Friday, September 11, 2009

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

The day when business stopped

On this day last year, this journalist found himself at a loss for words, perhaps for the first time ever.

I was interviewing retired Deputy FDNY Chief Al Santora and his wife, Maureen, on a rainy, grey morning, with the remnants of Tropical Storm Hanna racing over St. Michael’s Cemetery in the Woodside section of the borough of Queens in New York City.

Even then, seven years after the collapse of the South Tower of the World Trade Center killed their firefighter son, Christopher, the Santoras still seemed to be in a state of shock, experiencing a grief perhaps unique to parents who outlive their children.

Hardly a cub reporter, I found myself thrown back to Journalism 101: What should I say to the Santoras? What kind of questions should I ask?

It seemed absurd to ask them what they were feeling on this day of mourning – it being a question seeming both trite and obvious. Still, I thought, people should know exactly what they are feeling, to know exactly what a terrible toll that day wrought on hundreds of families.

With every anniversary, many Americans try anew to make sense out of a basically senseless tragedy. In cities and towns across the nation – including our own – dignitaries, first responders and a dwindling number of onlookers take a moment to stop what they are doing, to pause and reflect. “I’m here to remember, and that’s it,” said Marilyn Sigler at this morning’s memorial service in the amphitheater at Vancouver Landing.

Also at the service, Vancouver Fire Chief Don Bivins dispelled any doubt about the continued relevance of Sept. 11 observances, eight years after the first plane hit WTC’s North Tower, kicking off a day of death and destruction. “May we remember always the inhumanity and injustice that was visited upon 3,017 of us that day,” he said.

Today’s service in Vancouver, taking place under clear, blue skies, seemed the perfect counterpoint to my interview last year with Al and Maureen Santora – both of whom continue to advocate on behalf of Sept. 11 victims and their families from their modest home in Long Island City, a place just across the East River from the towers of Manhattan.

It wasn’t much of an interview and I didn’t get a front page story that day.

I heard them talk about Christopher – a rookie member of FDNY’s Engine 54 for two months before he died at age 23. When they finished speaking, I shook Al Santora’s hand. Before I ran back to my car to feed the meter, I remembered to say one important thing:

“I’m sorry.”


Kathryn said...

This is a really nice piece.