Excerpt: "And so it was. Two skyscrapers, two passenger planes and two collisions. There was no sound on the videotape and it was already re-cut into an incessant, gut-wrenching slow-mo."
Smoke pours from the twin towers of the World Trade Center, 11 September 2001. (photo: AP)
A Week in September
11 September 12
oy called me “Lilly.” It was a pet name hatched on one of those endlessly long days of shooting video, driving around in the van, and eating on the run. We were reporting from the housing projects of San Francisco when two young men approached Roy’s van and looked through the window. When they saw me, one looked to the other and asked, “Is that Lilly Griffey inside?” Roy nearly busted a gut, laughing all the way back to the station. He damn near blew snot bubbles, which is very un-Japanese and therefore very unlike Roy.
By the summer of 2001, neither of us was laughing much.
While walking from the parking lot into the station I heard Roy say, “Lilly, can you come over here and feel this?” He was fingering a spot on his neck when I reached him. “Is it a pimple? It’s been there a few weeks now. I’m afraid to show Mama (his wife), it might worry her.” Feeling the bump, I told Roy it seemed solid and not like a pimple at all. “Get that looked at, okay?” A diagnosis was delivered a few days later. And that’s when the fun stopped.
Half a year later, Roy was dying…and dying fast…of bone cancer.
That’s when we started spending every Sunday afternoon together. He’d been my photographer for 15 years; we’d carried each other through many hard times. This would be the final push.
Turns out, people really do die the way they lived. At least that was the case with Roy. He approached cancer like everything else, with stubborn poise. Even after Roy could no longer stand, he patiently attempted the impossible task of teaching me the highly ambidextrous skill of fly-fishing. He was grace in motion. He’d point to the exact place he wanted his fly to land and invariably that’s where it landed. This was especially extraordinary because, during his final six months, Roy’s legs stopped working. He was teaching me to cast a fly rod while sitting in a lawn chair at a park near his home. Later I would find out we were casting our lines just a few feet from where he would, just a few months later, put a gun to his head and pull the trigger. Roy was a fine and brave man.
September 7, 2001
The phone on my bedside nightstand rang at five in the morning. Thinking it was work, I dropped all formalities. “What’s happened?” I asked sleepily. Roy’s son delivered just two sentences.
“Dad killed himself early this morning.”
“Can you come over?”
The forty-five minute drive was a blur, but my thoughts during that drive remain vivid and clear to this day. There was little need for the coroner or the California Highway Patrol officer to explain how he’d done it, although the officer later insisted on telling me anyway. As tested battle veterans and fellow foxhole dwellers, I knew Roy would not leave a mess for anyone to clean up. We hated stumbling upon messy crime scenes before police got there. He would not have done it at home or in his car. Those gory suicides required special crews and long hours of scrubbing to coerce blood from carpets and upholstery. Roy also knew emotional stains left by suicides at home or in the family car never really go away. No amount of cleaning fluid can wash those messy memories into submission.
Instead, Roy managed to drive to the same park where he’d taught me to cast a fly. This time is was not a fly rod he carried, but a gun. Don’t ask me what kind. Roy had bought it during an Alaskan fishing trip. He hated guns and so did I. But his Alaskan fishing guide suggested he purchase it because “grizzlies can get aggressive in Alaska.”
Roy was used to deadlines and this one he handled artfully. He was also used to being in control. As a Japanese-American, Roy spent his formative first few years at a Japanese internment camp outside Sacramento. As a result, he became a controlled and calculated man. He lived the rest of his life with methodical precision. He could not relate to impulsiveness. He likely edited his three goodbye notes several times before heading out for the final visit to his neighborhood park. One note was addressed to his beloved wife, the other to his only son, and the third to me.
Things are changing rapidly. I haven’t told you of all my problems. I will tell you now. Maybe that will give you some understanding of why I did it.
My legs are very weak now. My right leg is especially bad. I cannot get rid of the pain in my left leg. Those tumors in my neck are getting larger, as you can see; they are making it difficult for me to swallow food. The doctor is worried it Roy eventually cut off my air flow.
