Saturday, September 11, 2021

20 Years Since 9/11: My Memories From The Newsroom That Morning

The power of the images and videos from 9/11 can still be felt. We relive that day each year. It so happens to be my dad's birthday. Below is that published retrospective. 

Back in 2011 I thought the raw 9/11 memories would gradually fade into the background of our national consciousness at the twenty year mark. I was wrong. 9/11 is like a cut on your arm that never heals completely. Pearl Harbor, Kennedy Assassination and perhaps the Challenger Disaster come to mind as the only tragic events in the past few generations with a similar level of national trauma.  Its crazy to think that most people in their 20s might not have solid memories of the events of that day in 2001 because they were in early grade school.  All high school and college students have grown up in a post 9/11 world. They know nothing else. 

Below is my post from years ago which recounts my 9/11 experience in the newsroom as the events unfolded.  I'll never forget it.


My memory of 9/11 actually begins the night before. My wife and I were--let the cold shivers begin--planning a trip to visit her friend in New York City. We were on the web looking at maps of the city familiarizing ourselves with the locations of the tourist attractions in relation to where my wife's friend lived in Queens. At that time, never having traveled to New York City, the NYC street grid was as foreign to me as a city grid of Moscow.

I distinctly remember pointing to several spots on the map of Manhattan and Long Island that I wanted to check out on our trip. Queens, the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, Yankee Stadium, Greenwich Village and the World Trade Center. As we studied the map, I made mental snapshots of the region remembering how far Yankee Stadium was from the subway stop, etc. It was getting late that night. I had to get up to go to work at the local NBC affiliate the next day. I was the morning meteorologist at WSAZ in Huntington, West Virginia back then so I needed to get up at 3AM.

The morning of 9/11 started out as normal as any other day. Our morning show started at 5AM. The news was fairly typically. No outlandish stories although the "big" story that summer was shark attacks.  I don't know what I remember that.  The weather was quiet. I remember a powerful hurricane off of the New England coast named Erin but that was heading away from land. This monster hurricane would be lost in the events of the day.

We had just finished our 8:35AM news cut-in before we sent our morning news to The Today Show. Around 8:40AM, The Today Show interrupted their segment to show one of the The World Trade Center Towers on fire. The in-studio monitors all showed the fire engulfing multiple floors. The fire was big. It captured our attention. We saw the fires a minute or two before they were broadcast on the air because we had an off-air video feed from one the NBS New York tower cameras. At the time, not one of us watching EVER thought this was linked to something bigger, more global and temporally far-reaching.

One of our camera operators and I commented that it looked like someone hit the building with a missile from a nearby rooftop. Our conversation was purely speculative, half contrived for the sake of conversation and at the time not a bit realistic. We went back and forth, as news people do, debating how a missile blast into the 100th floor of a skyscraper could be more of a subplot for a movie than a plausible real-life event. How could someone get a weapon through a building undetected we both said almost simultaneously? In the span of 15 seconds, we quickly dismissed it.

Our eyes were affixed to the monitors at 8:45AM. I was tense, rigid and more alert. So was my co-anchor.  I sat in the weather chair on the right side of the set, he sat to my left. The minutes ticked by with no new information on the fire. Nothing was said but we knew that something was terribly wrong. We all quietly attempted to persuade ourselves that this was an accident. Some electrical fire. Some gas line rupture. Our hapless speculation of just 7 or 8 minutes seemed inappropriate. No one was speculating out loud.  Everyone was speculating to themselves.  The silence was speaking volumes in the tense air of the studio. Keep in mind at this time, we had no official word it was a jet airliner that hit The World Trade Towers.

