One Day in September

By Mitch Traphagen (

RUSKIN - Look at the dateline of this edition of the Observer News. It is a date that now and forever will hold meaning.

There are probably those who just wish it would all go away. The second anniversary of September 11, 2001, means that the images will again be relived on television and in newspapers, the horrible memories of that day will be played again. "Let it go," some may say.

But we canít let it go. Like it or not, that day is a part of us now, it has reshaped this country, it has reshaped the world.

If the United States of America had any innocence left in early September of 2001, a good piece of it was taken at 8:46 a.m. on the eleventh. We were caught with our guard down, we assumed that nothing so horrific could happen to us on our soil. We canít let it go because we canít let it be forgotten, we canít be caught unaware again.

Heroes emerged that day. Hundreds of them never returned home. The police officers, firefighters and office workers who sacrificed themselves to save others were likely heroes before September 11 but we had grown complacent, we failed to appreciate. We canít let it go because we canít grow complacent again. And we canít forget them. They ran straight into hell as thousands of others were running out. They deserve our remembrance now and forever.

I was accidentally caught up in history on September 11, 2001. It was all on chance that I was able to report the story. I hope that I never have that chance again.

This is my story.

I had just started taking pictures for the Observer News publications the month before. My first photographs ran the first week in August, it was fun seeing my work in print.

By the end of August, however, I was beginning to get discouraged. It appeared, at that time, that there were limited things to photograph in south county that were newsworthy. By early September, I was down to only a few photographs in the paper and was limited to taking pictures of welcome signs and semi-interesting buildings.

On September 10, 2001, my wife suggested that I go down to Sarasota the next day to see if I could get a few pictures of President Bush. He was scheduled to speak at an elementary school there. I went back and forth but eventually decided to go knowing full well that there was little likelihood that I would even get a clear shot at photographing the president.

On September 11, I left around 5:00 a.m. for Sarasota. I ate and drank very little guessing, correctly it turned out, that bathroom opportunities would be few and far between. It was still dark when I stopped at a convenience store to check my directions to the school. I was fully expecting that several square blocks around the school would be cordoned off by the Secret Service and was therefore very surprised that I was able to park almost directly across the street from the school.

Some protest groups were just setting up and a few local television stations were beginning to arrive as I wandered around wondering what to do next. I shot a few pictures and finally asked a security guard if there was a press area. She told me to walk around to the back of the school.

As I got around to the back, I saw a table with two women who were checking in the various reporters and news crews. TV trucks and cables were everywhere. Directly behind the table were piles of cameras and recording equipment scattered about. I wasn't sure what to do so I just hung out for a while.

I noticed that some of the news people had green paper ID tags. I assumed that one of those was needed to get into the school. I finally summoned up the courage to go to the table to find out about getting in to take pictures of the president's speech.

When I got to the table I saw that both women had multiple pages of names and organizations that had pre-registered with the White House Press Office to cover the event. I asked if I could get in. The woman said, "no, you had to pre-register."

"Damn," I thought to myself. I wandered around the area for a bit longer taking a few random pictures. I didn't know if the President was already there or not. I decided to try again.

I asked if I could get in even though I didn't pre-register. I showed her my press pass from the Observer News. The other woman at the table apparently took pity on me and said that I would have to ask someone from the White House Press Office. The woman at the table even went so far as to call the woman in charge over on her radio.

When the woman from the White House appeared outside near the table she was mobbed by people asking questions. I hung out hoping that I could get a moment to ask her about getting in. She finally made it to the table to see why she was paged and the woman at the press table told her that I was hoping to get in to take pictures.

She grabbed my press pass and gave it a quick look. She then held it up and asked, "Has anyone heard of this newspaper?" Someone - I believe it was the woman at the table said, "The Shopper? I've heard of them." "OK - let him in," said the woman from the White House.

This time, I guess, it paid to have a ubiquitous name. Who knows what Shopper the woman had heard of?

I was told to leave my camera bag on the cement behind the press table and to get in line to enter the building. The line, I assumed, was to go through security.

It was then that I remembered my Swiss Army knife. I was fairly certain that the Secret Service wouldn't be overly fond of someone having a knife in close proximity to the President so I asked the first woman at the table what I should do with it. She didn't know. I thought about just tossing it out into the schoolyard but worried that a child would find it and possibly get hurt.

