“It felt almost like a movie”: The impact of 9/11

Elizabeth Stoeger, Staff Writer

Part 3 of 3

Scott Nelson, ‘94, Director of Communications at Linfield, reported on 9/11 for the Boston Globe

“I think I was in the [Boston Globe] office when the second plane hit, and we all went into the conference room, we watched it on the big screen.”

The reality of the situation was only revealed when the second plane flew into the Towers, confirming that it was no accident.

Instead of immediately going to New York, Nelson spent the day trying to call all the people he knew in the city.

The Globe put out two special editions that day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

“Around [the bus station he took to get home], Boston was just like a ghost town. It felt like in that moment, the world had changed and there were fighter jets flying over downtown. It all felt very close to home.”

Nelson then traveled to New York and stayed for about three weeks, covering the story from the ground.

The city asked for volunteers to sort through the rubble and provided insurance for them through Liberty Mutual and Nelson knew the company well.

“I was able to walk through Ground Zero with them, and this is a time when the city had said no press, no journalists. I would just put on a Liberty Mutual jacket with them . . . and just walk through.”

He recalled the impact 9/11 had on even the most hard-bitten New Yorkers, “I was at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) the day it reopened . . . the traders on the floor of the [NYSE] are famously cynical and hard-boiled and nothing phases them but that was an emotional day. All these people in tears.”

Nelson later covered the Iraq War but felt more immediately impacted by 9/11.

“I saw a lot more death and destruction in Iraq but it was just different. I expected it there. 9/11 was so new and different and the world had sort of shifted on me.”

“I remember walking by all of the signs of missing people all over Manhattan. Candles and pictures of people that were missing. I remember the smell of lower Manhattan. The smell of like an engine that had burned up, just this mechanical burned smell. It was everywhere . . . The whole downtown started to smell like that, which to me started to just smell like death.”

Law enforcement officers from various states and precincts lined the streets during the first few days, “It was just this totally uncoordinated moment when people didn’t really know what to do and for the first time in our lives that anybody could remember, there were men with machine guns on the streets of the city.”

“It felt almost like a movie, very intense time.”

One man who lived in an apartment close by talked about watching people jump, “It was such a long fall [from the top of the buildings], you had time to watch and he watched a guy jump and he was wearing a suit jacket so it was kind of flapping,” and he was flailing his arms, “the suit was just flap, flap, flap, flap all the way down and he just watched.”

“The choice they had was to jump from 100 stories up or to burn, melt. Pretty terrible choice that those people had to make. One of whom was a friend of mine.”

While at Linfield, Nelson interned at Kiplinger’s Magazine in Washington, D.C., and it was his fellow intern that died in the Tower.

“I had actually been invited to a meeting that day in the upper floors of the Towers. . . I didn’t really seriously consider going so it’s not like I was almost there, but I had the invitation on my desk, an invitation to a meeting there that day which, in hindsight, was kind of eery.”

These events changed the course of both his life and career as a journalist,“I became a different person and I got a lot thicker skin . . . [Covering conflict] became something that I understood . . . But 9/11, at first, I was not prepared for, like a lot of people weren’t.”

He recalled a particularly poignant event during the course of his stay in New York.

After working a 16-hour day, Nelson decided to see the recent re-release of the disaster movie, “Apocalypse Now.”

“Because everybody else in New York realized, ‘I don’t want to see that movie right now, when the whole city feels under attack and tense already,’ but I didn’t make that connection so I’m in this really large movie theater . . . and there’s me and one person . . . it’s this big empty, cavernous place and “Apocalypse Now Redux” was on the screen.”

“I just remember coming out of there feeling like the world was going to crush me. Like the weight of everything that I had been covering for days and then seeing that movie and being alone in New York. I felt like it was just going to crush me, like a soda can.”

Though his feelings were raw at the time, Sep. 11 reaffirmed his commitment to journalism and its vital role in society, “I got into journalism to cover things that matter . . . You know, it sounds cliche to say as a journalist you’re writing the first draft of history but sometimes you are and in a couple occasions in my career, I got to do that. The things that I was writing, will be studied by historians.”

Nelson sensed not only the present impact of his reporting but also the future echoes, “You also feel the burden of expectation, of getting it right . . .  A hundred years from now, some historian is going to be reading through it all and you’re their eyes and ears, you’re seeing for them. That’s heady stuff for a journalist.”

“You try to sublimate your own feelings, and your own fears, and your own anxiety, and just realize, this is one of those moments when I really have to be on. This is important.”

At the time, he had one small child and a pregnant wife.

They decided to name their son Abram after the Biblical character because “He’s a uniting figure . . . and if our kids were going to come into a world [of conflict], we want them, potentially, to be a uniter not a divider.”

Nelson cites 9/11 as one of the most formative experiences in his life, “I would say that everything in your life builds . . . Some experiences are more foundational or more altering than others and something like covering 9/11 was a big one for me.”

“I grew up a lot in those weeks in New York . . . I certainly changed, I think everybody who was alive during 9/11 and old enough to appreciate what was going on, I think, in this country changed.”

Both Nelson and wife were from Oregon originally and covering stories of such intensity helped him realize that this is where he should be, raising his children among family and friends.

Eventually, this also led him back to Linfield. Nelson began the 2016-17 school year as Linfield’s Director of Communications.

“Ultimately the steps that led from 9/11 did lead me back to here, to this job. Because they put me on a different path that led to covering the Iraq invasion and when I came back . . . I was changed enough that I knew that I wanted to come back home.”

This is the first time in his life he is not an active journalist and he admitted that the next time a big story breaks, he will have a difficult time not being on the inside, reporting on it.

But the stories he has reported on were life changing, for him and for the nation as well.

“Frankly, I would rather have experienced it where I did. I would rather have been there, I would rather have seen it with my own eyes. I would rather have heard those stories with my own ears. I would rather have smelled what lower Manhattan smelled like. I would rather have seen those pictures of all those faces on the wall.”

“For me, I’m glad I was there and I was able to do something helpful in that moment when it was really helpless for most of us . . .  I was able to feel helpful,” reflected Nelson.