That day -- Sept. 11, 2001 -- is seared into our national psyche.
The image of those planes flying into the Twin Towers, the towers crumbling before our eyes, the heroic stories of the firefighters who tried to rescue the occupants, the inspirational rebellion of passengers aboard United Flight 93, the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: All of this changed who we are as a nation.
So as we approached the 10th anniversary of Osama Bin Laden's attack on America, we wanted to find a way to tell that story in all its complexity.
Kate Parry, assistant managing editor for special projects, struck upon the idea of traveling from here to ground zero, stopping along the way to capture a mosaic of stories and tales that collectively might answer the question of how we have changed.
The journalists also looked for locales where they might have some natural inroads with people.
Brown went to college with Timothy Haviland, who was working on the 96th floor of the North Tower when the first plane banked off the Hudson River and plowed into his floor; Brown planned to stop in Iowa, where Haviland's parents live.
But when all the planning was done and they hit the road for 11 days of travel, they discovered that, like life itself, many of the best stories that came their way were spontaneous, as serendipity smiled upon them and they stumbled upon iconic characters who revealed deep truths about themselves and the country.
Brown and Holt stopped in Clear Lake, Iowa, for lunch their first day, and Holt walked outside to try to capture some street scenes with his camera. There, a woman curious about what he was doing, engaged him in conversation.
"You have to go the fire station," she told him upon hearing his mission. "they have a piece of steel from one of the towers."
"So we went down to the fire station," Holt said. "It was a 1,400-pound piece of beam taken from the North Tower. ... The volunteer firefighters told the story of bringing it back from New York and how everyone came out along the way to salute them."
On a riverboat outside Chicago, Brown encountered a young woman writing a play about Sept. 11. They talked with a firefighter captured in an iconic photo from Sept. 11, who introduced them to Mel Hazel, who had helped identify victims in a makeshift morgue that day.
"It was clear, everywhere we went, that a lot of people are still kind of wrestling with it," Brown said.
The stories they discovered on this moving journey will unfold over six days starting today. Parry said that readers will find these stories to be inspiring, endearing and sometimes a little shocking.
As she edited the stories, she said, she was struck by how many people have spent the last 10 years trying to find something positive out of something so horrific, and how many people, in the midst of the tragedies, found their moment of grace.
In Iowa, Brown knocked on the door of the relatives of James Justice, who died in Afghanistan. Nobody was home, but he encountered a teenage boy mowing the family lawn.
Domnick Hayes explained that the last time Justice was home, he had asked Hayes to watch out for his wife and daughter if he didn't make it back. And so, all this time later, Hayes is keeping a promise made.
Some lines Brown pens in the last installment of this project perhaps sums it up best: "More than 1,500 miles from Minnesota, the search for how Sept. 11 transformed Americans keeps returning to this essential truth. Whether in small towns in Iowa, the Chicago loop or a Harlem church, the stories people recall most vividly a decade later are the ones laced with grace, illuminated with unlikely connections forged between people. This is what lasts."
A reporting trip like this is also a journey for the journalists. Holt, who had his challenges photographing this project, said he was reminded repeatedly of how Americans as a people came together in the days after Sept. 11.
"From the people we talked to, all over, there was a real sense of how people were united. All different races. All different backgrounds. How they all came together and tried to help themselves. I felt it in Dearborn, Shanksville, New York. I went to a church in Harlem to photograph a firefighter who had retired, shared a church service with him, and he took me to his favorite restaurants. First thing he said to me was: 'I lost 55 friends that day.' I can't image losing 55 friends at one time."
Brown found himself reflecting on how many people aren't here today who were alive a decade ago, from the people who perished in the towers to the troops who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"There's a little museum at ground zero," he said.
At the end of the hall, there is a room with a collage with three walls of items that victims' families donated: golf balls, karate belts, wedding pictures, letters from family members.
"There's a screen that flashes every name of every victim, and soft music is playing. It took four and a half hours to flash all the names. And then you start seeing names you know. There's the pastor from Dubuque. There's the guy I went to college with, and here are some firefighters.
"It just hits you right there."
* * *
Nancy Barnes is editor of the Star Tribune.