The brilliant, deadly light: A remembrance of 9/11/01

There is nothing special about what was expressed below. The words and phrases capture the kind of raw emotions of fear, sadness and confusion that I’m sure many others felt. But they were honest, heartfelt and hopeful … and blisfully ignorant of what was to come over the next two decades.

A few weeks ago, I thumbed through some of my older files in a search for something completely unrelated to Sept. 11, 2001. I found this collection of musings I wrote about two weeks after the terrorist attacks.

I was a newspaper editor at the time, and most of the newspaper’s staff worked for two weeks straight after 9/11, without a break, to make sense of the tragedy for our readers and help them prepare for what would follow. It was some of the best work of my journalism career.

There is nothing special about what was expressed below. The words and phrases capture the kind of raw emotions of fear, sadness and confusion that I’m sure many others felt. “There is something there in my human heart,” I unabashedly admitted to myself, “something sad, silent, burning and heavy that will always be with me.” The musings may not make completely sense, and they may not be the most eloquent thoughts I ever put down on paper.

But they were honest, heartfelt and hopeful … and blisfully ignorant of what was to come over the next two decades.

This was written sometime in late September 2001. I was 27 years old.


It’s been over two weeks since the terrorist attacks took place, and yet it feels like a year, with barely any memory of the 27 years of my life that preceded Sept. 11’s images of burning skyscrapers, screaming New Yorkers, scorched Pentagon offices, and exhausted newscasters.

The last several days since have seen my anger misdirected at the ones I love the most, depression, restlessness, sleeplessness, and a plethora of other emotional disruptions. These enduring problems have brought me here, looking for some sort of alleviation or answer through what I know best: The written word.

I’m linked to the rest of the world through my personal anguish over what took place a week ago in New York, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania. Yet I think I endured the tragedies in a way a comparatively select few in our nation could appreciate. From a distance. From a place of safety. Immersed in my own pain and anguish. Certainly nothing as intense as the men and women who lost loved ones or saw them injured. But there is something there in my human heart — something sad, silent, burning and heavy that will always be with me.

I’m a copy editor, one of about a dozen intelligent and well-read professionals who help to produce this newspaper every evening of the year. I edit articles written by our reporters and by reporters from various wire services from across the country. I’m also a page designer, which means I place the articles on the pages, along with most of their accompanying pictures. It’s quite easy, and the richness of the river of information that flows past and through me on an hourly basis successfully seduces me back to my desk every afternoon.

But the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, was a watershed moment for me.

I joined the newsroom two years ago the way a wanna-be cop hangs out at cop bars — to feel the pulse of the news cycles, to sense waves of energy as a story builds and reporters jump into action, to listen to the everlasting debates between what’s legitimate news and what’s simply tabloid garbage. It’s so much fun. I never considered myself as intelligent as my colleagues but I eventually felt acceptably proficient at what copy editors do, and I suppose I’ve managed to make a decent contribution to the newspaper.

What I saw take place in this newsroom over a week ago was an astounding example of what reporters and my fellow copy editors are capable of. It was, as D-Day was once described, the Day of Days. Three incredible newspapers — two extras and a special edition — were produced in one day, something accomplished by only a half-dozen other newspapers in the country. We all worked to cover the story of our lives, trying to explain the terrorist attacks to the public as we privately tried to explain it to ourselves. I was never more proud to count myself among these incredible men and women.

Most of us worked on the weekends, so my days off were Tuesday and Wednesday. I awoke that morning feeling happy. It had been a boring and quiet work week, and I was ready for two days of relaxation. I reached over to turn on my nightstand alarm clock radio. As always, it was tuned to NPR’s “Morning Edition.” I heard the host, Bob Edwards, announce that a plane had struck one of the towers at the World Trade Center. He said that smoke billowed from the building.

I remember selfishly thinking, “Well, that’s interesting. Perhaps the wire editor or Page One editor will do something good with this. Thank God I’m off today.”

But my ever-curious semi-journalist ears were pricked up, so I switched on the TV – permanently set on CNN – to see what I imagined would be a little single-prop plane that perhaps nicked the tip of one of its wings on one of the towers, perhaps being pulled out of the Hudson. But was not what I saw.

The moment

The phone rang minutes later. It was the newspaper’s metro editor. He said an extra edition was going to be published, that everyone was being called in, that this situation was major. I said I would be there as soon as I could.