In the end, I just left it on the press table and got in line.

Once through the metal detector all of the members of the press were held in a room with a few bleachers. We were told to wait while our equipment was checked out.

After about 10 minutes we were told to move quickly as a group to get our equipment and then proceed into the school's media center. We were told again to move quickly and to stay together as a group. We were also told not to talk.

When we got into the media center, I didn't know where to go. Most of the children and guests were already assembled and waiting for the president. The television crews from the networks were mostly set up with a direct shot of the podium. I thought about grabbing a folding chair in front of the cameras but I didn't think that I would get a good shot if I was sitting down.

The major media had their places assigned with their names, CNN, NBC, etc., on sheets of paper taped to the risers on which the cameras were mounted. My wandering apparently caught someone's attention and I was asked who I was with. I showed my pass and was told to pick out a spot on the risers to the left (to the right of the president). Photographers from the Tampa Tribune and the St. Pete Times were on my immediate left and a television cameraman was on my immediate right.

I put my telephoto lens and brand new flash on my camera and shot several test pictures. All seemed well.

All things considered, particularly since I was probably in over my head in all this, things seemed pretty normal until the TV cameraman on my right said in a quiet voice, "Holy sh*t! An airplane just hit the World Trade Center." He was sitting down on the riser below me and I noticed, oddly enough, that he was reading a Private Pilot flying magazine. I assumed that he got the news on his pager. 

Things started to get a little weird after that. Security agents began appearing in greater numbers. No one was overly freaked out but there was a definite increase in activity. I could see a few Secret Service people meeting in a small room just off the media center. That room had a few televisions in it. Sheriff's deputies and plainclothes security people started moving a bit faster.

After the Secret Service people left the small room, members of the media started filing in to see what was happening on the television sets.

NBC's Today Show was on and it was showing a live shot of smoke pouring out of one of the towers. I wandered back and forth between the small room and my place on the risers until we were told to take our places and turn off our pagers and cell phones.

They said that the president would be out in minutes for a short address.

I thought I shot a lot of pictures of the president but in retrospect I didn't. When he came out, for some reason I remember thinking, "what if it's just a look-a-like of the president?" I looked close, decided he was real and then shot a few more pictures. The entire scene was surreal.

I had the small tape player running in my pocket, not knowing if anything would get picked up. I was focused on getting the pictures and my mind was reeling.

I didn't really listen to what he was saying. I remember the words `apparent terrorist attack' and hearing the implication that there were two attacks. That was the first that I had heard of either bits of news. The last time I saw the television set, there was smoke pouring out of one tower - I didn't know the other had been hit as well.

I think that I'm an analytical person but I couldn't get my mind around a large jetliner hitting a skyscraper. Having worked in a large skyscraper, I was familiar with them. I have also been in large airplanes. I couldn't conceive of what would happen if one had hit the other.

Since none of this seemed real, I couldn't even think about the loss of life. When President Bush asked for a moment of silence for the victims of the disaster, I felt a brief twinge of guilt as I shot a picture of him with his head bowed down. Only recently have I seen the footage of him bowing his head and seeing not only my flash but at least one or two more going off.

I didnít want to be disrespectful but I felt that I had to do my job. It was a part of history that needed to be shared by those who were not there.

The President left the room in a hurry. I still didn't completely comprehend the magnitude of what had just happened in New York.

The Lt. Governor of Florida, Frank Brogan, came out with a happy face to finish up the planned events. I actually shot a few pictures of him before I came to my senses and got out of there. The Tribune and Times photographers were still there when I left.

Of course there was no security getting out of the building. I went back to where the press table was and to my surprise, found my Swiss Army knife still sitting on the now empty table. CNN was gearing up to broadcast live just feet away.

I had no idea what to do next. I decided that I would head for the airport to try to catch Air Force One taking off.

For some reason, however, I really didn't move quickly. Things were just starting to sink in. I did notice that all of the protest groups had packed up and gone home. I assumed that they decided that their message wasn't as important as what was going on that morning. In all likelihood, they just went home to watch it all on TV.

As I neared the airport I saw cars pulled over with people looking towards the runway. I hoped that I still had time. By this time I had received several pages from my wife asking if I was OK, telling me that she was OK.

