What was it like, asking these women to tell their stories?
We always hear this phrase, Never forget. I wanted to have a new perspective to make sure people would really take notice and not gloss over, “Well, oh yeah, it’s been 20 years.” To hear these women—many of them talking for the first time about it—I have to say, every single one of them during the course of the interview had to stop. It was like they were back in that moment. We would say, “Do you want to take a break?” They were like “No, no, no, I want to continue, I want people to remember and to help them fully realize what that moment was.” We bandy around the words strength and resilience. These women embody that. And I’m so appreciative that they were willing to relive it for us. They would get chills and they would get tears and then they would gather themselves, and it was just so incredible to see their grace in telling this story.
Tragically, there are so many women you could have interviewed for this documentary. How did you pick these women?
Janelle Guzman—27 hours she was trapped under the rubble—of course we wanted to speak with her. I’m glad we had a moment to really let her share her story. And then the police officer [Judith Castro of the NYPD]—she’s tiny, and she was dragging people twice her size to safety. Colonel Wills at the Pentagon—I mean, she’s just incredible. We wanted a fair representation.
Everyone’s experience is unique, but there’s some overlap in these stories. What themes came out of these conversations for you?
They didn’t want to make it about themselves. They wanted to thank others that were there around them, but were also very grateful that they had an opportunity to make a difference, which many of them did. The common thread that you saw with each of these women—they were not going to let what happened to them not mean something, and not do something with their lives. And all of them have done that. That’s the common thread. They’re not the same as they were on 9/11.
You interviewed Nina Pineda, a reporter on the scene. You also reported on the scene the next day. How do you deal with reporting on such traumatic, difficult events?
When Hurricane Katrina wiped out my hometown, the pain of that made me have empathy for the person I’m talking to, when covering stories of death and destruction. A week after 9/11 I went to a little town that was hit especially hard. It was a commuter town. A lot of the cars were still in the commuter parking lot. We wanted to profile some of those people who were lost. It’s very hard to go to somebody’s house and say, “Can I speak to you about your husband?” I distinctly remember—I saw someone, and I knew her husband was killed.
I thought I was being compassionate. I said, “I don’t want to interview you but can we have a photo, to show your husband?” And she said, “I won’t give you a photo unless you interview me. I want to talk about my husband. I want people to know.”
It was a real eye-opener to me. Oftentimes we’re watching the news and thinking, “How can they be talking about this? They just lost somebody!” Don’t compare your despair. You have no idea until you’re in those shoes. I try to approach it with empathy, compassion, listen as much as I talk, and take my cues from the person who has gone through a tragedy.
This is such a hard topic. What would you say to someone who might think, “It’s been 20 years; I don’t want to keep reliving 9/11”?
That’s a fair question. And the answer is: We cannot forget. All those lives that were lost—it has to mean something. It does mean something, every life does. Part of our coverage [on ABC] is letting the families say their loved ones’ names. We’re not going to speak over them. It takes a couple of hours for that to happen. They don’t want their loved ones to be forgotten. You need to remember—as painful as it is, the pain that we feel is nothing in comparison to what the families have felt for 20 years.
“We’ll never forget”—let’s mean it. Let’s mean it.
Women of 9/11: A Special Edition of 20/20 with Robin Roberts airs Wednesday, Sept. 8 (9:00-11:00 p.m. EDT), on ABC.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.