After graduating Boston College in the mid-‘90s, I spent the better part of 20 years covering crime, including 14 years at the Boston Herald. Serial killers, gangland slayings, horrible domestic bloodbaths, catastrophic fires, workplace massacres, rapists, cults, houses of horrors—I reported on it all. So much so that I shifted to politics in the mid-2000s to get away from the so-called “blood and guts” beat—a term most used by jaded journos to describe covering nonstop violence. Even after I switched my focus to politics though, I often returned to breaking news and crime when major stories broke.
I did so for the last time on April 15, 2013, when the Tsarnaev brothers bombed the Boston Marathon, killing three and wounding more than 250. I was there in Watertown when they shot it out with an army of cops after they gunned down MIT Police Officer Sean Collier. And I was there in Watertown when they caught Dzhokhar Tsarnaev hiding in Dave Henneberry’s boat.
The marathon was the end for me with daily news. I still love journalism, but the daily grind of death and destruction and the parade of the dead takes its toll. So I left the Herald in November 2013 and wrote a book about the bombings called “Boston Strong: A City’s Triumph Over Tragedy,” the inspiration for which actually came from a New York City cop who took me into Ground Zero the day after the Twin Towers fell. The same officer texted me after the bombs went off on Boylston Street and told me: “Take good notes. You’re going to write a book about this someday.”
I thought nothing of it, but did what he said, and those meticulous notes I took during that April 2013 week became invaluable as I wrote the book with my co-author Casey Sherman.
The seeds for the book and my post-newspaper career were planted on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. I was 31 years old and had been at the Herald for two years. My daughter, who just started her senior year of high school last week, was just two. My mother had recently been diagnosed with cancer and was at our family home in Brockton, slowly dying.
I had just finished an investigative series for the Herald on the controversial Twelve Tribes cult, which ironically enough was back in the news recently because of racism allegations, and was getting ready to go to Plymouth to interview the group’s elusive leader, Eugene Spriggs. As I was packing up my stuff, I got a call from my editor who said, “Turn on the TV. I need you to go to New York.”
I flipped it on and saw one of the World Trade Center towers smoking from a plane that crashed into it.
“For what? It looks like a small plane hit a building in New York. Why are you sending me?” I asked.
“Well, the plane came out of Logan we think,” was his response.
Just as the words came out of his mouth, the second plane hit and my life, like all of our lives, changed forever. We both realized we were under attack.
“Get going. Now. Get in your car and drive to New York,” he told me.
“On my way.”
As I drove toward Manhattan on I-95, I fielded a flurry of calls from my mom, my sisters, my dad, friends. They all wanted to know why I was going down. My mother called and told me that a plane had also hit the Pentagon. Another crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.
“David, please. Please don’t go,” she pleaded with me.
“Mom, I’ll be fine. It’s my job and I have to go. I’ll be OK.”
I told her that if things got worse, to go pick up my daughter and my sister and drive to Vermont, where my other sister lived. My mom was crying. I lost her a year later.
Listening to the news on terrestrial radio—there was no real mobile internet, Sirius, Twitter, Facebook, etc. back then—I learned they were closing all roads in and out of New York. There was little traffic headed south on 95, save for ambulances, construction trucks, and emergency vehicles, but traffic was pretty heavy coming north.
I made it to Connecticut and pulled off an exit near the water. I asked around at a marina for someone to take me into the city. One salty ship owner told me the Coast Guard had all the waterways sealed off too. So I called one of my photographers who was from New York City and asked him how to get into the city. He directed me to an obscure parkway—I believe it was the Saw Mill—and said that would get me into the Bronx. From there, I would be on my own.
I made it into the Bronx, dumped my car in a fenced-in pay lot around 200th street, grabbed a couple notebooks and pens, my keys and the clothes on my back and started walking toward the war zone. I walked for several dozen blocks, watching a parade of ambulances and police cars whiz by me. I saw a cop getting in his cruiser on a corner, showed him my press pass and asked him to give me a ride downtown.
“Hop on the subway,” he said, pointing to a station behind me.
“The trains are running?” I asked, incredulous.
“Yeah,” he said casually.
