure our meeting is cancelled,” she said with an ominous overtone. The joking had stopped. “Turn on the news!” she yelled. “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center … must be thousands of people dead.”
I turned on the TV, just in time to see the second plane hit.
Suddenly, everything had changed — from bright to dark, crisp to cloudy. No one really knew what had just happened.
Was it a hoax? Was it just a freak accident? Were we at war? What was next?
Oh, my God. This was the World Trade Center in New York City. We lived in the center of a commuter community.
I was home, in Fair Haven. I was also the reporter covering Middletown, a 42-square-mile suburb of 67,000, many of whom worked in the city. My colleague, my ride — she lived in Middletown.
All these thoughts flash flooding our minds, barely batting an eye or catching our breath, we assigned ourselves and got to work. What else could we do?
She was grabbing another reporter and going to the ferry terminals, where we soon found out people were being shuttled from out of the cloud of acrid smoke that chased and enveloped them in the city and drifted to our shores.
I was manning the phones, taking and making calls in rapid-fire pace. We still weren’t sure what had just happened.
I knew where my loved ones were. I was lucky. Wrapping that gift up with a bow, I reached out beyond my protected, cozy little sphere of home to grasp at the scary truth and impart it. The first person I called, was, of course, my editor. She was choked up and just trying to keep a local news person’s head about her while working amid what she described as an oxymoronic sullen mayhem in the office.
Everyone was grasping for answers while gasping over the horror. Phones were ringing. There were rumblings. There was shouting. There were tears.
I could hear it — the sound in her voice, the sounds in the background. “Everyone’s trying to get in touch with their families,” she said. “No one knows what to do first. People are crying … Oh, my God, I’m hearing that Cindy’s brother is missing. He was last seen going back into one of the towers. Oh, no …”
Cindy sat across from me in the office. She was a reporter. Her young brother was Port Authority Police Officer Kenneth Tietjen. We later found out that he never came out of that building after commandeering a cab to get to Ground Zero, take an air pack and rush back in to save lives. Ken never made it back out.
Hearts started sinking deeper. The reality started to unravel. Then it came unspooled. It had hit home with a cruel thrust. We were under terrorist attack.
We, as journalists, were trying to get to the truth, cover it and help however we could.
That truth — it was ugly. It was also stunning. It was frustrating not being able to be there to help people find missing loved ones and one another. People here were just scrambling, at a loss.
The story had to be told from here — from where people left home to go to work, uncertainty looming about their otherwise typical evening’s homecoming.
I hung up with my boss feeling surge of urgency, yet trepidation over what I knew I would likely have to report. My second call was to the mayor of Middletown at the time, Joan Smith.
Joan had to be the most soft-hearted, selfless public servant I had ever met. She was (well, she still is) sincere and kind. She firmly believed in the public aspect of her job as a public servant. She was always accessible. Always gentle — composed, caring in her demeanor.
She answered her home phone without hesitation or screening. I was actually her first call, she said. “Do you have a flag?” was the first thing she asked. “Yes,” I told her.
“I’ll hold on,” the soft-spoken mayor said. “You go get it and fly it right away. Fly your flag.”
I went upstairs into my hall closet, where the old flag had been folded properly stored since my dad’s death. I didn’t really know why I had never hung it again. But, I, toting my cordless phone with me, got it and, sans flagpole, draped it properly on the porch while Joan hung on the phone.
“We have to show that we are united,” she said with a gentle, sad tone in her voice. “It may be a small gesture, but it’s something we should all be doing. That’s important right now. We are all at such a loss. We have to stand strong together.”
She, being a no-frills, old-fashioned sort of woman and not even having call waiting on her phone, then went on to tell me how upset she was at the prospect of so many in her town not returning to their cars at the train station or ferry terminal that night.
Her fear manifested. As night fell and people funneled their way through the darkness of it all, trying to find one another, many cars were never claimed from the Middletown Train Station.
In the end, 37 never came home.
In Fair Haven, in between Middletown calls, I checked in with police in my own hometown.