“And there it was,” I thought. The moment I waited for yet never hoped for had finally arrived, a day in which the history books would never – could never — overlook. I could sense that strong, huge, great gears were beginning to turn, carrying me back to the heart and mind of this great entity where I held a seat and played a role. This was an emergency, and we were going to be there to meet it head on, turning this massive ship towards the emergency, to begin as carefully yet as quickly as possible to piece together a first draft of history. It sounds so cliché, but it still seems so true.

This was the essence of what I always thought a newspaper did, and yet even with the entrance into a new century, the impeachment of a president or the closest presidential election in history, it was not enough of a challenge to our capacity to marshal our creative and intellectual forces. History had thrown a huge puzzle up into the air, and it was up to me and to us to piece enough of it together to make sense of it to ourselves before making sense of it to our readers.

But the true significance of the emergency did not dawn on me until I arrived at the Caller-Times. The second plane had struck the second tower, the Pentagon was hit, and one of the towers had collapsed. The second one collapsed soon afterwards. I never saw so many of my co-workers at the same time before, everyone tense and talkative, busily preparing for something, printing out the first pictures from the Associated Press and tapping away at keyboards.

The editors and designers from the Features department — they worked regular 9 to 5 hours — had been moved over from their offices down the hall and into the newsroom to start collecting photos and the initial stories coming off the news wires. They sat at my desk and at my colleagues’ desks. So most everyone who arrived after me was displaced. They moved over to share desks with the sports editors and designers, who occupied the dozen or so cubicles next to ours. It seemed more people were standing than sitting.

As I walked through the melee, the editor of the newspaper’s Sunday edition — the senior editor/designer among us — calmly smiled at me. He looked relieved to see me. His hair was still wet from a shower that must have come as unexpectedly early as mine had. We were among the first of our news editing team to arrive. CNN was blaring from every television in the newsroom. Phones everywhere rang and rang.

The work

The executive editor — the newspaper’s supreme commander — gathered the reporters, editors page designers and photographers for a quick briefing. Everyone looked nervous. Some took notes as she spoke. Others just stared at her or down at the ground. One seemed to have tears welling in her eyes. Another looked like he had been crying for a while. I was numb, not from fright or nervousness. I felt like I was bracing for some kind of impact, but now I think it was simply that I grimly anticipated that there were some long days and nights ahead. I don’t mean workload – I mean enduring a tremendous amount of work combined with the normal grieving process that I knew I would not allow myself to experience until the work was done … a process I’m experiencing now, with these words and thoughts.

The plan was ambitious. The editor wanted two extra editions printed before we began preparing the regular newspaper for Wed., Sept. 12. The first extra would be done by 2 pm, the second only a few hours later, and then the real workday would begin. The newsroom jumped into action, meetings were held, the computers we used to design the pages were turned on, the dummies for pages were distributed to designers, photos were selected, and the budgets (the master list of wire service and local stories, along with their designated pages) were printed.

I had a simple peripheral role — as did many others — of designing a few inside pages. A few people worked on finding the right pictures and keep track of who was using them. The executive editor and the Sunday editor was had been relieved to see me worked together on what would appear on the front pages.

Information on the attacks continued to pour in, some of it reliable, some of it not. Most of the televisions were muted but their sound was no longer a distraction. The roaring hurricanes of fragmentary information, images, speculations, and so much more swirled through my mind. A rudimentary “news crawl” moved along the bottom of CNN’s screen, with some headlines predicting 10,000 fatalities, rumors of a bomb at the State Department, possible attacks in other cities. CNN showed the planes slamming into the towers over and over again. The deathly bright orange of the explosions, the people leaping from the upper floors, the horrifying straightforwardness of two of the world’s tallest buildings collapsing into ash, fire and smoke as a global audience watched … they played it over and over and over again.

There was no real time to mourn or try to really comprehend what was happening to New York City or Washington D.C. There was no real opportunity to sit back and contemplate what this would mean for the weakened economy or the missile defense initiative or even the social consciousness of my generation. Perhaps the only real concern in the back of my mind, aside from trying to finish those pages, was: Is this just the beginning? Are there more attacks coming? Immersed as I was in such a avalanche of information, both reliable and not, I suppose any emotional reaction — fear, sadness, anger — was not really allowed to surface, even as they boiled beneath the surface of a veneer of steady professionalism.

A brilliant, deadly light

As I write this, I think of my colleagues. They’re all tired now, most of them surely much more exhausted than me. Many seemed so burned out by the never-ending coverage, even though some semblance of normality seems to be returning. It’s like we were plunged into a dark tunnel since the attacks took place, piecing together the world around us with penlights.

