It has been said so many times it has become almost banal. But it is true. Nearly everyone remembers where he or she was on that horrible morning fifteen years ago. You probably do. I certainly do.
I was about midway through my morning shift as the National Correspondent at ABC News Radio in New York City. Shortly before 9AM…no, let us be precise…at 8:47 am, I had left my desk and was walking through the newsroom. Several television monitors were suspended from the ceiling, all tuned to various TV channels. One of them was showing the image from a fixed camera position in lower Manhattan. Some of the local TV stations sometimes used that shot as background for weather forecasting.
The image on that bright, beautiful, September morning included the twin towers of the World Trade Center standing tall and proud against the brilliantly clear and cloudless blue sky. As I strolled past the assignment desk, I glanced up at that TV monitor to see smoke billowing from the upper floors of the North Tower.
“Guys,” I said aloud to no one and everyone in the room, “I think the World Trade Center is on fire.” As one, everybody whipped their heads around to look at the monitor. Someone said, “It looks like a plane might have crashed into it.” I remember thinking, “Oh man, some pilot, if he survived, is in big trouble.” Then everything began to happen very quickly. Our assignment manager commanded, “Hickey. Special report!” The newsroom was lined with several sound-proofed studios from which our newscasts were broadcast. But the newsroom itself had a special cubicle outfitted with a microphone, headphones and a control board, which allowed us to go live coast-to-coast on the full radio network at any moment and within seconds, if necessary.
At 8:50, just three minutes after first seeing the smoke, I was on the air with the first of many special reports by several ABC reporters and anchors over the next several days. There was little to report in that first broadcast. All we knew in the moment was that one of the towers of the World Trade Center was on fire and it appeared that a small plane had crashed into it. At exactly the same time, President George W. Bush, visiting an elementary school in Sarasota, Florida, was being told essentially the same thing by his Chief of Staff. We would all soon learn the full extent of the awful tragedy what was unfolding before our eyes.
The timeline of that frightful day has been chronicled meticulously in the intervening years. We know now, for example, that the plane had smashed into the tall building at 8:46am, one minute before we spotted the smoke on the TV monitor. And we now know, of course, that it wasn’t a small plane. It was American Airlines Flight 11, commandeered by terrorist hijackers, that had smashed into floors 93-99 of the North Tower, killing everyone, passengers, crew and hijackers, onboard.
The newsroom was, by now, on full alert. One of the broadcast studios was always used for long-form programs and extended, or “wall-to-wall,” coverage of certain events. At 9:00, I began what would become days of “wall-to-wall” coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attack. Long form programming takes several people to produce. Besides the on-air anchors, there are producers, engineers, bookers and desk assistants to co-ordinate interviews and handle all the details of a major broadcast.
One of the first interviews was with an eyewitness, Brian Lutz, who was on the phone, he said, from a high-rise building a few blocks from and within sight of the World Trade Center. As Brian was describing the scene from his vantage point, the fire, the smoke, the people leaping to their deaths out of the building, I saw something else strange on one of the TV monitors in the studio. It another big plane approaching the twin towers. My immediate thought was that it was some kind of military aircraft moving in for a closer look. It disappeared behind the South Tower and, within seconds, a huge ball of flame and debris erupted from the side of the building facing the camera. This time it was United Airlines Flight 175 that, at 9:03am, another group of hijackers had turned into a terrorist weapon.
From where he was located, Brian could not see the plane. But he did see the hellish explosion out of floors 75-85 of the South Tower. He interrupted himself in mid-sentence and began to shout, “Oh my God! A huge ball of fire has just exploded from the South Tower!” He went on, describing the color, the size, the intensity of the blast. I interrupted him to exclaim, “Another plane has just crashed into the second tower!” I started to say more, but then realized that Brian, who was still talking, was doing such a good job detailing what we both were seeing, I shut my mouth and let him go on. The recording of that moment has been played repeatedly on various broadcasts over the years. A nationally syndicated talk show host used it as an introduction to his show just a couple days before the 15th Anniversary of the attack.
That day, September 11, 2001, wore on with one atrocity after another. I was stunned, as was everyone else, by the monstrous developments that seemed to never stop. I stayed in the broadcast studio all day and had to keep reminding myself to stay calm, be professional. I had an editor who once told me, “The hotter the story, the cooler the language.” I had to remain very cool that day.
Images of 9/11 remain burned in all of our brains. There are other images of the days following the attacks that are equally vivid for me. I would commute to work from my home in New Jersey through the Lincoln Tunnel under the Hudson River into Manhattan, arriving well before sunrise for the early morning shift. As commuters to New York City know, when you approach the Lincoln Tunnel from the Jersey side, you traverse a 360 degree circular and downward slope to the tunnel entrance. At one point in that roundabout you are looking directly at where the Twin Towers once stood. For weeks, in the pre-dawn darkness, that site in the distance was lit by powerful lights as search, rescue and recovery efforts continued. All the while, smoke and ash continued to rise from the mountain of rubble, silhouetted and highlighted by the lights. It was a vision of Hell.