By NINA ELLIOT-SMITH
It is surprising to meet a Pulitzer Prize winner, and even more surprising to meet someone who bore witness to the events of Sept. 11, 2001 in New York City.
Tucson journalist Ford Burkhart is both. He and a number of other reporters at the New York Times won the Pulitzer Prize for their portraits of people who died on 9-11.
The most striking thing about Burkhart is his outgoing and unassuming nature. Verbal acumen counterpoints his mild manner.
Everyone in New York City remembers where they were on Sept. 11, especially if they had a perfect view of the Twin Towers.
Burkhart was living across the river in New Jersey, and often went sailing with a friend. He and his friend were at Liberty Landing marina when they first saw a puff of smoke.
“I thought, perhaps it was steam from that building releasing steam in a routine way,” he said.
Burkhart said thinking back on that image makes him aware of human nature. “It was our desire to make sense of even senseless things.”
When Burkhart and his friend pulled the boat in and parked, the steam had turned into smoke and they could see flames.
They were directly across from the buildings when the smoke turned into the biggest cloud Burkhart had ever seen. He said it was many times bigger than the World Trade Center.
“It was immense,” he said. “That, combined with flames, made us aware that this was something huge.”
Behind them, blue collar workers at a job site began shouting: “This is Pearl Harbor! This is World War III!”
Burkhart thought the reaction was wrong. He believed humanity shouldn’t respond in war mode so quickly.
He admits, however, that the tragedy left him numb.
“We have no normal reaction to something so horrific,” he said. “Thankfully, we journalists have something to do during and after a tragedy. That keeps us sane and grounded.”
Immediately after the explosions it was impossible to reach New York City because all Hudson River crossings, including tunnels and bridges, quickly closed.
Since many Times writers lived in New Jersey, Burkhart called the newspaper and received permission to open an emergency newsroom in Madison, N.J.
“It was a large warehouse-like room filled with desks and computers on them—set up for disaster,” he said. “I put a dictionary and an AP Stylebook on each desk and we waited. Gradually other members came and we began to do journalism.”
In the days after the event, the Times assigned numerous reporters to write short profiles of each victim. Burkhart volunteered to participate, and wrote about extremely wealthy executives and ordinary workers who mopped floors.
Each profile began when the Times gave him a name. “I knew nothing about them except for their address. I’d have to find out about them in a day or two, so I could make the most ordinary person’s life extraordinary in 250-word sketches.”
Each victim received equal respect, he added. “That says something about America and New York City.”
To read some of Burkhart’s essays, visit his website at u.arizona.edu/~burkhart/ford-web1.htm.
Burkhart, a former journalism department head at the University of Arizona, returned to Tucson after his stint at the Times. He now works as a freelance writer.
His ideas about the legacy of 9-11 reflect his reverence for the national tragedy.
“That’s easy,” he said. “The greatest memorial would be a generation of Americans who take time to think before turning to violence as a solution to anything.”