A few minutes later, Matt Lauer and Katie Couric were scrambling to inform us that a plane just hit the second tower. This was LIVE TV! Eye-witness accounts were all they had. We all said a "few colorful words" filled with anger, frustration and horror. We were all stunned. We just listened. Total silence in the studio. No one said anything. No speculation.  No talk of Iraq. No commentary on military retaliation. No link to Al-Qaeda. No comparisons to Pearl Harbor. No War in Afghanistan. No WMDs.  Nothing prophetic. We sat and stood and watched as the events--whether we wanted them or not--became etched in our permanent memories.  One must remember that the afterglow of the boom years was still fresh in our minds...but fading as Y2K was the big buzzword at that time. In no way did I think these series of events would pervade our collective national consciousness for a YEAR or a decade or longer. At the time, no one did.

In breaking news situations in television, your body language changes from one of relaxation to one that conveys rigidity and alertness. Your adrenaline surges in controlled doses. Your ability to disseminate massive amounts of information increases while simultaneously conveying the basics of a story in an intelligible way on camera as if scripted. Time doesn't go by slow or fast. It becomes frozen. There is no "did I do this right?" or "Will the segment look okay?". You perform in the present ONLY. Your instincts take over. Only in hindsight do you fully grasp the story and its complexity.  Your experience becomes the foundation of your on-air instincts. That morning, all of our collective television experience and instinct served us perfectly. The morning of 9-11 was the same as another other 5AM show. Yet the tone of our broadcasts soon became dreadfully different than anything we had done before.

The newsroom was scrambling to record the national NBC feed along with all other news feeds from other sources that captured the newest video of what was happening. The news alert beeps were non-ending as more video was ready to be recorded. Remember that this was before non-linar computer editing so everything was recorded VCR style. You pushed a new tape in and hit the record button. The clanking of tapes into tape decks was deafening.   No real-time Youtube clips. No cell-phone video. No text messages. No real-time tweets. No Facebook updates. You waited at a tape deck rack for the satellite to "beam" you latest reel. Yet no one said "Al-Qaeda". No one said "Bin Laden". No one said "middle east terrorists".  No one had any opinion on the events unfolding before their eyes. That would change as I went into my boss's office for my 6 month review.

My boss--now a General Manager at another station--sat down with me shortly after 9AM.  We said a few things about my past 6 months work but he was only half paying attention. Ken, my boss--the best multi-tasker I've ever known--was attempting to carry on a meaningful conversation while flipping pages of my file on top of jotting down notes of the coverage on a yellow legal pad balanced on his knee. The ring of his phone every 20 seconds interrupted the chaotic convergence of his tasks. I sat patiently waiting for the whirl of papers above his desk to settle. The phone stopped ringing. His note pad resting on his desk at arm's reach. He paused for a moment, looked out his window into the newsroom then to the bank of TVs on his wall and said, "Its Bin Laden. Its Bin Laden." I said, "Who?". He repeated, "Bin Laden!" In 2001, the name "Osama Bin Laden" for most was unknown. Maybe a few remember him as architect of the USS Cole bombing in 2000. He was certainly not a household name.

My boss had the uncanny ability of having 20/20 hindsight vision...IN THE PRESENT. He could see events happen before they happened then project into the future what the effects the event would cause. This is what made him an innovative news director. Either you accepted his unearthly ability or you let it consume you personally.  After all, who is comfortable with their boss knowing what you would do before you would do it. So you believed in his vision. In the weeks ahead, my boss's prophetic realization became the most pivotal, surreal memory of that morning.

As the next plane hit the Pentagon followed by Flight 93 nose first into the field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, my review faded into the chaos of the morning. The rest of the day was a blur.  Normally I take a nap in the afternoon. I don't think I slept for more than 2 hours at a time for a week. National coverage continued as it would for a week uninterrupted even for commercials. The morning show was all 9/11. A few basic weather segments of 45 seconds or so but nothing more  No television shows. No entertainment. The focus was covering the aftermath of 9-11. Somehow at the time, it didn't seem enough.

By noon that day, most of the pieces began to fall into place. The two attacks in New York City at the World Trade Center; the collapse of both Trade Center towers. Another plane attack, this time into the Pentagon and the other foiled attack on The White House resulting in the crash in Shanksville, PA. All were connected.  Everyone knew life would be different from this point forward.