Does anyone remember Connie Chung’s Gary Condit interview, HBO’s “Band of Brothers” series, or Madonna’s Drowned World tour? Does anyone care anymore? It’s our job to keep our little city informed of the world’s events. There was time when it was easy, when we had the luxury to debate the importance given to Andrea Yates or a spy plane lost in Chinese territory.

Naturally, I have as many questions as anyone else: Were the attacks part of a greater plan? Are there more coming? Is Osama bin Laden truly the man behind the terrorism this time? Will Bush’s “war” take years to accomplish objectives that are not yet announced?

Ironically, with the resources and information provided by countless newspapers and news services at my fingertips, I have no better perspective than someone working on depositions at the courthouse, someone selling clothes at the mall, or someone begging for change on the seawall. The stories all ask the same questions, all chase the same sources, all come up with the same hollow predictions from unnamed sources.

When will we have all the answers? Are we on the verge of a third world war? How will this new fight change the United States? How will this new era change my generation as we grow into journalism’s leaders? How will this change me? Will we ever emerge from this dark tunnel? What awaits us in that brilliant, deadly light?


Two decades later, I wrote a shorter version of this remembrance as my contribution to Texas Public Radio’s collection of memories marking Sept. 11, 2021. You may read it here.

Recommended reading / viewing / listening

This week: Rape at University of Texas / Trump goes down in defeat / Granddaughter, grandfather both remember war / Selena fans / Great television sagas

This week: Rape at University of Texas / Trump goes down in defeat / Granddaughter, grandfather both remember war / Selena fans / Great television sagas

Most of these great items come from my social media networks. Follow me on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, LinkedIn, and Facebook for more fascinating videos, photos, articles, essays, and criticism.

1. This is what I thought war was supposed to look like
By Tara Copp | The Dallas Morning News | March 2017
This is the first of four excerpts from Copp’s new book The Warbird: Three Heroes. Two Wars. One Story
Also see: Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

2. Selena super-fans celebrate her in song, dance, likeness
By Julie Garcia | Corpus Christi Caller-Times | March 21
“With blunt cut bangs, long brown hair and a spectacular red shade of lipstick, Nadia Garcia is the image of a young Selena Quintanilla Perez. Garcia twirled on a stage in the center court at La Palmera mall to “Baila Esta Cumbia” dressed in a white bustier and matching white pants in front of a crowd of people who came to celebrate the late Tejano songstress.”

3. 15 percent of female undergraduates at UT have been raped, survey says
By Lauren McGaughy | The Dallas Morning News | March 24
“The study was comprehensive, surveying 28,000 students during the 2015 academic year at 13 UT academic and health campuses. A project of the School of Social Work’s Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, this survey is just the first round. A second one will be repeated in two years …”

4. How The Americans Became the Best Show on Television
By Matt Brennan | Paste | March 24
“No longer limited to marriage and espionage, The Americans is now the evocative saga of a family that just happens to have two spies in it.”

5. ‘The closer’? The inside story of how Trump tried — and failed — to make a deal on health care
By Robert Costa, Ashley Parker, and Philip Rucker | The Washington Post | March 24
“Shortly after House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) unveiled the Republican health-care plan on March 6, President Trump sat in the Oval Office and queried his advisers: ‘Is this really a good bill?’ And over the next 18 days, until the bill collapsed in the House on Friday afternoon in a humiliating defeat — the sharpest rebuke yet of Trump’s young presidency and his negotiating skills — the question continued to nag at the president.”

6. The Art of Paying Attention
By Michelle Dean | New Republic | March 20
“Why we need critics to think about power and how it works.”

7. ‘Sometimes I laugh at this farce’: six writers on life behind bars in Turkey
By Kareem Shaheen and Maeve Shearlaw | The Guardian | March 23
“Six persecuted writers describe the mental and physical toll of living in the country that jails more journalists than any other”

8. How Many Books Will You Read Before You Die?
By Emily Temple | Lit Hub | March 22
“It depends, of course, on how you’re counting, but for our purposes here, it’s down to two primary factors.”

9. Life with migraines: ‘It feels like a creature is pushing itself through my skull’
By Anna Altman | The Guardian | November 2016
“When I was 26, I started suffering from dizziness, brain fog, fatigue and chronic pain. I’d had migraines since childhood, but these felt different”

10. Jackie Robinson and Nixon: Life and Death of a Political Friendship
By Michael Beschloss | HistorySource :: The New York Times | June 2014
“In 1968, furious over Nixon’s courtship of Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who had once led the segregationist ‘Dixiecrats,’ Jackie backed the Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey.”

Book gems of 2016, Part 3

This week … a brief look at some of the best works on Texas and Texas history.

