Journalist and survivor: The rules blurred on 9/11

Editor’s Note: Allison Gilbert is the author of “Parentless Parents: How the Loss of Our Mothers and Fathers Impacts the Way We Raise Our Children,” winner of the 2013 Washington Irving Book Award, and “Always Too Soon: Voices of Support for Those Who Have Lost Both Parents.” She is co-editor of “Covering Catastrophe: Broadcast Journalists Report September 11” and a contributor to Like Allison on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @agilbertwriter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

Story highlights

New National September 11 Museum opened for dedication ceremony on Thursday

Allison Gilbert was struck by falling debris on 9/11, donated triage tag she wore to hospital

Gilbert: After 9/11, routines were questioned and familiar steps felt shaky

Gilbert transferred rights of "Covering Catastrophe" to the Memorial and Museum

CNN  — 

Sometimes I can still taste the cement dust. When the second tower collapsed, there was no place for me to hide. A tornado of black smoke drove me into the ground and filled my mouth with chewable soot. Splayed on the sidewalk, in total darkness, there was nothing I could do except wait and pray for the pelting to stop.

Allison Gilbert

A continuous shower of debris rained on my head, shoulders, and back. I couldn’t tell when it would end because I couldn’t even see my hands. Feeling around my surroundings with my fingers, I determined I wasn’t trapped. Within minutes, a triage tag was forced around my neck and I was taken by ambulance to the hospital. Doctors in the ER cut off my clothes and stuck a tube down my throat to see if my lungs were burned. They weren’t. I was mostly fine. One of the lucky ones.

How do we make sense of a morning like that? Throughout the country, but certainly most palpably in New York, there was a stark before and after – a period when routines were questioned and familiar steps felt shaky. We quit jobs that weren’t fulfilling; couples got married or divorced; and a lot of us got pregnant, choosing to double down on love instead of loss.

For me, at least at first, it meant doing my job. I was a producer at WNBC-TV, and as soon as a nurse agreed to give me a phone, I called the newsroom and reported from my gurney. Within a year, I had co-edited “Covering Catastrophe: Broadcast Journalists Report September 11,” donating the proceeds to 9/11-related charities. The National September 11 Memorial and Museum now has the rights to the book to support its programming and exhibitions in perpetuity.

The tag Allison Gilbert wore on her way to the hospital on 9/11 is part of the September 11 Museum's collection of artifacts.

The museum opened Thursday for a dedication ceremony, attended by President Obama, rescuers and victims’ relatives. The president called the museum a “sacred place of healing and of hope.” Thirteen years after the attacks, the nation finally has a place to learn about the horrors of that day and honor the heroism.

Journalists are often taught to distance themselves from the people and stories they cover. Don’t get too close, we’re warned; it will ruin your objectivity. The rules blurred on 9/11. We ran for our lives alongside everyone else. We were covered in the same ash and were choking on the same smoke. Anchors cried. Suddenly, the old journalism playbook seemed obsolete. It was OK to relate to the story and be part of it, too.

This sea change in thinking has allowed journalists to reveal themselves in ways unprecedented in the history of journalism. And it’s why I’m honored to have recorded my oral history for the museum and so deeply humbled that the triage tag that identified me as a survivor so many years ago will be on display.

I will be able to see that triage tag on Monday, when collection donors are invited to visit the museum before it opens to the public on Wednesday. Museum officials tell me it’s one of several survivor artifacts and is displayed alongside a written portion of my story. I am not sure what my reaction will be in encountering this section of the exhibition, but no matter what, I’ll be feeling a deep sense of kinship with all the other survivors in the room. We lived through an experience that bonds us forever.

September 11 could have gone very differently for me. My hope is that by supporting the Memorial and Museum, I am, in some small way, honoring those who died and recognizing fully that I am still one of the lucky ones.

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