Oliver: Terrorist attacks of 20 years ago left their mark on nation, each of us

Too bad united sense of purpose right after 9/11 didn’t last very long

How blue the sky was on Sept. 11, 2001, has never left me. Maybe that’s because its serenity stood in such sharp contrast with the horrors of the day.

Since I worked on the copy desk at the Northwest Herald the night before, I still was in bed when the phone rang that fateful morning. It was our newsroom clerk with a message from our editor: “Get up and turn on a TV.”

No one could have prepared me for what I was seeing. That beautiful blue sky was over New York City, too, but there was also an enormous plume of smoke coming from one of the World Trade Center towers.

Was it an accident? In those first few moments, it was hard to tell. A plane had definitely hit the building and that alone would have been shocking.

Moments later, a second plane hit the other tower. No, this was no accident, and no doubt I wasn’t the only one that day that had a hard time processing what was going on.

It looked like something out of a movie, and I had to remind myself over and over again that this wasn’t a stunt, that what I was seeing wasn’t a Hollywood creation.

There were real people in those buildings, and dread and horror swept over me.

That feeling permeated the rest of that day and many more to come. As the front-page editor at the time, I was intimately involved in how we presented the news of that day, as well as those that followed.

When it became apparent that the Pentagon building had been attacked as well, it was easy to see that this was the biggest event that had happened to me as a journalist, but also one of the biggest for the country too.

As more and more details became available, there was the news, too, of that plane over Pennsylvania, where the passengers had heroically fought back so that no one else would be killed.

To say that I cried that day would be an understatement. I found myself weeping often as each new detail came across the wire services that day.

Much of that day remains a blur. A blaring TV located above my desk showed the planes going into those buildings over and over again. My adrenaline level no doubt was running a lot higher than normal.

I remember vividly getting a little edgy with a co-worker and my managing editor coming over and quietly reminding me that we were all under a lot of stress. That simple act helped me refocus.

Those days were filled with photos of unspeakable horrors that never saw print, with stories of the individuals who lost their lives in the attacks. The photo from the first firefighter’s funeral just about broke me.

No wonder that when a plane crashed two months after 9/11, I was barely able to put together that front page, experiencing what could only be described as a post-traumatic stress incident.

The attacks forced me to face the loss of my father in ways I hadn’t done previously. It made me fear the loss of my husband, who was a volunteer EMT and firefighter at the time. And it reminded me that the relative sense of security I had felt here in the U.S. was illusory. The problems of the rest of the planet could – and do – happen here.

Perhaps that’s why it’s so sad that the shared sense of purpose right after the attacks in 2001 didn’t last very long. The nation seems to be so fractured these days, even though once again we face a common enemy, this time a global pandemic.

That day in 2001 changed so many things, from airport security to how alert a lot of us still are about our surroundings. In a lot of ways, the attacks left their mark on American life as we know it.

At the very least, they left their mark on me.

Joan Oliver is the former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at

Joan Oliver

Joan Oliver

A 30-year newspaper veteran who has been a copy editor, front-page editor, presentation editor, assistant news editor and publication editor, as well as a columnist and host of an online newspaper newscast.