John Stehr rememers 9/11


INDIANAPOLIS - Just like every American, the 9/11 attacks came out of the blue for me. I remember the sky was particularly blue that day in Indiana as I walked with my children to school.

A neighbor came running out of his house and said, "Two planes hit the World Trade Center. It's on fire." I ended up dropping my children at the bus stop and returning home to see what was happening.

Within an hour, I was heading off to Washington, D.C. to cover what had happened at the Pentagon and the government's reaction. No planes were flying that day, so the only way to get to Washington was to drive. Traffic was light. The trip took 11 hours, and we made it in time to file a report from the NBC bureau in Washington for the Nightbeat. Across the Potomac River, a column of thick, black smoke rose from the charred Pentagon.

But it is what was happening in the city that struck me the most. The government shut down, and all employees were given the option to stay home. They mostly did. Tourists went home too. The only people left around the government buildings were members of congress and a few of their staff.

Elsewhere in the city, fully-armored soldiers stood guard around our national monuments and on just about every street corner. If you were in one of the few vehicles on the street, you had to keep moving. Parking wasn't an option.

The city took on the feeling of a holiday as the business of Washington stopped cold. A city that is usually so full of life was lifeless. Joy and optimism were drained. The only thing I could compare it to was the 1992 Los Angeles riots that I covered during my time at CBS News. For all intents and purposes, military law was imposed.

To a person, members of the Indiana congressional delegation said some version of "there are no Republicans here today, no Democrats -- only Americans." They vowed to work together to provide a unified American response to the world. It was the kind of unity that we have not seen in Congress since the days immediately following the attacks.

I met a group of Hoosiers in Washington the day after the attack on the Pentagon -- a group from Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center -- that was in a conference room just 100 feet from where the plane hit the building. Miraculously, they all survived. They gave us the first pictures we saw from inside the Pentagon after the attack. Their scheduled five-day trip cut short, they went home after two days -- fortunate to be going home at all.

I have been a reporter for 36 years -- decades of training myself to be emotionally detached and fair-minded. This is the story that tested my mettle as a reporter more than any other, but I had a first row seat to one of the most significant events in American history. Arguably the MOST significant event of my generation. None of us who remember that day can say that we have not been changed by what happened.

In some ways, we are a better and stronger nation. At the same time, there is a sadness that we will all carry forward from 9-11-01. It was more than a day. It is a series of events that will shape our country for generations.