My butt and extremities are getting numb. I don’t know why. Maybe the tumor in my spine is blocking the nerve?
All I know is everything is getting worse. Anyway you look at it, my death is not going to be pretty. My friend, my struggle for life is almost over. I wish I could have lived a lot longer. It isn’t going to happen.
Think of me once in a while. You have been my closest friend in my final days. I appreciate that more than words can say.
You were a kid when I met you. Now you are a mature woman making big bucks. It makes me proud to see that.
I think you understand my situation, Les: it’s the quality of life, Les. I hope you can comfort my family and help them understand why.
Goodbye my sweet friend—I love you.”
Back at Roy’s house, the California Highway Patrol officer waited patiently to recount Roy’s final morning. Every thought I’d had while driving to Roy’s home was on target. I knew him better than I knew myself.
Around 2 A.M., Roy had called the CHP. He gave his name and told the dispatcher he had cancer and was going to kill himself. He gave the dispatcher the name of the park and the park’s address. He apologized for inconveniencing the CHP officer and told the officer he did not want neighbors to hear the gunshot. He was worried a child might see him lying dead and explained to the officer that children liked to take a shortcut through the park on their way to school. Roy’s plan was to wait until he saw the headlights of the CHP car coming toward the park. That way his body could get cleaned up and out of the way fast. He told the officer he’d wait until he recognized the car. And that was exactly what Roy did. The CHP officer said when he cut his headlights, he heard the gunshot. As per Roy’s request, the CHP officer got his body to the morgue ASAP—clean, tidy and in control until the end.
At eight in the morning, I sat at Roy’s kitchen table with his wife and son. The coroner’s office called asking for someone to come to the morgue and officially identify Roy’s body. His wife asked if I would do it. So began my final visit with Roy.
When the coroner’s assistant pulled the sheet from Roy’s face and body, I was relieved. His muscles were no longer flinched in pain. Leaning to his ear, just two inches above the bullet hole, I whispered, “Took an early exit, I see.” It never occurred to me he might not hear me. Funny thing about talking to the newly dead, it feels as if they are listening. “Breathe Lilly, breathe…,” he used to tell me when I was upset. I’d been a good student in this respect. I was breathing deeply now…determined to savor this time with him.
On his right temple, a tiny hole with a purple bruise marked the spot. Looking down at Roy, I felt his courage. He dueled with an unseen enemy and, on his terms, the fight ended in a draw. I reached down to smooth random pieces of his hair back into his trademark ponytail. A rubber band that once held the San Francisco Chronicle now held the bulk of Roy’s hair. His hands had been placed on his chest. After years of watching those hands work, they remained etched in my memory. He kept them clean no matter how dirty the story we covered or how much cable he had to pull to get us on the air. Roy kept both forefingers on both hands long. Not Howard Hughes long, but about a quarter of an inch longer than his other nails. Roy was nothing if not practical. Those two long nails helped him tie his home-made fishing flies. On his right hand, a single drop of blood sat like a frozen puddle, with cracks and fissures running through it. Using spit and the edge of my shirt, the droplet never had a chance.
The first tears hit Roy smack in the chest…right where his heart was. And it was not the bullet hole that broke my composure. It was the tumor that got me. With his head lying back in prone position on the stretcher, I could see clearly the extent of the growth. That once small-pimple sized bump had grown and now protruded two inches from his neck. “Lilly, does this look like a pimple to you?”
So, here we were. Roy and me. “The Dream Team” they called us. He was the eye of my stormy personality. My face and voice may have “anchored” our stories, but Roy’s steady hand and eagle eye gave them fresh meaning. Roy saw innocence in places no one else could. That damn internment camp taught him that beautiful skill.