Then Captain Paul McCue had told me that Ted Luckett hadn’t come home. His car was brought to the police station from the ferry dock. Ted’s wife, Lisa, was a classmate from RFH. He was checking in on her.
The death toll was rising. The list of the missing was growing. People started acting out in some very right and wrong ways. People were stopping at my house, telling me stories.
It was a young Fair Haven girl’s birthday. They couldn’t find her dad. That was Ed McNally. He, too, never came home from work that day.
Police in Middletown were defying the chief’s orders and rushing to help at Ground Zero out of patriotism, perhaps misguided. Who was right? Who was wrong?
An unassuming, kind-hearted detective, Joe Capriotti, was tasked with keeping the list of the missing and notifying loved ones each time another literal piece of a person was found.
It was daunting. He saw more of the deeply personal side of 9/11 than most. He was also a soothing source of strength to so many. It wore on him, but he still consoled. Still does.
I found out about Joe’s job while talking to his chief, John Pollinger. I had known Joe Cap, as his friends and colleagues called him, from dealing with him on police matters for several years. He was always not only a trusted source, but a relatable one whom I just happened to think was an all-around great guy.
His story, I thought, had to be told. He would say, over and over again, that he was just doing his job. It was more than that, though. I knew that. His story was one of a different kind of heroism.
Then, through Joe, came the stories behind the faces that ended up etched on the memorial stones in Middletown.
There was the story of the girl’s father who sat staring in front of the television day and night, waiting for his little girl to come home. She never arrived.
There was the story of the young deaf man who had gotten a job in the city and was thrilled about it. He never came home.
There was the expectant mother who clung onto the hope that her husband would walk in the door. He never did.
There were so many stories to be told — stories of the both the ugliness and beauty that emerged from that unwitting burial ground.
The ugliest …
There was that bias-fueled fight that ensued at a Middletown gas station when a biker saw a man in a turban come out of a gas station island to pour gas and punched him, somehow blaming him for it all.
There were the daily threats made to leaders of a mosque.
The most beautiful …
Those who persevered in their kindness — those who consoled and carried on at home in the tradition of those who never came home.
There was Joe Capriotti.
There was the family of Kenny Tietjen.
There was Lisa Luckett.
Those are just a few who suffered searing pain, but went on to inspire.
Seventeen years later, as the day comes to an end, I vividly remember those cars at the train station, the fear and sadness, each of those unique stories that arose from it all from that day forward, each person I got to know posthumously and in the present.
I remember my luck in life to have been fortunate enough to have these incredible people pass through and trust me enough to offer me a glimpse into their complex worlds and, hopefully, create a better understanding of their humanity, our few degrees of separation in this world and how it all goes ’round in life — especially at times like 9/11.
We meet so many people as reporters — observers, storytellers. We have the privilege of learning from them and their lives and imparting that knowledge to the public so that it may enrich their lives as it has ours. I thank those people for letting me in and tell their stories. I am also sorry I never met some of those who perished.
Tonight, though, I look back on 17 years and I remember just how lucky I am. How lucky I am to not truly know their pain. How lucky I am to have known them and told their stories.
I am grateful.
I am grateful I knew where my loved ones were. I am grateful my son came home from school to his mom that day.
And I am grateful for having had the privilege of getting to know them, the heroes, the loved ones. Their stories. I am grateful that they trusted me to tell those transformative tales of stark truth.
I am humbled by them, by their stories. I am one person with one perspective, one gift from 9/11 — knowing them, their stories, their perspective.
It only takes a moment for someone meaningful to pass through your life. Recognize them and honor them. In the end, it is truly about them.
Good night. Get home. Tell your stories. Listen to theirs. Love them. Tell them. Every day.
Rest in peace, all our neighbors who never came home. Thank you to people like Joe Capriotti, now retired and in his own fight, forever marked by it all, but still grasping every chance to give. Thank you to the Tietjen family, who founded a charity in the name of Ken that makes the lives of children less fortunate brighter. Thank you to Lisa Luckett, my RFH classmate, who continues to light a path of kindness for many with her message and new book. Thanks to all the survivors who make that all so significant bit of difference.