9/11: Ten Years Gone

Dennis Willis

September 9th, 2011


It’s interesting how our resilient brains cope with unspeakable things.

Oddly, people tend to juxtapose world-shaking tragedy with something grounded and optimistic.   How many times, upon hearing about a death, do we say “I just talked to him yesterday!”  As if one thing had to do with the other.  And how many people recalled the horrible events of September 11, 2001 by recalling what a perfect blue-skied New York morning it was?  That’s kind of how I feel as I relate Soundwaves to the events of that day.

It was a good time, creatively.  We had just kicked off a new season with an epic Hollywood-based episode with Steven Kirk, Amy Atkinson and our director Scott Beale.  The road trip had been awesome, filled with happiness, much laughter and a shoot at Universal Studios Hollywood.  It also featured an interview with one of my Bay Area idols, the great Dave Morey from KFOG radio.  We were all high on the show, and the episodes that would follow.

Then, on September 11th, I was awakened by a call from Rob Krueger, a longtime-friend and part of our sound team on the annual Christmas show.  He said, “Terrorists have attacked America.  They flew planes into the World Trade Center.”

Those words simply didn’t make sense in the same sentence together.

For the moment, let’s forget about the years that followed – the political polarization that further divided a nation still reeling from a heavily-contested election, the abuses of power, the march to war, the economic collapse, the rights and wrongs of it all, the theories about what really happened that day.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, a deep sadness permeated the consciousness, the feeling that something had been broken.   People of every age, and every political stripe, felt the same thing.  They wanted to do…something.  It wasn’t cynical or calculated.  People just wanted to help where they could.  And when they couldn’t help, they mobilized.  They marched, they held vigils, they prayed.

We never intended to do a “September 11th” edition of Soundwaves.  It just seemed like a crass thing, to push entertainment on people when they were hurting.   The late night comedy shows were on hold, as was Saturday Night Live.  Who the hell wanted to watch music videos?  Then on September 15th, we found out about a march and vigil that was happening in our small coastal city of Pacifica the following night.  I’m not sure exactly who thought of it, but by the time I got off the phone with our director Scott Beale, we had decided that we had to be there.

With barely a plan, we arrived at Terra Nova High School at dusk  About a hundred people had assembled with candles and signs.  Scott framed Amy and I in front of the flag pole and we just began talking.  Amy soberly recounted the attack on the World Trade Center and fought to keep her composure.  It struck me that the thing to do was to talk about the feeling in the air, how there are no words for the pain, but that everyone was feeling the need to do something, anything.

We interviewed some people, including George Mauro, a local cameraman who had recently visited the World Trade Center and had shot video from its observation deck.  George graciously allowed us to show it, as well as an animation that showed the towers disappearing to reflect New York’s new skyline.  It was sobering and powerful.

My wife Sarah, a United Airlines flight attendant (who recently returned after getting stuck across the country when the flights were grounded) agreed to share her thoughts.  Her resolve was evident, but she concluded with a hopeful message, that “We are united, we are American,” citing both airlines that had lost crews and passengers in the attacks.

We marched, talking to people as we went, and occasionally falling into a chorus of “America the Beautiful.”  We wrapped up at a vigil at the beach and I headed back to the studio to edit.  Less than 24 hours later, the show replaced our Universal Studios edition in the rotation.  We heard from people who couldn’t make it to the vigil and were thankful to be able to watch it on TV.  Random people would stop me on the street and thank me for that program.  Somehow, our stupid little music show tapped into the thing everyone was feeling and became bigger than all of us for just a moment.

It’s odd to think back on the experience with the jaded perspective of the ten years that followed.   We are divided politically over multiple wars, a horrible economy, and a deep cynicism for the entire political process.  But for a brief time, we all felt the need to come together and do something.

And like my initial sense at the time, it feels incredibly self-serving to tell my little Soundwaves stories at a time when people are reflecting on one of the most earth-shattering tragedies of modern times, an event that, ten years later, still confounds and perplexes.  But maybe that’s point.  David Letterman, upon returning to the air, soberly tried to put the whole thing into perspective and finally intoned that the attacks “will never make any goddamn sense.”  His words, and the feelings behind them, were primal.

On this weekend, we remember those lost in and affected by this unspeakable tragedy.  But I choose to also remember that the world came together, however briefly.  The constant here is that when it really, really matters, people rise up and do the right thing.  They coalesce into a community and leave their politics at home.

It happened last year in San Bruno, it happened ten years ago, and it will happen again, God forbid, the next time it has to.


This clip from Soundwaves #500 recalls some of the serious topics we’ve covered, and is linked to excerpts from the 9/11 episode.





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