After kissing him on the forehead, something he would never let me do in life, the coroner’s assistant prepared the sheet for covering Roy’s body. He held it up like a screen, ready to put Roy behind it for good. My arm stopped him. Finally, the assistant was kind enough to leave us alone. In the silence, Roy’s angler’s mantra—“catch and release”—rushed river-wild through my head. It was what I was doing with Roy now. I’d been lucky to have him in my life. No doubt it was time to let him go. Time to release. I just needed a few more moments. I spent that time talking to him and touching him.
My hands stroked his cheeks, his forehead, his hair, and his fingernails. Finally, and as gently as possible, my forefingers slid from his left eyelid to his right. His eyes were more completely shut now. Tracing his eyebrows, they were perfect. I did not see the assistant come back inside the room. But the sheet came down. Release is not always sweet.
On my way out the door, attendants waiting at the coroner’s desk whispered, “I swear that’s her. I heard that ‘suicide’ was her photographer.” The boldest of the bunch got up the courage to ask, “Are you Leslie Griffith?” I fought my detachment and told her in a monotone voice, ”I play Leslie Griffith on TV.” Then I noticed Roy’s cane propped against the wall, “Does that belong to Roy?” The assistant confirmed that, yes, it was his. Then one of the women working in the office handed the cane through the glass window. She asked, “Do you want his gun, too?” My mortified look was her answer. “I’m sorry,” she said.
With Roy’s cane in tow, I walked out the door and began running toward the back of the buildings. Standing against a wall behind the morgue, I held myself tight while envisioning the tumor wrapped around Roy’s throat. I did not know my body was capable of howling. But that’s what it did.
Roy’s death portended change. I would change. The newsroom would change. And, just four days later, America would change. It was time to face life without my touchstone, my partner, and my friend.
September 11, 2001
Four days later, the foggy, faint sound of a man’s voice was coming through my locked bedroom door, “Les, honey, please get up.” Ignoring it, I burrowed my face deeper into the pillow. The soft knocking turned to banging. Roy was gone, and I’d gone back to work. It took a full bottle of wine to knock me out each night. The man now banging on the bedroom door had spent many nights on the other side inside the bed with me. His name was “Sean.” He’d likely seen the empty bottle of wine in the kitchen and knew coaxing me out of my self-inflicted haze wouldn’t be easy. Where was all that noise coming from? It was before dawn, for Christ’s sake!
Sean was now a “former” lover partly because of Roy’s death. It only took one sentence: “How can you be so heartbroken over some guy you work with? It’s not as if he’s family.” Obviously, Sean hadn’t been paying attention. Roy was my family. Even though Sean had trouble relating to my current emotional state, I knew he was not a bad guy. His persistent pounding on my door was evidence of that.
My two Labradors, Hammerin’ Hank Aaron and Katy McCovey, began barking. Hank, frustrated and impatient, finally sat on my face. He, too, was telling me it was time to get up.
“Les, open the door! Your phone’s ringing! Can’t you hear it? It’s got to be your office. You have to get up. Please, baby-girl. I know you are hurting, but you have to get moving. Open the door, something terrible has happened.”
“Did Roy die again?” My mumbled response then turned rude, “Why do you still have keys to my house? Give them back to me!”
“Baby-girl, shake it off and get up.” Sean had once heard my father call me “baby-girl” and mimicked him ever since. It was harder not to love him with dad’s words coming from his lips. I fumbled toward the bedroom doorknob.
When I finally did open it, Sean’s face frightened me. It had melted into deep eddies of grief, urgency and fear. Like a cold shower, his dishevelment sobered me up and his tone focused my attention. “Les, the unspeakable has happened. The World Trade Center has been attacked. Both buildings were hit by terrorists flying U.S. commercial aircraft.” I ran for the remote. “That’s it, right there,” he pointed at the obvious.
And so it was. Two skyscrapers, two passenger planes and two collisions. There was no sound on the videotape and it was already re-cut into an incessant, gut-wrenching slow-mo. It had a surreal, Hollywood production feel about it…even as people began jumping out of windows. Many say the camera never lies. That’s bullshit. It distorts and sterilizes, especially from a distance. The whole scene looked like make-believe…much like watching the Challenger explode…raw emotion…now double-squared to the third power and live on TV.
