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9/11: A chance to go back

gerhardt.jpgWatch a web-only video preview presentation from this feature.

Ioanna Roumeliotis speaks with Canadian hotelier Hans Gerhardt ten years after losing his son, Ralph, in the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11.  Watch online here.

You'll sometimes see journalists, myself included, write about being eyewitnesses to history, about having the good fortune to be in that front row seat to an unprecedented event in time.

But there was nothing good or fortunate about what happened in New York on September 11th, 2001.

It was horrific.

For me and a few Toronto colleagues, the day began early, with an ugly road race against time and security obstacles to New York.   But it was important a CBC crew get there fast, to have Canadian eyes and ears - that Canadian perspective - on the ground for our viewers and listeners.

Correspondent Ioanna Roumeliotis and I were part of the first CBC crew to get to Lower Manhattan by that night, rubble at our feet, ash falling on our heads, the haunted eyes of rescue crews searing our memories.

Thousands died on that day at the site of the World Trade Center, but on 9/11 and in the two weeks that followed, we were able to bring you the voices of the people who lived - the husbands and wives, father and mothers, and the people who came to help.

Their faces and their stories stayed with us.  For ten years.

And now, we have the good fortune to be able to go back, to seek out some of those people we met a decade ago - not just to find out where they are, but hear HOW they are.  And tell you.

What unfolded became a remarkable journey for us, and dare I say, a remarkable journey for those people, too.

I had been back to New York City since 9/11, but not in some years, and not with these eyes. From the moment Ioanna and I drove over the George Washington Bridge, onto the FDR into Manhattan, the flashbacks began.  It was the same route we took ten years ago, only back then, the roads were deserted and the sky ink black, save for a glow and eerie cloud up ahead.

Later, criss-crossing packed city streets in a yellow cab, there was Union Square engaged in the busy bustle of a normal day - only in my mind, all I could see were the flowers, the candles, and the tears of a vigil a decade ago.

Walking by the Salvation Army, the Armory, Pier 94, even a bakery on Tribeca's Duane Street sent me reeling back in time, to a city cloaked in fear, sorrow and patriotism.

I could still see the young Canadian woman, her hair wrapped in an American flag bandana, nimbly icing American flag cookies.  I could see the dazed merchant pacing the length of an ash-covered jeans store.  The volunteer firefighter who could barely stand, his body aching with fatigue, his consciousness only beginning to comprehend what had happened.  And the office worker taking what I would soon find out was one of her final glances ever down a street leading to a heaping, crumbling mass of what was once the Twin Towers.

DSC_0434.JPGToday, new mom Sarah Bunker, originally from Chatham, Ontario, can't get enough of the images from ten years ago.  She devours every article written, every report broadcast about 9/11.  Bunker saw people die that day, but deals with the horror and a lingering terror in her own, personal way  "Catharsis," Bunker calls it.  "It's like I need to remember how I was feeling in that moment."

DSC_0442.JPGMoshe Alfassi's way of coping with the death that swirled all around his Lower Manhattan denim shop couldn't be more opposite.  He stays as far away as possible from anything to do with 9/11.  "If it comes on TV, I just switch the channel," he says. "It's not something you want to see again and again. I saw it live, so it's hard." 

Still a volunteer firefighter, Chris Gould pauses or sighs after every question Ioanna asks.  Thumbnail image for DSC_0399.JPGIt's almost as if he's thinking, why does she want me to relive these moments?  But at the same time, needing to speak about what happened.  He's still processing, even after ten years. "I did have a hard time.  To this day, I haven't talked to a lot of people about it, even with my wife," he shares. "It's something that is with me and will always be with me."

And Iris Altreche secretly hoped we wouldn't show up for her interview.  She vaguely remembers the Canadian reporter and producer who spotted her praying silently on aDc34.JPG street corner ten years ago.  Altreche agreed to walk back with us, to that very spot which once would've been in the shadow of the World Trade Center.  We had no idea how difficult a journey a few blocks could be.  Tears never far from the surface, she tells us she just can't forget.  But she goes back with us.  And that, in its self, is probably progress. Healing in baby steps.

Bunker, Alfasi, Gould and Altreche didn't lose loved ones in the terror attacks, but they are still grieving all the same.  So, too, are the people we met who did lose a husband, a wife, a son.  And you will meet all of them when we broadcast our journey back to Ground Zero on Sunday night's The National.

Ten years ago these people - and more - touched us, as surely they touched you.  Their stories could have remained mere snapshots of a horrific moment in time.  Journalists often drop in and out of people's lives, share their stories, and move on.  Not always, do we have the privilege of checking in again.  And when we do, the expectation is sometimes of big changes, revised feelings, or a new perspective with hindsight taken into consideration.

I'm not exactly sure what I expected when Ioanna and I literally went down this road, retracing that path we took ten years ago to Ground Zero.  What we found was powerful, though.  Life has changed for the people we met, in some cases dramatically.  Some have moved cities, even countries.  There have been marriages, and lots of children, if possible, more cherished than ever.

But while life has changed, I'm not sure any of these people have moved on much emotionally, made peace with what happened.  Perhaps that's not possible. Scratch the scars inflicted on 9/11, and they still bleed.  Today, tomorrow, and probably in another ten years, as well.