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9/11: Why witnessing the first draft of history isn’t so great for the witnesses

File: Jeff Caplan at the mic in the WCBS studios in New York City. Photo provided by Jeff Caplan.

This is an editorial piece. An editorial, like a news article, is based on fact but also shares opinions. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and are not associated with our newsroom. 

9/11. Sept. 11, 2001. 

I was in New York City that day and I watched the towers fall.  The towers and the smoke were framed perfectly in the giant windows of a live radio studio, and maybe that’s my problem:  Mine was a unique experience shared by only a handful of people.

To my left, the towers burned.  Directly in front of me was a live microphone with millions listening, and in my ear, I was being fed what little information our reporters could glean about the horrors unfolding.

A front row seat to 9/11 whether I wanted it or not

There were thousands at greater risk and thousands far braver. I was nobody special, but my perch was unique, much like the ringmaster at a circus or a play-by-play announcer with a seat behind the plate.  On a day when the attacks knocked TV stations off the air with their towers atop the World Trade Center, news radio was a vital conduit of information.

And once a year, as the TV specials about 9/11 air, or as people interview me about that day, I bottle up my emotions. I try to keep it together like everyone did in New York City.  I talk about the surreal experience of saying things that I could barely believe were coming out of my own mouth:  “A second plane has just hit…”  Our traffic reporter, Tom Kaminsky was flying in a chopper nearby and was rocked by the blast wave in midair.   And after that, we had to announce:

“This is an ALL CALL.  All New York City Firefighters are directed to proceed immediately to the World Trade Center.”

That is a very hard sentence for me to think about.

9/11 then and now

The rest of the year I can usually get away with saying “I was there. It was a tough day,”  and if I go further, my voice falters and my eyes grow moist. If I’m being interviewed or doing anything about 9-11, my wife watches through my office door,  knowing I’m going to end of a mess, and I’m grateful she’s there for me.

jeff caplan WCBS 9/11

File: Jeff Caplan at work in the WCBS studios in New York City. Photo courtesy of Jeff Caplan.

This year, the emotions started pouring out with a reunion. Two weeks ago I sat in a zoom meeting with my old team from 20 years ago  and the memories flowed.  Afterward I was sobbing –  right back in the chaos, remembering the dust-coated, shell-shocked reporters fleeing the towers, and all of the bizarre moments that make my story mine.

Over the years, the story of 9/11 has been reduced to bullet points that I can recite in my sleep as I try to push away the emotion. But 20 years on, I’m tired of fighting with my emotions.  I’m tired of reciting bullet points.

Looking for the helpers

This is why we did Jeff Caplan’s Afternoon News on Thursday from the Weber Fairgrounds, at a giant and amazing multi-media pop-up museum that expertly brings back everything I try to avoid.  The museum tells a story I know by heart.

But we actually took the show to this pop-up museum site because of the OTHER  building at the Fairgrounds.  The one where Utah first responders and service organizations have booths.  We went to be with people who are trying to squeeze some good out of a nightmare.  I went in hopes that maybe an afternoon in Weber County could be a catharsis – a new memory – that helps temper my lingering sadness.  

Either way, Sunday is September 12th, and life goes on.

“My Minute of News” airs weekdays 3 to 7 p.m. during Jeff Caplan’s Afternoon News on KSL NewsRadio.

The Weber Remembers 9/11 Museum is open now through Sept. 11, 2021 at 8 pm: https://www.majorbrenttaylor.com. Read more here

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