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Summer is upon us, and the season of leisure is the perfect time for new stories, characters, ideas, and adventures. Throughout the next few weeks, Stillness of Heart continues its occasional series of critical recommendations, from Civil War battle histories to memoirs, and from intellectual histories to photobooks almost as beautiful as the natural world they celebrate.

Read Part 1 of this 2016 series here and subsequent essays in this series here.

This week … a brief look at some of the best works on Texas and Texas history.

Jesus F. de la Teja’s Faces of Bexar: Early San Antonio and Texas (Texas A&M University Press, 240 pp., $40) offers an anthology of essays that together form a biography of one of the most significant cities in North America. San Antonio’s historic importance as a military center, source of political power, international economic hub, and cultural crown jewel is expertly explored and analyzed in this work. The book also includes a vital bibliographic essay analyzing the latest developments in Tejano historiography.

Most history students know about the Texas Revolution, but they know next to nothing about the Revolution’s birthplace. Richard B. McCaslin’s Washington on the Brazos: Cradle of the Texas Republic (Texas State Historical Association Press, 100 pp., $15.95) should be the perfect remedy for that gap in historical knowledge. When the Republic of Texas joined the United States, power and administrative authority was centralized in Austin, and Washington faded into the social and commercial background. It briefly boomed as a port town, but its economic over-reliance on steamboats left it behind as the age of railroads dawned and rail tracks bypassed the town. The Revolution’s centennial in 1936 sparked fresh interest in Texas history, and the town basked in new appreciation from restoration experts and history-loving tourists. McCaslin’s book uses the history of the town to illustrate the larger historical eras of the Texas people, their evolving values, their conflicted identities, and their beautiful multifaceted culture.

Laura Lyons McLemore contributes Adele Briscoe Looscan: Daughter of the Republic (TCU Press, 320 pp, $29.95) to the Texas Biography Series. Looscan made history in 1915 when she became the first woman elected to the presidency of the Texas State Historical Association. The scholar of Texas history made history again when she stepped down in 1925, completing the longest presidency in the Association’s history. McLemore’s biography promises the story of an important intellectual and social leader who guided and enriched historical, political, and business conversations in early twentieth-century Texas.

Timothy Paul Bowman’s Blood Oranges: Colonialism and Agriculture in the South Texas Borderlands (Texas A&M University Press, 412 pp., $43) takes an important and complicated look at the social and economic tensions burning throughout Rio Grande Valley communities in the decades following the Mexican War. Bowman illustrates a brutal twentieth-century process of converting the region from Mexican culture to Anglo-American political and economic control, from a cattle-based economy to an agricultural economy. Racially-minded Anglos built or modified the region’s governmental and legal structures to contain and suppress Mexican-American populations, particularly laborers, who were exploited as they formed the foundation of a major U.S. agricultural industry.

Mark Allan Goldberg’s Conquering Sickness: Race, Health, and Colonization in the Texas Borderlands (University of Nebraska Press, 328 pp., $60) focuses on the same region but with an earlier timeframe and a different focus. Anglo and Spanish colonizers applied their standards of health to the Native Americans and Mexicans they found in the region and subsequently determined that because their European health standards practices were superior to indigenous standards and practices, the Europeans naturally deserved to control the region and its people. They used the network of religious missions or other controlled spaces to enforce European standards on the indigenous people, and they devalued the significance of indigenous understandings of health. For the colonizers, Goldberg’s important work explains, the issue of health became one more aspect of their larger ambitions for control and of the moral calculations made to justify that control.

David G. McComb’s The City in Texas: A History (University of Texas Press, 352 pp., $35) is an authoritative and much-needed analysis of the transformation of Texas from a land of rural and agricultural communities into a constellation of metro centers dominated by glittering skyscrapers, electrical wires, highways, and suburbs. Alan Lessoff’s newest work focuses on just one city with Where Texas Meets the Sea: Corpus Christi and Its History (University of Texas Press, 368 pp., $29.95). Full disclosure: I grew up in Corpus Christi, so I’ll consider pretty much any serious history about the Sparkling City by the Sea to be interesting, at least, but Lessoff’s history is exceptional — serious yet potentially appealing to both tourists and residents, brimming with fascinating stories, and built on solid and extensive research.

Jesse Cancelmo’s Glorious Gulf of Mexico: Life Below the Blue (Texas A&M University Press, 156 pp., $30) takes us below the waves to explore 600,000 square miles of incredible landscapes, vibrant coral reefs, and more than 15,000 different species. Cancelmo wants his readers to fully appreciate the complexity, beauty, and importance of the Gulf’s ecosystems, life cycles, and species. Readers should gain a more sophisticated understanding and appreciation of how the Gulf’s treasures enrich our world and our lives.

