Terrorist-led airplanes crash into the World Trade Center in New York. (Courtesy of Robert J. Fisch via Wikimedia Commons) 

A breezy and seasonally satisfying Tuesday, September 11, 2001, began with the promise that beat reporters crave – the knowledge that my story would appear on the front page.

Riding high from the previous night after attending Michael Jackson’s 30th-anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden, my editor implored that I go straight to a school in Mount Vernon, New York. She knew how to spoil a great evening watching the greatest pop music entertainer ever reunite with his brothers for a spectacular night at the World’s Most Famous Arena.

In Mount Vernon, my editor told me that I would confront the compelling story of Patrick Dolan Critton, a 54-year-old teacher who for 30 years hid as a fugitive in plain sight.

Critton belonged to a Black liberation group that, in 1971, allegedly robbed a bank and engaged in a shootout with the police. The group then hijacked an airplane to escape arrest.

But there he was, teaching high school in New York as if he had never been on the FBI’s Most Wanted List and oblivious to the desperate desires the NYPD maintained for his capture.

Yes, this had A-1, above the fold, written all over it with my byline.

Early that morning, I gathered the pertinent details and headed back to my bureau located in nearby New Rochelle.

Indeed, I possessed all the goods and if we were a tabloid, I’d have “The Wood.”

Entering the office shortly after nine in the morning, I found my colleagues standing around the bureau’s wall-mounted television. The first terrorist-controlled airplane had just struck the Twin Towers.

“Wow, what an accident,” a colleague remarked.

Moments later, after the second airplane struck the towers, one colleague shrieked, “That’s no accident!”

It certainly was not. I had been to the World Trade Center and entered those towers many times. Now, right before my eyes, they quickly disintegrated to immense piles of rubble.

Shocking and completely unnerving, my colleagues and I realized that many lives had been lost — as would later be confirmed. But the terrorists weren’t finished. Far from it. Another airplane would rock the western side of the Pentagon in D.C., and still, one more crashed in southwestern Pennsylvania.

We began to wonder how many more airplanes the terrorists had hijacked.

Suddenly, my hijacking story about a former Black liberationist fell off the radar – ticketed for the middle of the newspaper.

Someone had declared war on America and for the first time since Pearl Harbor, an enemy had attacked America on U.S. soil.

Phones in the office rang wildly.

Reporters ignored incoming business-related calls, choosing, of course, to check in on their loved ones who lived or worked in lower Manhattan.

Jermaine Jackson, the king of pop’s brother, called me.

“How do we get out of New York? Can you help us get out of the city?” Jackson asked.

The Jackson family had arrived in New York as part of Michael’s shows to celebrate his anniversary in show business. At that time, we were longtime acquaintances and collaborators.

“This is scary. People are panicking,” exclaimed Jackson, who, along with several family members, had stayed at the W Hotel in downtown Manhattan not far from the terrorist attacks.

Ultimately, the Jacksons rented two RVs and escaped from New York by taking the 3,000-mile drive back to Los Angeles. For me, the irony couldn’t be overstated.

I sat there with a notebook containing facts about a man named Critton who had hijacked an airplane 30 years ago. American justice had finally caught up with him. But his story — as big as any — had become a mere footnote.

A terrorist and mastermind named Osama bin Laden, who lived a cloak-and-dagger life more than 6,700 miles away in Afghanistan, escaping U.S. forces by living in caves and underground bunkers, stole Critton’s frontpage.

Bin Laden stole my front page. More importantly, his wicked and cowardly act cost thousands of precious lives and broke countless hearts.

Twenty years later, I’m confident that many would have preferred if my story had remained the biggest headline of September 11, 2001.

Stacy M. Brown is a senior writer for The Washington Informer and the senior national correspondent for the Black Press of America. Stacy has more than 25 years of journalism experience and has authored...

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