Covering 9/11

09.11.13

New York Journalists Remember the First Moments of 9/11

Twelve years after 9/11, the reporters and anchors who covered the worst tragedy in U.S. history remember it all too well. From holding back tears on screen to watching bodies fall from the towers, here are their stories.

On September 11, 2001, people across the globe gathered around their TVs to watch one of the worst tragedies in U.S. history unfold before their eyes. For viewers, it was unfathomable. For the anchors on the other side of the screen, it was reality. Twelve years later, they can still smell the stench of dust and death, hear the sound of buildings crumbling, and feel the thick smoke that cloaked the city. Here are their stories.

Pat Kiernan, a morning anchor for NY1, was one hour from finishing his shift when the first tower was hit.

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We had just gone to commercial when my assignment editor told me that a small plane had hit the Twin Towers and there was a fire and that we had a shot of it—from our camera perched on the top of the Empire State building. When we came back, I had to ad-lib: “There’s smoke coming out of the building …” I had no idea what was happening. So we sent one of our reporters, Kristen Shaughnessy, to the scene. And she was telling me what was happening. But suddenly sounding afraid, she said, “Pat, I gotta go, it’s billowing.” In the meantime she had to drop the phone. It was one of the more terrifying things for me personally. Kristen was a friend of mine and colleague for eight years; I had no idea if she was a block away from the towers or 10 blocks away. I could see on the live picture that the field of debris was spreading. That was the longest 25 minutes ever before I heard that she was OK. We had taken someone who was out of harm’s way and put them in it. There was a lot of guilt there.

But that’s not to discount my fear for the first responders and people who I knew were probably still in the building. The information was so sketchy. I had no idea. I began thinking—and I mentioned it on the air earlier—that the structure of the building might pose a problem. But I didn't expect it to become one so quickly. When the towers fell, I was shell-shocked, struggling to find words. How do you tell people watching that any hope for people in that building is gone? The first two minutes I was searching for words, the smoke and debris were filling lower Manhattan. Suddenly, we got a guy who's an eyewitness on the phone. A minute later he's on the air and he's right there. Airplane debris, dust, smoke. It was so hard to sit up there and stay composed and keep track of everything—to process what the facts were. We kept getting false reports of survivors. It just kept coming, coming, coming.

The emotion of the day didn’t hit me until hours after, when my thoughts were my own. I went home to my apartment at 75th and Broadway. It was empty because my wife—who was eight months pregnant—was in Chicago. I remember feeling glad that she was there, safe. I heated up leftovers. The apartment was quiet. I turned the TV off and tried to just breathe. But as I was sitting there, I saw the smoke rising. It was suddenly just this inescapable reminder.

Rick Leventhal, a Fox News correspondent, was working uptown when his boss called to see if he could get downtown. “Why?” he asked. “Turn on your TV.”

I saw the images and honestly my first thought was, accident. Small plane. I ran down to the subway and was on the train downtown when the second plane hit so I didn't even know until I emerged at Canal Street and ran to the scene. I was a block north of the North Tower, looked up and saw it in flames and asked a female police officer, "What happened to the second tower?” She said “That's where the second plane hit.” and I immediately knew it was a terror attack. I didn’t sleep much. We worked 16-hour days for the first couple weeks. The second morning I woke up with a nasty cough, which I think was from breathing the dust at the scene (I was four blocks north with our satellite truck when the towers fell), but the cough went away and the NYPD kept moving our position further from the scene, which probably saved us from greater physical harm.