I took his advice and hopped on some train that took me down to Church Street, where I exited. I later thought about how crazy it was to get onto a subway during a terror attack, but at the time, it never crossed my mind. I just needed to get to Ground Zero.
As I emerged from the train station, the streets were quiet and groups of people slowly sauntered toward me looking dazed, some covered in dust. A doctor came toward me with a few blood spots on his scrubs. I told him I was from the Boston Herald and asked if I could talk to him about what was going on.
“There’s no one down there to save,” he said, his voice cracking. He had a vacant look on his face. “There’s no one.”
I walked by Pace University, where hordes of volunteers were hammering together makeshift stretchers out of plywood and two-by-fours—none of which would ever be used as there was no one to rescue. I made my way down to Tribeca and into Ground Zero, walking through piles of dust and debris. There were no police barricades and no streets were blocked off. It was a war zone. I passed a fire engine that was crushed and was about as tall as me. I saw cars squashed like toys.
A thick, grayish smog hung in the air, haunting the scene as though created by special effects guys for a bad disaster movie. There was a smell too. It wasn’t quite smoke or burning, but it was distinct and there are times I can still smell it today. My footsteps occasionally puffed up that gray dust that we have all seen in so many videos and news clips. It covered my skin and hair. I wandered aimlessly, watching half-burned documents rain from the sky. I grabbed a few—one was from the First National Bank of China. The edges were charred. I still have it today.
I stumbled into a burned-out McDonald’s and found a group of firefighters, exhausted, smoking cigarettes and resting. Some were practically catatonic. The floor was completely flooded. No one was talking. I walked in, looked around, said nothing, and walked out.
I ran into an old friend from college who lived in the neighborhood. We walked to his apartment near Church Street, went on the roof and surveyed the carnage and chaos. At some point, I walked back uptown to the Paramount Hotel, where I had a room booked. I sent a bunch of color and quotes from witnesses back to another reporter who wrote up our story of the horror that was unfolding in New York.
I later met up with some fellow Herald reporters for dinner, including a photographer and a reporter who happened to be in town covering Fashion Week but shifted over to breaking news after the planes hit. Both looked pale and somber, like ghosts. The photographer told me he watched people jumping from the burning buildings. He had some of them in his sights as he snapped pictures of the building, but he told me he just couldn’t bring himself to take pictures of the people plunging to their deaths, even though he knew it was his job.
He no longer works in news.
I spent about 10 days in lower Manhattan covering the attacks and their aftermath. On Sept. 12, I met a cop from the First Precinct who took me and a photographer into Ground Zero. We were there when they pulled remains from the pile and when President Bush stood atop the wreckage with his bullhorn, vowing revenge. This cop became a great friend and I’ll always appreciate how he helped me through that hell in New York and guided me when terror hit Boston a decade later.
When I returned here from New York, I never looked at my job, the news, or life the same again. So many of the routine crime, court, and corruption stories that I covered after that seemed mundane. A grizzled old veteran photo editor told me upon my return: “You’re not a kid anymore.”
As I reflect 15 years after 9/11, I really don’t know how I feel. Part of me simply feels the march of time, but part of me feels anger and sadness at a world that hasn’t learned many lessons from that horrible tragedy. Really, the only lesson we’ve all learned is that terrorism is a harsh reality of life as we know it. Us Gen Xers knew nothing of war until Desert Storm in 1991, and were completely shocked that something like 9/11 could ever happen on American soil. But those born in the mid-90s or later only know a world where war is constant and deadly terrorism at home is not only a possibility, but a likelihood. It makes me sad that my children only know this world, and not the one before it all changed when jetliners became missiles in New York and Washington, D.C.
Sometimes I reflect on the way people helped each other in New York after the attacks. I saw that same spirit in Boston after the bombings and continue to see it in the resilience of the survivors and in the generosity of those who have helped those impacted by the Boston bombings.
It’s amazing to think about how back on 9/11, 15 years ago, my daughter was in diapers and was watching Dora the Explorer and Spongebob. A couple weeks ago, she bought her first car and she just started her senior year of high school. As she goes off to college next year, I can only hope that she and her entire generation, as well as those behind her, can embrace that spirit of communal kindness and help make this world a better place, so we have less of these tragic anniversaries to celebrate in the future.