I fired questions like bullets at Sean. He answered as best he could…much like a producer prepping a reporter.
“How many are dead?”
“Is anyone claiming responsibility?
“No one knows who did it.”
“Were those commercial jets full of passengers?”
“Has the President spoken to the nation?”
“No, to all of the above.”
“What else do we know?”
“Some are speculating that there are more planes and more attacks coming. Baby-girl, come on now, get dressed and get to work.”
Some sort of emotional fragmentation began taking place. Feeling nothing at all, everything went quiet just like the pictures of the silent towers falling. That was followed by disassociation and real-time slow motion. I’d read about this and interviewed severely abused children who’d gone through it. Trauma distorts time. We “separate” from ourselves. Now, I watched myself getting ready from somewhere up above the mayhem. There was a power in taking in events this way. It felt oddly safe. Psychic voyeurism is the only way to describe it and it’s about surviving.
“Okay, I’m leaving,” I heard myself say. Sean began to cry. That seemed like a luxury. I told him I would cry later. He must have thought me cold. He didn’t understand my state of mind. Neither did I, but I did know that if I started crying now, when would it stop? In light of that, there were two options: cold compartmentalization or a complete collapse. Roy was dead and the nation might be at war, so I watched myself get ready from a detached, aerial view.
Sean’s “producing” continued as he followed me into the garage, “One of the planes had some connection to San Francisco.” I watched my feet swing into the car, watched my hand put the key into the ignition as it turned the engine on. Much later, I noticed that my shoes didn’t match. The jury remained out on my state of mind. The garage door opened. My busy finger fumbled at more buttons and levers and the car window rolled down.
Sean told me to get coffee. He called me “baby girl” one last time and said I looked frightened and needed to collect myself. His lips moved funny.
Quiet whispers filled Peet’s coffee shop just a mile from my home. Many of my neighbors knew me and looked up pleadingly as I walked through the door. It was all the regulars. Noah, a sweet, clean-cut college student stood at the cash register and said, “Shit, I thought you’d be on the air by now.” Grasping the urgency, he yelled to the crowd asking if it was okay to make my coffee first. Normally such a display of special privilege would embarrass me. Noah searched the crowd for disapproval.
No one complained. People followed me outside the coffee shop door, as if I could lead them to answers. Reaching out, several women hugged me. One lady asked, “Why is this happening?” It staggered me for a split second. I told her I would try to find out. Tragedy brings people together. It’s crazy, isn’t it? Sometimes the best party given in anyone’s honor is the party held after they’re dead.
The drive to work takes about twenty minutes. The freeways were practically deserted. Everyone was at home watching TV, watching those towers fall over and over again. Expecting chaos upon bolting through the newsroom door, instead there was a zombie-like, hushed reverence. I’d seen this silence in the newsroom only one other time…following the 1989, 7.0 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake that devastated the Bay Area. Even that did not compare to this. Because this disaster, like an atomic bomb, was man-made, it brought a dangerous emotional cocktail of fear, anger, vulnerability and distrust.
Who were we fighting?
When I finally arrived in Oakland the news director pinched a pathetic smile and said, “Be ready for anything, Les…to report or to anchor,”
At that moment, Roy’s family and friends prepared to celebrate his life with a dinner and a boat trip under the Golden Gate to scatter his ashes. That was supposed to happen within the next 48 hours. Roy methodically hand-tied dozens of fishing flies for the sole purpose of putting them on yellow roses. He wanted us to throw the yellow roses into the sea in his honor. I was scheduled that morning to help his wife put the boat trip together. Instead, I was back in the newsroom, detached and unable to stop running my tongue over my un-brushed teeth.
My phone rang.
