Collecting Vermonters' Stories: Jane Lindholm On Piecing Together VPR’s 9/11 Remembrance Project
The United States is marking the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, when Al Qaeda extremists hijacked four commercial planes. The terrorist attacks killed nearly 3,000 people, and many more were wounded. The ripple effects of that day affected the lives of millions more.
VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Jane Lindholm, executive producer of special projects and co-producer of VPR’s 9/11 Remembrance Project, about acknowledging the tremendous impact of the attacks on the country, our communities and each of us as individuals. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jane Lindholm: Let's start by listening to one of the Vermonters who are featured in this week's coverage. Deborah Garcia lost her husband David, who was on one of the impact floors when the plane hit One World Trade Center on 9/11.
One of the things Deborah told me when we interviewed her is that 9/11 is a current event for people like her, whose lives were changed in an instant on that day. And that's been an issue for her sons as well. She recounted this story when her older son was in college:
“We can't escape it. Even in a statistics class. He called me up crying one day, that he had to run out of the class, because the instructor was asking them to calculate figures for something to do with the stock or something, pre-9/11, post-9/11. So many things reference back to 9/11.”
- Deborah Garcia
Deborah told me that here in 2021, people have been telling her that they're surprised it's been 20 years, and that they had kind of forgotten 9/11. For Deborah and her family, it's not something they ever forget, 9/11 is a constant presence in their lives. And it's brought up in ways like the story that Deborah just recounted.
And all this week, we're going to hear the stories of many other people, as well, whose lives were changed forever by that day.
Mitch Wertlieb: Jane, tell us a little bit more about the scope of this project and how listeners can access it.
We're going to be hearing stories on-air starting [Tuesday] morning, we'll hear two stories a day: one during Morning Edition, and one during All Things Considered. And these are non-narrated pieces, which just means the reporter's voice is completely taken out. It's just a first-person account of one voice, one story.
We also have a web landing page where you can access 60 stories from Vermonters who wanted to share what impact 9/11 has had on their lives.
Wow, 60 of these stories. Can you share another example with us, Jane?
Yeah, absolutely. So let's talk a little bit about Annika Green. Annika lives in Berlin, Vermont, and the night before 9/11, her mother sent Annika a printed-out version of the flight that she was supposed to take the next day. And Annika was at work when the news of the plane crashing into the towers reached her. And that was Flight 11.
“Everything just went … I don't know, everything went … by that point, the airline had released the manifest of who was on the flight. And they had my mom listed, and her … her hometown.”
- Annika Green
Annika later learned that her mother had actually missed that flight, and wasn't on the plane. But she says she understands the trauma that 9/11 victims felt, and her own mother will not at all, ever, talk about what happened to her.
Do you want to hear another example, Mitch?
I would, yeah.
Keylor Halbur grew up in Wilmington, Vermont, and he now lives in North Carolina. He was in high school on 9/11. And the events of that day actually led him to join the Air Force, where he served in missions in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And this is despite the fact that Keylor is actually against, and was against, the war in Iraq at the time. He told us he sees a direct connection between 9/11 and today.
“I would hope that people are cognizant of just how much things have changed. You know, we wouldn't have police departments with MRAPS [mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, a heavily armored personnel carrier], and how there's essentially a throughline from that to 6 Jan. [the attack on the U.S. Capitol], and just how one thing leads to another, and it's so hard to get out of the cycle of that sort of thinking. You see guys that I went high school with, they started off on the whole 9/11 truther stuff. And then it becomes other things, then it becomes QAnon now, and all that kind stuff. It's so hard to pull yourself back out of that sort of thinking, I think, and 9/11 sort of started all that.”
- Keylor Halbur
Jane, how did you collect these stories?
This was a really wonderful part of the project for me and my colleague, Melody Bodette, who is the co-leader on this project.
We sent a line out on the air, online, in Front Porch Forum, in ads in newspapers, asking any Vermonter who wanted to, to share their 9/11 story with us, and to talk a little bit about how it impacted their lives then, and today.
And Mitch, we got 90 responses from people who said, "I would like to share my story with you." From those 90, we actually reached out to every single one of them. And people have shared their stories in multiple ways: some shared audio, some shared video, some just wrote out their stories. And Melody and I worked with each of the people who submitted to edit those stories down so that they're manageable for anybody who comes to look at this web page.
And that was a really exciting part of the process for us, Mitch, because it felt like we were able to help people share their stories in kind of an unfiltered way. And the fact that these were their stories, not ours, is what led us to make sure that we got really explicit permission from every single person you will see here and read during this week, that that's how they wanted their story told.
Jane, I know that you took pains to, as you said, make sure that these were the unfiltered stories of people in their own words, reporters not asking questions. But I do need to ask you, because this is one of those moments in American history where, if you were old enough, you remember where you were, when this news broke, and watching it all unfold: Was it hard for you, personally, to listen to these stories? The emotion, and people remembering this really traumatic time — and going through so many of them, as you said ... was that hard?
Yeah, it's very hard. It's very intense. If you're an empathetic person, it's hard not to feel some of the pain that people are expressing to you.
But it was also a tremendous privilege to be able to help people share their stories. Some of them said, “Oh, you don't even need to put it online. It just was cathartic to tell somebody about it again.” And that feels like a privilege to be able to do this work, with other Vermonters, to share and bear witness to what has happened in their lives. And I find that very powerful.
But yes, I have found myself tearing up at things that are not particularly emotional, and I think some of the emotion that I've been feeling talking with these Vermonters, or reading their stories, is trying to sort of leak out in other places.