I made it in to the terminal at Sarasota Bradenton International Airport but it was empty. It was almost eerie empty. There was a long line of sheriff's cars out front but virtually no one was in the terminal. I shot a few pictures of some people in fatigues and police officers as they walked through the gate area. I tried to call my wife and the office from a pay phone in the empty terminal but couldn't get through. I was standing in the general area of maybe three other reporters when a police officer walked over and told us to leave.

He mentioned that there were eight other planes unaccounted for and they wanted everyone out of the terminal. I left.

I still didn't know what to do. I was hesitant to leave Sarasota because it seemed like there were still things going on. I went through a drive-thru to get a breakfast sandwich. The person at the drive-thru didn't seem freaked out. I wondered if she could guess that I was just recently standing near the president. I wondered if she even knew that the world had just changed.

I had heard sporadic reports from a Tampa radio station. An announcer in Tampa was doing a telephone interview with someone in New York. The person in New York said, in a tightly controlled voice, that one of the towers was gone. The reporter in Tampa didn't believe it. He grasped for other explanations as to how it may just appear to be gone. I didn't believe it either.

I couldn't even begin to think about all of the people. None of it seemed possible. I couldn't get my mind around any of it.

I decided that I better get back to Ruskin quickly. Traffic was incredibly bad and it was a very slow trip north on U.S. 41.

On the drive up my wife paged me again to tell me her mom was OK and that downtown Chicago, where she worked, was being evacuated.

When I arrived in Ruskin, I ran into the Observer office and everyone was watching a little five inch black and white TV. "Would you like pictures of the President?" I asked.

That started a new phase of the day. The publisher, Brenda Knowles, having a sense of perspective and responsibility in all of the madness, told me to quickly write down my thoughts. I found out almost a year later that she literally had to call in a `stop the presses' to stop that weekís edition from printing.

After telling everyone my story of the morning I ran home to try to write something. I called a photojournalist friend in Minneapolis on his cell phone to talk to him about what had happened. He worked for one of the major daily newspapers in the Twin Cities.

He told me to pick out four of my pictures and quickly email them to his boss. He said that there was so much confusion, it was possible that the Associated Press would be out of commission so they may need my photographs.

Up to this point, I had not yet been able to watch things unfold on television. When I turned on the set, it literally seemed like the world was coming apart. There were reports of car bombs and another plane down.

I listened to my tape, threw together what I could for a story and quickly returned to the office.

I also called my hometown paper, the Worthington Daily Globe, and they asked me to send pictures and a story. It ran the next day.

As it turned out, the AP never did go down and my photographs never did run in the Minneapolis paper.

I talked with my family that night. What a strange and painful day. I knew then that things would never be the same. What I didn't know is if things would be better or worse, I probably assumed that they would be worse.

Except for going to Tampa International Airport, I spent the next few days doing nothing but watching the news.

The surreal nature of it all continued for me. For the next few days, I couldn't get over the idea that there were no airplanes in the sky over the U.S. The loss of life struck me deeply. The stories people told all hit hard. It all seemed like a weird, bad dream. I wondered what the future would hold, what the U.S. response would be to this. Again, I assumed the worst.

I was at Tampa International Airport on the day that flights were resumed. There were a few uncomfortable moments when the departures and arrivals monitors showed flights one minute and then showed them all as cancelled the next. Once again, I assumed the worst. A flight did finally take off and the few people in the terminal cheered as it did.

Tropical storm Gabrielle blew through a few days later furthering the surreal events of the week. The wind blew hard and steady and the rain kept falling.

If that was a tropical storm I knew that I never wanted to see a hurricane. The arrival of the storm didn't receive even a fraction of the media madness that it would have otherwise commanded. September 11 was all in the news, a tropical storm didn't much matter.

It turned out that it was much stronger than most were lead to believe but it barely caused a blip on the media-meter. I went out as things started to calm down to shoot pictures. My favorite was of a tattered American flag flying through the storm. It seemed fitting.

I had set the time carefully on my digital camera. I realized, more than a year later, that I actually shot a picture at 8:46 (and 38 seconds). The picture was a test shot Ė it was of children waiting to see the president. An airplane was just striking the north tower at that time.

Mitch Traphagen Photos

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