“Leslie, my name is Richard Pierce. I am a friend of Alice Hoagland’s. Her son, Mark Bingham, is on Flight 93.” The bits of information started to link up. Sean mentioned a plane that had “some connection” to San Francisco. When I had left the coffee shop, that plane was still “unaccounted for.” Now we saw pictures of a huge crater in a Pennsylvania cornfield. Dan Rather said it was what remained of flight 93. Mark Bingham was already dead, but his family friend on the phone could not bring himself to use past tense. “People need to know what Mark said when he called from the plane during the hijacking. Can you come out and meet his family?”
That’s when adrenaline rushed in and snapped my brain awake. “Richard, you said your friend on Flight 93 was named Mark? What was his last name?”
“Bingham, Mark Bingham.”
“His family wants to talk to us?”
“That’s why I am calling. Alice, Mark’s mother, wants to tell you what Mark said when he called from the plane. We’re in Saratoga.” He gave me the address and then delivered what seemed at the moment to be a non-sequitur. He said, “You need to know, Mark is an athlete. That’s important.” Still no past tense.
The slow-mo was gone now. I got directions and slammed the phone down as Dan Rather showed that huge, sad, smoldering hole in the ground in the middle of a Pennsylvania cornfield.
Saratoga, an upscale hamlet just outside San Jose, is about an hour away from the station. Our news van pulled up to Mark Bingham’s address. No words were exchanged for several moments as Alice and I shook hands and then embraced. I missed feeling numb. Without the numbness, the feeling of loss was all enveloping. Roy. I needed Roy.
In tough situations like this he’d set a very professional tone. He knew the manly thing to do. He’d introduce himself and offer his outstretched hand to everyone in the room. Then, without instructions from me, Roy would set up the lighting, lock down the camera at the right angle, get mics wired, tested and ready to go…all by the time I geared up to ask my first question. He knew that interviews done fresh, without prepping or “pre-interviewing,” always get the best results. First responses are genuine and pure, and that’s what I was after. They can make or break a story, and Roy knew that better than anyone.
Now, Alice began telling me her story while my “not Roy” photographer scrambled to get ready. I stopped her and we waited in silence until the photog was ready. These are some of the most uncomfortable silences imaginable, particularly when the story is about a tragedy or a painful loss. No amount of small talk can properly fill that void. You just sit and wait, avoiding the sort of eye contact you’ll need to get the interview you came for in the first place. Finally, we got the go-ahead. Alice and her family proceeded to talk. They said Mark had called early that morning from Flight 93. Alice said she was surprised by her son’s first words, “Mom, this is Mark Bingham.” She said she knew immediately something bad was happening. Why introduce yourself by your full name to your own mother?
Alice is a physically beautiful woman…tall, graceful, muscular, no-nonsense. She exhibited a great deal of balance in this un-contextualized chaos. “He spoke to his Aunt Kathy first,” Alice nodded toward her sister-in-law. Mark told his Aunt that he loved them. He said, “No matter what happens, I love you.”
According to the family, Mark added, “I’m on a flight from Newark to San Francisco, and there are three guys on-board who have taken over the plane. They say they have a bomb.” Mark saw only three hijackers. The U. S. government would later say there were four. Alice took over and told us it sounded as if some other passenger was talking to her son…interrupting their brief moments together. Mark asked his mother this question before they were disconnected, “You believe me, right?”
Alice and her family ran to the television and witnessed the pictures of the planes and the Twin Towers. She said that she knew in her heart that her son’s flight was related to the terrorist attacks. Mark’s uncle Vaughn told Alice to call Mark back on his cell phone, urging him to assemble and rally passengers to fight the terrorists. Alice tried to call Mark’s cell phone back twice. No answer. Later, Alice would hear the messages she left on her son’s phone. The FBI played them for the families.
Alice had said earlier in our interview that she could hear someone trying to get Mark’s attention. She thinks that may have been Tom Burnett, who was on his cell phone with his wife. We now know Tom’s wife told him about the Twin Towers—and he likely told Mark. Mark was six foot-four and Tom Burnett was a big guy, too. They were sitting next to each other in first class, where the murdered flight crew was laid out on the floor.
