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Sept.. 11, 2001: The anniversary we wish we didn't share

The first event of my lifetime that stuck with me as a "defining moment" was in 1986, when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded.

I was in sixth grade at St. James the Apostle school in Glen Ellyn, and someone came in to tell our art teacher. We stopped and said a prayer. My sister Amy had been home sick that day, and watched it live on TV.

I remember my mother pointing out at the time what a moment like this meant. That we would remember this and where we were for the rest of our lives, the way that she still so vividly remembered the death of John F. Kennedy and the first moon landing.

I think she hoped this would be the defining "where were you" moment for my generation, because like a lot of people her age, she never really did get over the Kennedy assassination.

But as we all know, it got much worse.

This week marks the 18th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. It feels odd to call it an anniversary, because that word is often associated with something joyful.

We all have our memory of where we were. At that time, I was working for a TV station out in the Quad Cities. I was the 10 p.m. producer, so I normally wouldn't even go into work until 2 p.m. I had just woken up and looked out the window, and it was absolutely gorgeous outside. Blue skies. Not a cloud to be seen. I was getting ready to hop on my bike for a ride along the Mississippi River when my boss called and asked me to come in.

We had six flights diverted to our airport when all air traffic was grounded, and not a soul who got off one of those six planes had ever heard of Moline, Ill. We had to break the news to them about why they were there. We were there to ask questions, but ended up as impromptu tour guides, helping people find car rentals and directing them to whatever city was closest to their final destination.

But I found myself in an odd position all day. While other folks all over the country stopped what they were doing and watched the news, I was the news. I was just the local news, so I was only working on local connections and anything we needed when the network tossed to us. And those local news windows were few and far between, and were only 20 minutes or less when they came.

So, I sat at my desk working on updating information and building the newscast that would eventually come. I didn't realize I was watching the feeds as closely as I was. These days the feed is on one's computer, but back then I actually had my own television set that sat on the corner of my desk, where I could lean over and roll tape if needed.

And for 12 hours, I watched the same feed over and over. It was the jumpers.

There's been a lot of controversy over the years about whether those who opted to jump should be shown in these last moments of their lives, when jumping was the better option. It's a decision most of us cannot fathom. I don't remember using the video very often in the weeks after Sept. 11. But I had seen it so often repeated at the corner of my desk that it was stuck in my head.

I began to worry about the strangest things. Did this person have a dog? Is his dog waiting for him at the door? What if that woman's towel fell on the floor after her morning shower? Who will pick up that towel? Who will wash it and fold it and put it away? Who will feed the dog?

As the years have gone by, I've often wondered about them. How are their families now? How did they handle the empty apartments and the calls gone straight to voicemail? How did they move on?

The world started to look very different that day.

A few weeks after that Tuesday, I discovered I was pregnant with my first child. He's a senior this year, and with his fellow seniors, Sept. 11, 2001 is a news item to them. It's a history lesson. it is not a defining moment.

Let's hope theirs looks different from ours.

• Marney Simon is the editor of the Morris Herald-News. She can be reached at

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