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Book gems of 2016
An occasional series
Jan. 3: Antiquity, Civil War, World War II, and space
June 22: Presidents and the political world
June 29: Texas and Texas history
July 6: Latin America
July 13: Slavery and the Civil War era
July 20: World War I and II, science, culture, and literature

Looking Back: Work that mattered

Today in 1921, Carmen Romero Phillips was born. She fulfilled her dream of becoming a nurse, but war gave her work more significance than she ever imagined.

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Today in 1921, Carmen Romero Phillips was born. She fulfilled her dream of becoming a nurse, but war gave her work more significance than she ever imagined.

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LOOKING BACK
A special series

During my time as a contributing editor to the magnificent Voces Oral History Project at the University of Texas at Austin, I came across some amazing stories. The project, which I celebrated in 2011, collects the stories of Latino veterans and civilians who saw and felt the effects of war, from World War II to Vietnam. This occasional series highlights a few of these fascinating lives.

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Carmen Romero Phillips, born on Jan. 19, 1921, was recruited as a military nurse even before she graduated from nursing school in 1943, and she was so good that her boss, an Air Force surgeon at her posting in California, requested her by name.

She served through 1945, caring mostly for wounded troops from the Pacific Theater. She also joined the Red Cross. In 1946, she moved to Corpus Christi to start a new nursing job, met her future husband, and settled in the Texas coastal city, eventually marrying and raising four children.

She never lost her determination to help wherever she could. On Sept. 11, 2001, when she was 83, she called the local Red Cross chapter and volunteered to help one more time.

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Visit the Voces website. Like them on Facebook. Follow them on Twitter.

Looking Back: Her honorable adventure

When the U.S. entered World War II, Bertha Flores faced down family tradition to serve in the Navy. It was an adventure she would never forget and an experience she would never regret.

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Today in 1921, Guadalupe Berta Rodriguez Flores was born in San Antonio, Texas. When the U.S. entered World War II, Flores faced down family tradition to serve in the Navy. It was an adventure she would never forget and an experience she would never regret.

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LOOKING BACK
A special series

During my time as a contributing editor to the magnificent Voces Oral History Project at the University of Texas at Austin, I came across some amazing stories. The project, which I celebrated in 2011, collects the stories of Latino veterans and civilians who saw and felt the effects of war, from World War II to Vietnam. This occasional series will highlight a few of these fascinating lives.

Bertha Flores, born on March 16, 1921, was raised in a quiet San Antonio family. Her father believed women belonged at home and no where else. The U.S. entered World War II in 1941, and he was not happy when his daughter joined the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or WAVES in 1943.

Her first big adventure came simply on the cross-country train trip from San Antonio to basic training in New York City. Flores marveled at every city and town she passed. She loved the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple and the variety of women she encountered as she prepared herself for wartime military service. Flores was one of only a handful of Latinas in her class. She made friends, danced, and trained to become a teletype operator.

She served at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, and she never forgot what the experience taught her. Read her wonderful profile here.

Visit the Voces website. Like them on Facebook. Follow them on Twitter.

‘To be ready to die’

Part 4 of this series focuses on Paul Horgan, a middle-aged novelist who in the summer of 1968 shared Aspen, Colo., with hippies, rich tourists, and others from whom he felt wearily disconnected.

This special Stillness of Heart series explores the Morgan Library & Museum’s fascinating exhibit, “The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives.”

Part 4 focuses on Paul Horgan, a middle-aged novelist who in the summer of 1968 shared Aspen, Colo., with hippies, rich tourists, and others from whom he felt wearily disconnected. Nevertheless, he took comfort and inspiration from his perch as a keen observer of the details that define and enrich daily life.

“I remember once being sent to bed physically ill because I could not be a part of the off-hand dinner conversation of a couple — young, beautiful, articulate — at the next table, in a hotel restaurant in Corpus Christi, Texas. To be ready to die because a beautiful young man and a beautiful girl were not known to me, or did not want me with them!”

Examine images of Horgan’s fascinating diary and learn more about him here.

Entries in this series:
Part 1: Introduction to the exhibit and Charlotte Brontë
Part 2: Frances Eliza Grenfell
Part 3: Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne
Part 4: Paul Horgan
Part 5: John Newton
Part 6: Mary Ann and Septimus Palairet
Part 7: Walter Scott
Part 8: Bartholomew Sharpe
Part 9: Tennessee Williams
Part 10: John Ruskin