That day, 11 years ago

9/11 from the University of Minnesota

It doesn’t take long for people to start asking ‘where were you when the planes hit’ on any anniversary of 9/11.

Today is no different. Unlike prior anniversaries, I’m not hearing the question asked person-to-person, per se, but more tweet-to-tweet.

In a series of hash tags, trending topics and concise phrases, Twitter users do their best to say where they were, what they were doing and how they felt on that awful day.

It got me thinking (as it does every year) of what I was doing.

Truth be told, I was hungover.

I know, not very impressive being that it was a Tuesday morning. Or at all, for that matter. But I had just started new classes for the semester and my class load on Tuesdays wasn’t as busy as other days. It was, however,  the day I had my favorite class: Intro to TV News. Life was good. I was young. I was in college. I could have some beers the night before and pop out of bed the next day. Invincible? Then, it felt like it. Now? Not so much.

This particular day I didn’t have to wrack my brain on math problems in Probability 1002 class as I did years earlier as a freshman at the University of Colorado at Boulder. And I was yet to be sitting in an unbalanced, plastic chair in a musty classroom trying to decipher the foreign words uttered by a silver-haired, 70-something, mumbling French woman who had an affinity for mind-altering narcotics. That experience was to come my final year of college during French 1004. There’s a semester of my life I’d like to get back.

No, I was starting a class I truly lived for. I loved TV News and couldn’t wait to learn how to write, shoot and edit this stuff.

First assignment: September 11, 2001.

I staggered down the stairs of my 4-bedroom college house I shared with guys you probably wouldn’t want your children around –  now that I think about it. But rent was rent and if they could help pay, I was better off. I turned on the TV and started toasting my bread. Peanut butter was a staple then. Still is.

Confusion played out on the television. All the stations were reporting that a Cessna-style plane crashed into one of the towers. I truly didn’t think anything of it, despite the fact that if that did happen, it would still be a very big deal.

Then, more clarity. The haze started to dilute, both literally and figuratively.  The straight, black coffee had started carving into the fog of my brain. That’s when it really hit me. Something wasn’t right.

I called to my roommate, but got nothing but groans and expletives from the next room. He didn’t want to be bothered. i called out more and more as the situation became more dire. I needed to have someone else see this. I went to his room and shook him.

“Dude, seriously,” I pleaded. “This is really screwed up.”

My roommate angrily rolled out of bed. And we both watched as the 2nd plane hit.

Hangover gone. Numb.

So much confusion set in at that point like it did for everyone. Was this a joke? A movie? An ad? A tragedy of this magnitude couldn’t be clarified in that moment. It was exciting. I wanted to know more. I hated sitting there as an audience member.

I called the Journalism school. All University classes were cancelled, but our instructor offered us a chance to come in and ‘learn from what we were dealing with’. In TV News, there are no ‘days off’. News happens constantly. That was clearly my first real-life lesson.

I tossed on my cargo pants, raggedy blue t-shirt and Twins hat and went to the University Mall. I met up with some fellow classmates and we went to the classroom, received brief instruction, grabbed a camera and went off in search of what the hell was going on that day.

I meandered around campus and observed small groups sitting in circles. Asians in the corner, black students met on the steps and bunch of white kids straddled the bike racks. Instantly people joined their people. And other groups would branch from those groups, Christians, Jews…the list was long. It was bizarre to watch. But all were eager to announce their religion and/or ethnicity if asked. Even in they weren’t asked. They were marking their territory.

But what really stuck out in my mind was the group seated in the center of the mall. Their faces stared blankly. They rocked in a circle and chanted quietly. I didn’t where they were from exactly, but it didn’t take long for me to ask just based on the concern on their faces. That’s when I realized this group of American Muslims feared for their safety, and there were many angles to what was happening.

I placed a microphone in the center of the group (as other students in my class did). I hadn’t worked up the courage to sit and interview one person specifically because I was still lost in what was happening. I was worried I would ask the wrong question. People were on edge and I didn’t know how that would play out.

I did manage to ask a few questions and formulate a storyline in my head. I worried about the angles, the sun, white balance and sound. I focused on the technical elements almost more than the content itself.

I set the camera on the tripod and realized I needed to attempt what we call a ‘stand-up’. It’s you, staring back at the camera saying something worthwhile that bridges the story to the next topic. Attempting, anyway.

I was drawing blanks. I knew it wasn’t impressive. I tried a few. I took my hat off. My hair was sticking out all over the place. My shirt was wrinkled. This was not my finest hour, but it was the first hour of my career. It was a long hour for thousands of families who would begin the heart-wrenching search for loved ones they’d never find.

I wrote the story, pieced together the video clips on Final Cut Pro and recorded the finished product to Mini DV tape.

Standing in the center of the mall, I looked off in the general direction of New York City as if I’d see some kind of sign of the destruction. I didn’t.

I said a prayer and tried to figure out what was next.

It had been a long day, but I had no idea how long of a day, or decade, it would be for the entire world.



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Josh Benson

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