The interview contributed to a growing sense that we were sitting right in the middle of an epic tragedy. My body held the tension tight, and then I heard several babies cry. There was a chorus of them. The incongruous sounds surprised everyone in the room, especially me and the videographer…who I kept noticing was not Roy! Alice, her brother Vaughn and his wife Kathy looked around and managed a smile. The relief was welcomed. Mark Bingham’s relatives segued to the story of the babies in the next room. This was no ordinary family.
Alice, a woman in her 50s, acted as a surrogate mother for her brother and sister-in-law…carrying and delivering four babies. Her brother and sister-in-law needed her help, so Alice offered to implant their fertilized eggs and do the heavy lifting for them. Alice let her brother and sister-in-law borrow her uterus not once, but twice. One pregnancy resulted in a baby girl, the other in triplet boys. Another surrogate carried another baby and, all together, their five babies and toddlers created a cacophony of life-affirming sounds that pushed some of the hopelessness from the room. It occurred to me that selflessness might be inherited.
Because the babies required around the clock care, the family was staying together in this one house. “The triplet boys weren’t yet six months old, and Alice was still pumping breast milk for them.” These acts of affection and love of family stretched my ability to comprehend this sort of familial sanctity. The depth of unity and concern for one another in Mark Bingham’s family was stunning and empowering. Perhaps it was the kind of love that makes all things possible, like finding the courage to fight a group of terrorists knowing full well that winning or losing, either way, resulted in death.
I was reminded of the coffee shop and the camaraderie and concern that bound together all those disparate people, and how the air seemed to be filled with desire to sacrifice for the greater good. The newsroom carried that feeling, too. Now, here in this amazing home, we’d gotten to witness first-hand the power of this expanded sense of family. Mark’s story came to us from a random phone call, but it would be an inspirational lining in the darkest, cloudiest of days.
It took two trips from the house to the car to finally get our gear loaded. In doing so, we passed Mark’s grandfather who sat in a rocking chair on the front porch. He sat straight-backed. He looked like stone. A World War II veteran, it appeared to me he was locked into the same state of detachment I had experienced earlier. He stared at nothing. A United States flag hung almost directly over his head. The wind created a flapping motion as the flag unfurled, then curled inward and unfurled again. The flag’s presence had nothing to do with this disastrous day. It flew year ‘round at the Bingham’s home.
With the car finally loaded, the photographer started the engine. I looked over at him and asked if he’d give me a minute. He told me to do what I had to. In spite of the stress of this day and this interview, he’d gotten the job done. Like so many at the station, he was Roy’s friend, too. I opened the passenger door and walked back up the front law. Reaching Mark’s grandfather, I leaned down to touch his hand. He turned his head toward me. His expression was void of emotion, and now I understood why. He was a man who knew much about life and death and the complicated process of identifying good vs. evil.
“Mark is dead,” he said.
We paused. I tried hard to think of something meaningful to say…something hopeful in this god-awful mess. This was all I could come up with, “In the next few weeks, you will hear from many in the country who will thank you for your grandson’s courage. I would like to tell you personally that I am grateful.” He squeezed my hand. His was shaking. Years later, Alice Hoagland explained that her father, Mark’s grandfather, fought with General Patton in five major engagements.
“Please, pull away slowly,” I asked the photog. I never wanted to forget the image of Mark Bingham’s grandfather in that rocking chair. Then it occurred to me this was the picture we needed to fully tell this story. This was the picture Roy would have known instinctively to take. “That’s our picture, the end of the story we are going to tell. Think you can get the video of the grandfather?” He gladly schlepped our equipment back out of the van.
The picture was shown around the world…Mark Bingham’s grandfather sitting frozen in a wooden rocking chair on the family porch with an American flag waving above his head. According to The Associated Press, our interview offered the first independent, first-person confirmation of what had merely been speculation…that a handful of patriots were, at the very least, willing to fight back. As my heart fought to make a comeback from painful losses, it was some consolation to me to be able to tell a demoralized, angry and shocked nation about Mark Bingham and his remarkable family and how love had the potential to make heroes of us all.
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