I've often heard people say they will never forget where they were and what they were doing the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963. While that big day in history happened before my time, I've come to realize 9/11 is exactly the same; no matter who I ask, no matter where they're from, and no matter what their background is, everyone remembers what they were doing the day those two planes hit the World Trade Center. This is my story, and I'll always remember how it changed both my personal and professional life.
Ten years ago I was starting my first year of university. I was studying journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto and it was literally my first real day of class.
I chose journalism because I always admired the people who dedicated their lives to telling stories and helping the world document and remember every part of life. Be it a global war, a local business story or noting who won the Stanley Cup, I looked up to journalists and wanted to be part of the group of people who we all turn to on a daily basis to tell us what is going on around us.
Sept. 11, 2001 was a Tuesday. I never remember what happened on a particular day of the week, but I will never forget this Tuesday because it was my first day of newspaper class.
Myself and a group of about 30 nervous first-year students were spread out throughout a computer lab, anxiously waiting to see what our professor was going to throw at us. Nobody knew anyone else in the class, and nobody knew what to expect.
Early into the class, the professor started lecturing us on what to expect for the year, and what a journalist does. I remember hearing words like "nut graph" and "the lede" and wondering how I was going to remember all these strange terms to describe various parts of a news story.
I had also just bought a copy of the CP stylebook that every journalism student must have, and I remember sitting there looking at this several-hundred-page monster, stressing out about how I was going to jam all of its contents into my head in a matter of weeks.
Ryerson is famous for its journalism program, and its graduates are often the first to be snapped up after finishing the program because the four-year education they get is industry-leading. I sat there wondering how I was going to be able to do any of it, as we were only just starting out and I already had more work to do in one day than I would typically handle in a month.
My first class was an eight-hour day and it was part lecture, part hands-on learning. My classmates and I were all very anxious about what was going to be thrown at us, but little did we know it was not the day's work that would end up throwing us into a frenzy. It was the events that occurred almost as soon as the day started that would change me forever.
After some lecturing, commotion began to fill the halls. "Did you see that," I remember hearing a someone yell from the lounge. "Ohhhhhhhhhhh," someone else yelled in response.
The journalism lounge was small, but it quickly filled with students who were huddling around a television playing 24-hour news. Our class was given a break, and we flooded into the halls to see what the commotion was all about.
A huge plane had crashed into the World Trade Center and the TV was looping images of one of the towers burning. Details were scarce, but speculation was abundant as everyone tried to figure out what happened. To say this was a big story in the world of news is an understatement, and we didn't have a clue what was happening. It didn't even cross our minds that as journalists it would be our job to figure it out.
A good journalist listens and asks questions, and while this was only our first real day of school, the natural journalist in all of us came out without any teaching. What happened? Was it an accident? Who is behind this? Is it an attack or did something go wrong? We all had dozens of questions and we barked at the TV to give us answers.
Then the second plane hit, and silence strangled the crowd. Nobody said a word. The newscasters on the screen, many of whom had decades of experience, didn't know what to say either. Eventually images of a plane crashing into the building replayed on the television, over and over and over. Then, as if someone pressed a button to unmute the conversation, everyone began talking again all at once. More questions. Shock. Sadness. Fear.
Break time was over and we funneled back into the class. We were being given the quick run-down on how to "chase" a story and how to start digging for information. It was only our first day, but we were being thrown into the thick of running a newsroom. Questions, questions and more questions continued to pour out, and our professor attempted to calm and direct us to focus on the task at hand. For him, it was like herding cats; we were all green and anxious to earn a stripe, and so many of us were in total shock about what we had just seen.
Then the first building fell.
More shock, more questions and more fear. The TV was cranked up at this point and on-air commentators were talking about several planes potentially being hijacked. People moved in and out of the room between the lounge where the TV was and the classroom.
The image of the tower collapsing took what was already a massive event and made it one of the most horrifying things we had ever witnessed.
We were taught for the better part of the morning, and then we were thrown out into the city to do "streeters," a journalism term meaning unplanned interviews with people on the street. We were told to go out and find out what was happening, speak to as many people as we could and get their thoughts on what had happened.
This was my first day. I had no idea how to interview someone. No idea what to ask. No idea how to even approach or find people to talk to. I had just witnessed the single biggest news story of the last several decades, and it was now my job to go cover it.
Hitting the streets, it quickly became obvious everyone in Toronto was scared the attacks in New York would not be isolated. City buildings were being evacuated, students were rushing to subways and buses to get home. People were absolutely terrified about Toronto, and its famous CN Tower, being next on the list of places to target.
When I began stopping people to find out what they were thinking and how they were feeling, I was overwhelmed by how scared they were. Everyone I spoke began inundating me with questions, as though I was supposed to have all the answers about what was happening.
I spoke to a lot of people and pen and paper in hand, I fiercely scribbled what they were saying and attempted to convey information to them that I had seen from the news wires. I didn't know what I was doing, but realized in times of crisis, telling stories and conveying information was coming naturally to me.
Sept. 11, 2001 was a tragic day in which thousands of people lost their lives. Families separated. People injured. The world changed. I will forever remember that day not only because of the events that unfolded, but also because it was the day I realized just how important media outlets are in telling stories.
Without journalists, the public would not know what is happening. In journalism every story has "who, what, when, where, why and how" elements that need to be answered, so every story is complete and so that every person who turns to media to understand a story gets the full picture. Journalists are the people who do that, day in and day out, to keep us informed.
On 9/11 I realized the common element with every news story, every natural disaster and every moment in time is one thing: People. At the center of every celebration is a person. At the center of every tragedy is a person. At the center of every story is a person.
While 9/11 started out as a story assignment for me to cover as a journalist, I will forever remember it for the people.
This article is part of Digital Journal's project to remember September 11. If you have a story to tell, join us on Facebook and Twitter, and post your memories to Digital Journal. Full details on how to participate can be found here. You can also read other submissions on our September 11 Anniversary page.