I still get chills every time I think about it. We were about to go live and were standing in the intersection of Church and Warren when we heard the rumble of the first tower coming down. We didn’t know what it was because even though we were only four blocks away, the buildings blocked our view. Then a 20-story-high mushroom cloud of smoke came rolling up the street toward us. People were screaming and running from the cloud. I saw police officers and first responders and pedestrians including a woman with a baby carriage racing toward us. My engineer/photographer Pat Butler and I jumped inside the satellite truck just as the cloud enveloped us. It got completely black inside; we had no cell service and had no idea what might happen next. It was the longest, most unsettling 10 minutes of my life. The hardest part was being in a city I loved and called home, knowing we were under attack. Knowing innocent people died for no reason. And fighting to maintain my composure and remain calm and stay focused on reporting the facts despite the chaos all around us. It was by far the hardest assignment I’ve ever faced, but I couldn’t have been more impressed with the fortitude and dedication of my colleagues. We got on the air and stayed on the air under ridiculously horrible circumstances and did our best to discount the rumors and keep our viewers informed.

Nic Robertson, senior international correspondent for CNN, was one of the only Western journalists in Afghanistan that day.

The emotional impact was huge. None of us knew what was coming next and no one could tell when or how the day would end. From where I was in Kabul I felt isolated from what the rest of the world was experiencing, but at the same time I was worried about my young family. I told my wife—who was a CNN reporter in London at the time—to get our kids home from school. Because the Taliban banned televisions, I had no way of seeing the devastation. But I knew the story was going to come to us in Afghanistan, and that was troubling. I’d never experienced anything so unpredictable, everything changed so fast. Our local fixers ran away, the Taliban wanted to throw us out of the country, and it took a lot of soul searching to know we wanted to stay even though all other journalists had left Afghanistan. It was an emotional roller-coaster.

Rose Arce, a producer at CNN, was getting coffee and toast at a deli in downtown NYC when she overheard on the radio that the Twin Towers had been hit. She dropped her coffee and ran to the towers. Her reporting that day would eventually win her an Emmy.

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That morning was nearly identical to [yesterday] morning. It was the morning of the New York primary. It was this glorious day. I stopped at a deli near my apartment in the West Village to get a coffee and toast before voting when I heard on the radio that a small plane had hit the Twin Towers. I walked out into the street with my coffee, looked downtown, and there was just a hole in one of the top of the Twin Towers. And everything just changed, in that moment. Everything. It just went from being this glorious day to being something out of a really horrible action movie. Everything after that moment was a whole series of things that just seemed unbelievable.

I didn’t have anything with me. I don’t even know what I was thinking. I just had my cellphone. I just ran. Eventually, I stopped a car and told the woman I needed to get downtown. She drove me to Duane Street. When I got there, there were all these kids running around. It was the first day of school. People were frantic. People were just losing it. I kept calling in to CNN to tell them what I was seeing, and it wasn’t until the second phone call that I realized they were taking me live on the air. They didn’t have anybody down there. When I realized that, I became very focused on getting to the Twin Towers.

As I was moving south, there was this guy with a big camera in his hand, holding his daughter. I was asking him if he had taken any pictures when all of the sudden there was this … ROAR. It was kind of like when you walk over a grate and you can hear the subway barreling in. It was a roar like that. And then, I remember, there was just a shadow in the air ... and it was a second plane. Everyone’s head snapped up at once. And the man’s little girl pointed up at the sky, she must have been no more than 5, and she said, “Daddy, they’re doing it on purpose.” To this day, it’s the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever heard. The second she said that, all the people around us heard it. Reality sunk in. Until that moment, we all thought this had to be some kind of a weird accident. We probably knew it wasn’t, but who wants to believe that?

But that’s really the moment when I realized, this is an attack. The man and his daughter started running, and I followed, and somehow we ended up in his apartment (I don’t even remember how). It was a penthouse, really high up, and it looked out over the towers. Soon after his wife came home with their other kid. And the five of us, just staring in disbelief. He kept zooming in and zooming out with his camera, and it looked like there were people at the top of the tower. But it was hard to see because the towers were so high, just looming over us. Suddenly, we saw someone jump. Then it wasn’t just one person, it was hundreds. It happened over and over again. They were holding each other’s hands. They were so close together. They were helping each other jump. It took a little while to internalize what it was. We just kept looking at each other, the man and me. And I remember vividly, his daughter kept asking him what those dark objects were. “Sweetie, they’re birds,” he said.