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September morn

Remembering 9/11 | Former Wall Street Journal editor Melanie Kirkpatrick escaped 9/11 to witness New Yorkers learning to rebuild physically and spiritually

Issue: "Remembering 9/11," Sept. 10, 2011

When terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center towers 10 years ago, Melanie Kirkpatrick watched firsthand as the attacks brought New Yorkers to their knees.

Kirkpatrick, editorial page deputy editor at The Wall Street Journal, wore high heels and a navy blue suit that morning when her subway train halted one station short of its destination. A perplexed driver announced that something was clogging the World Trade Center stop and that commuters must exit at Chambers Street, a stop several blocks north of their destination.

Kirkpatrick climbed the steps out of the station and headed toward the Journal's office in one of the World Financial Center buildings, a few hundred yards from the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center. She saw heads around her turned skyward, and heard one onlooker say, "It can't be right, but I think I saw a plane fly into the World Trade Center." Another said, "May God have mercy on their souls."

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Suddenly Blackberries and cell phones weren't working, and the curious crowded around a car radio on the street. A policewoman wouldn't let Kirkpatrick close to the Journal office, so she decided "I better just start walking," she recalls. "It became clear I wasn't going to get any public transportation."

Kirkpatrick, now 60, kept walking and reached Chinatown, nearly two miles north of the Wall Street area, as the first tower collapsed. People on the crowded streets let out a collective gasp. Around her, Kirkpatrick heard fellow New Yorkers praying out loud. Several blocks later, the second tower collapsed, to the further shock of everyone around her. Stunned herself, Kirkpatrick watched also as the collapsing structures demolished the Journal's World Financial Center offices.

By some accounts, The Wall Street Journal was the first to report, via its Dow Jones wire service, a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. But the proximity of the newsroom to the destruction meant that it also suffered most among prominent New York media. While most employees, like Kirkpatrick, escaped or remained on streets below, John Bussey, then the paper's foreign editor (now its Washington bureau chief), was holed up in the ninth floor Journal office, phoning in live reports to television networks and writing a harrowing account of the destruction that helped win a 2002 Pulitzer Prize for the newspaper's coverage of 9/11. But he narrowly escaped injury and possible death when the South Tower collapsed, shattering the Journal's newsroom windows and blowing dust and contamination throughout its offices.

"I lost almost everything that had been in my office," says Kirkpatrick. But Journal editors that day worried more that for the first time in the paper's 112-year-old history, they might not be able to publish a paper. To get out the next day's edition, some writers relocated to a makeshift office at an editor's home, while others took up reporting from an office complex in New Jersey, where Dow Jones had established an emergency newsroom after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Kirkpatrick, disconnected from her colleagues and still in high heels, said she could only keep walking-dozens and dozens of city blocks northward to her apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. But through the chaos, the dust, the tragedy, and the frantic people, she noticed a theme. Walking from Wall Street to Chinatown to Central Park, people were praying-publicly-all around her. "As I walked, I began to notice the open doors of the houses of worship that I passed," she says. "A few had hand-lettered signs saying they were open for prayer."

"At times the quiet, orderly exodus seemed more like a prayer vigil," she wrote in a Journal column three days later, describing her walk uptown and the "countless people with heads bowed and lips moving."

She noticed ministers opening doors of houses of worship, praying and counseling the hurting. She saw clergymen rushing to hospitals, and some to lower Manhattan itself. She later learned that the same phenomenon of people turning toward prayer and faith was happening nationwide. That night when President George W. Bush quoted Psalm 23 in his speech to the nation, Kirkpatrick noted that the line "I will fear no evil" became particularly meaningful to her. When she arrived-in a state of shock-at her own apartment uptown, she says she kneeled to pray and felt a spiritual awakening from all she had witnessed.

"To those who don't know this city, New York may often seem a modern Sodom and Gomorrah," she wrote. "But to those of us who do, it is a shining City on a Hill, a city of magnificent churches, synagogues, and, increasingly, mosques and shrines and temples."

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