747, the digital clock declared.

When I first opened my eyes on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, that was the time in Oak Park, Illinois. I thought of 747 model airplanes, then briefly drifted back to sleep. As I later discovered, only a few minutes earlier a group of terrorists had crashed into a tower of the World Trade Center.

Logging onto my e-mail account shortly thereafter, the New York Times news alert caught my eye:

Tuesday, September 11, 2001 — 8:50 AM EST

A plane crashed into Manhattan’s World Trade Center this morning, causing heavy damage and fire to several floors.

A sad story, I thought, as I pictured, naively, that it was a Cessna or some other tiny plane. I went about the business of resuming work on my various journalism assignments.

Then came another New York Times missive. The subject line: “News Alert: Second Plane Crashes Into World Trade Center.”

What stopped me short—and let me know that this was dreadfully more than just another sad story—wasn’t the subject line’s contents, horrific as they were. It was the top line of the email text:

Type headline here

This oversight communicated, in a way that no properly monumental words could have, the frenzy of what was unfolding in our country.

I contacted my assignment editor at Time‘s Chicago bureau so she knew I was available to report. I couldn’t do anything about the tragedy that unfolded in New York and elsewhere, but creating something orderly–complete with words, clauses, sentences and paragraphs–felt like a much-needed dose of civilized behavior.

As anyone who has been a journalist might expect, I still have the reporting I filed later that day for the magazine. But I haven’t been able to bring myself to deleting those New York Times news alerts.

Maybe it’s because, hours before I got in front of a television set and witnessed the horror wrought by the terrorists, those emails served as my wake-up call that we had all been thrust into a new, markedly crueler world.

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