Don Dahler: Dust to Dust – From Ground Zero to Afghanistan

Ground Zero after September 11 attacks (credit: Getty Images)

Ground Zero after September 11 attacks (credit: Getty Images)

On 9/11, Dahler was the first network correspondent to report live from the scene of the World Trade Center attacks and continued reporting from Ground Zero through the following two weeks of rescue and recovery attempts. Dahler was also among the first American journalists to enter Afghanistan prior to U.S. military action against the Taliban regime. He filed live reports on the weeklong siege of Konduz around the clock for Good Morning America, World News Tonight, ABCNEWS Radio, and ABCNEWS.com. In 2002, Dahler along with his producer and camera crew slipped across the Syrian border into northern Iraq for a series of exclusive reports on the Kurds. He also covered the war in Iraq as an embedded journalist, first during the initial invasion with the 101st Airborne, traveling and living with the Army soldiers, going on foot-patrols and aerial assaults alongside the front-line troops, and later with other Army and Marine units.

Here are his personal thoughts on that day and how our world was forever changed.

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You never think you’re living history.  That’s something you read about.  Maybe, for some of us, something you studied in college. There are events that happen, of course, that are obviously historic at the time they happen, the fall of the Berlin wall, for instance, or the assassination of John F. Kennedy; things that occur to other people and which historians eventually put into perspective by other larger and smaller events. But on the morning of September 11th, 2001, we all witnessed one of the crystalline moments of world history, a moment so pivotal it was as if God reached down and gave the earth a flick of his finger and set everything off on a different spin. It has all changed for us, for America, for the world. The rules of how we live, of whom we trust, of how we view our own security, of how we conduct war, of how we define peace, of what we hold most important.

In the twenty years I’ve been a professional journalist I’ve seen some horrible things: Rows of skulls stacked roadside in Uganda, thousands of skulls from thousands of victims of the civil war, picked up from shallow graves in verdant fields by farmers whose cattle were tripping over the piles of bones.

The baleful eyes of a twelve-year-old soldier peering at me down the sights of an AK-47, weighing the entertainment value of splattering my brains over the inside of my jeep versus the trouble he might get in by his commanders if I was, indeed, allowed to pass the checkpoint.

The twisted, smoking, impossibly bloody wreckage of what, moments earlier before I happened upon it, had been a car, but which, after running over a landmine, was now yet another sculpture of war; still-life of wasted lives.

The shattered arm of a young Kosovar Albanian boy, who fought through tears to tell me the story of when the Serbs came to his home, and shot his entire family – mother, sisters, brothers – then set fire to the house. He stifled his cries of pain from the bullet wound in his arm and played dead while the flames grew more intense, then when the masked soldiers left, he tried to pick up his whimpering baby sister and carry her out the window. But because of the broken bone, his arm wouldn’t do what his mind was telling it to, so at the last minute as his home became engulfed, he had to leave his sister behind and run through the night. He has nightmares, he tells me, of looking back through the window and meeting her terrified gaze.

But none of what I’ve seen and reported on compares to the events of that Tuesday morning, when a handful of warped and resentful men managed to extinguish thousands of innocent lives and seize the hearts of millions of blameless others with fear and confusion.

Before September 11th, the world was out there, with its troubles and complexities and sorrows. I, as a documentary maker and later, network correspondent, visited the world and reported back to my fellow Americans on the horrors/beauties that it held for me. But the attacks of that day erased whatever veil or window or lens we used to separate ourselves from the rest of humanity. It’s all gone now. There is evil walking amongst us now, a very real, tangible, lethal, and deliberate evil. It came here, and we all saw it, and we are forever different.

Through a quirk of fate, I was an eyewitness to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and reported on them and the proceeding events for ABC-News. I then volunteered for and was sent to Afghanistan to report on the other side of the story; the retribution. That meant spending time on the front lines of a long-forgotten, little understood war in a country most Americans couldn’t have picked on a map if you gave them a hemisphere’s head start.

I went from walking through the dust of a pulverized symbol of audacious accomplishment, to the dust of a country victimized by centuries of neglect and invasion and drought. The similarities are many. The answers few.

On the morning of 9/11/01, I roused from bed later than usual and poured myself a cup of coffee. Our Duane Street loft, five blocks north of the World Trade Center, was one large room on the third floor of a converted warehouse, considered classic and trendy now, but not too many years ago was marginal living for artists who could afford little else. Living room, kitchen, office and bedroom are all points of the compass, with no walls breaking up the space. Eighteen-foot ceilings, exposed brick and hardwood floors make it seem more spacious than a typical cookie-cutter New York City apartment, and long ago I decided not to partition it into rooms. As a result, my walk that morning from covers to coffee-maker took me through no doorways. I was headed to the couch with a mug of Starbucks Kenyan AA when the sound split the air.

It was like a giant ripping of fabric, a shriek and deep roar all at once, followed by a huge explosion. It was a sound I’d heard before, but only in countries at war. Never in the U.S., and certainly not in lower Manhattan.

“That’s a missile,” I said to my girlfriend (now wife) Katie, not believing it as I said it, but not thinking it could be anything else.

“No, that’s just a truck or something,” she replied, but her eyes showed uncertainty. By that time, I’d made it to the window and looked up just as a massive fireball billowed out of the side of WTC Building.

“They’ve hit the World Trade Center,” I said. I had no idea who “they” were, but even then in an unexplainable way it seemed to me like an act of aggression not an accident, and I was still pretty sure it was some kind of missile that opened a gigantic gaping hole in one of the world’s largest buildings. Looking up into the maw I could see twenty-foot flames gouting out. The interior of the hole was dark, but through the smoke and flames some of the building’s enormous steel support beams were visible.

I spun around and began searching for the phone. The clock next to the bed said 8:49.

Our television stands to the right of the windows, and it seemed like mere seconds before Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America were saying something about reports of a small plane hitting the World Trade Center. I finally located the phone’s handset and dialed the GMA control room, a number I knew by heart through years of early morning conversations with the show’s producers while on assignment for them in one place or another.

Melissa Thomas, a bright and extremely competent young producer answered. I quickly told her I was just a few blocks away from the WTC and was looking right at the burning building. Without hesitation, Melissa shouted “Phoner! Dahler’s on line 6 at the scene!” and in an instant my voice was patched in live to the studio, where I tried to put into words what I was seeing.

That was the beginning of my two weeks of straight around-the-clock coverage of the most important story of our lives. I was describing the flames and whether there were any rescue attempts visible when the second plane hit, and for days later radio news programs would replay my astonished reaction, “Oh my God!” as if it were the “Oh, the humanity” of our times.

When World Trade Center Building Two began to collapse, and floor after floor folded in on themselves with the exponential power of a small nuclear weapon, I had to explain to a disbelieving Peter Jennings on nationwide TV that, no, it wasn’t just part of the building that had fallen, it was the entire structure. I remember the odd feeling of hearing the thuds of each floor pulverizing the next come to me through the ground first, and then the air, like the coming of a terrible train you feel first through the tracks.

I’m told I was the first on the air that morning, explaining to a stunned nation that their eyes weren’t lying to them. I wouldn’t know; I didn’t see television, or listen to a radio, or even read a newspaper for a week. I stayed downtown, afraid to leave the area because the NYPD wasn’t letting people come back in, even credentialed press whose passes state clearly they are to be allowed past police and fire lines wherever formed. I took naps in my apartment that was without power or phones, and worked a story that became all-consuming.

What stand out in my memory are the voices, and the faces behind them. The police K-9 rescue team who jumped in their truck moments after the first plane hit and drove straight through from Illinois. I met them at 3:30am Wednesday morning as John and Dale lay on a restaurant’s stoop, catching a few hours of sleep. Tucked under Dale’s beefy arm, her chest rising in silent harmony to her handler’s snores, was Miranda, their German Shepherd search dog. The men were gruff spoken and shy, and you loved them for that. They worked fifteen hour shifts and by the time they reluctantly packed up their truck and left for home four days later, Miranda’s paws were shredded from the hot, ragged metal she’d been climbing over. After that first night they’d moved from their sidewalk beds to the floor of my apartment, refusing to dirty the couch or bed, but since our working hours were opposed I never got to know them much better than my first impression. And my first impression was, these are the kind of men who build nations.

Or the resident surgeon, who’d just gotten to New York on vacation early that Tuesday, and watched the events of September 11th unfold, like the rest of the world, on television. When Mayor Rudolf Giuliani went on local TV to ask for help from medical personnel, he hopped in the cab not bothering to change, since, like most medical students, he slept in a bootleg set of scrubs. An hour later he found himself perched on a metal beam over a bottomless chasm, working to keep a Port Authority cop whose leg was trapped between two steel support columns alive. While stabilizing the cop’s vital signs, he chatted with him, and prayed with him, and secretly hoped he’d be able to save the guy’s leg. He did. And when I interviewed him as he wearily walked up Church Street to catch a cab back to his hotel, all he could talk about was how amazed he was at the bravery of the firemen who had been working all around him.

Throughout the days to follow I made numerous trips to “ground zero” usually as a journalist, sometimes as a volunteer, and due to police restrictions on cameras, often had to rely simply on words to describe to millions of viewers what was happening at the place where their friends, loved ones, co-workers or simply fellow Americans had vanished from our world. I interviewed rescuers who awed me with their humility and determination, and searchers who tore my heart with their pleas for help, all the while denying a fading belief that they’d ever find the husband or mother whose face was on that piece of paper. They held back their desperation with sheer, steely strength, but it shone in their eyes, and their eyes haunt me still. Their eyes said, tell me you saw this person walking around, or in a hospital, or being interviewed, or sitting dazed by the street. Please tell me you saw them, alive. The fact that I could never once answer yes, is why I can never forget the question.