9.11.01

By Germanm

Sep 11, 2006 10:25am

Senior broadcast producer Tom Nagorski reflected on the attacks in the days that followed. We’ve reposted his words below: I arrived in the newsroom just as the first call came in. One of our staffers was on the line. The World Trade Center, she said, was on fire. She had heard someone say a plane had hit one of the towers. For a few minutes we watched and waited, hoping the fire would be extinguished, that it really hadn’t been a plane, that this must have been an accident. Peter Jennings slipped on his blazer and headed for the anchor desk. The ABC Special Events unit hummed to life. We put off our 9:00 editorial meeting, and peered up at a bank of television monitors. I left a phone message for my wife, who worked for then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani in an office on Chambers Street. She e-mailed me back: “I heard it and felt it. Didn’t know what it was. Was it an accident or a terrorist? Maybe they don’t know? Now I hear all the sirens.” Then the second impact. Having seen it so many times it is difficult now to remember what anyone said, or did, the first time we saw it. I know I called my wife again. This time I struggled to keep a steady voice. “I think you should get out of there,” I said. Then the phones went dead. And then the bulletins flew at us. 9:22. From a White House correspondent: “The President was informed during his first event in Florida. Andy Card whispered info in his ear…”
9:56. From a Reuters report: “A person who answered the phone on the trading floor at interdealer-broker Cantor Fitzgerald, located near the top of the World Trade Center, said, ‘We’re (expletive) dying.’…”
10:35. From the ABC News Investigative Unit: “Reports from FAA sources say that there are one and possibly two more planes that have been hijacked and are still missing…” By now we had seen one, and then the other tower come cascading down. “My God,” said Peter Jennings, as the second tower fell. “It is hard to put into words.” He paused. “Maybe we don’t need to.” We had also seen the smoke on the horizon in Washington, DC. “Claire, what’s that we’re looking at,” Jennings asked correspondent Claire Shipman, who was reporting from a position overlooking the old Executive Office Building. There followed an awful minute or two of suspended animation, time I spent hoping that this was some fluke, some unrelated brush fire. At sixteen minutes before ten we confirmed that the smoke was rising from the Pentagon. Some thirty seconds later, we had an eyewitness who had watched a jet smash into its side. At the anchor desk, Jennings shuddered. “Want to hold our breath here for a moment.” I buried myself in the work. In part because there was no choice. World News Tonight as a discrete broadcast was suddenly irrelevant; the entire news division was now tasked with a “Special Report” that would last for days. We dispatched reporters and producers to lower Manhattan, Boston’s Logan Airport, and to Los Angeles, and we made plans to send teams to South Asia — though Osama Bin Laden’s name had yet to be mentioned. A parade of experts was called to our New York and Washington offices – to talk about everything from aviation to terrorism to rescue and recovery efforts. The work also obscured, if only slightly, everything else that was rattling my mind. How many thousands were dead? What was coming next? Where was my wife? It was impossible to gauge accurately the spread of smoke and debris, but they certainly appeared – in horrifying image after horrifying image that arrived in our tape rooms – to have smothered huge sections of the congested and narrow downtown. Her office was five blocks from the World Trade Center. Our apartment was across the East River, in a Brooklyn neighborhood. I kept trying to call, but the line was down; when I reached a neighbor, she told me that the woman who cares for our four-year-old daughter was hysterical. “She’s upset about the whole thing, and upset that [her mother] isn’t home.” The neighbor also told me that the smoke was shrouding the area. At 10:58 there was this, on the e-mail: “There has been a report of a large plane crash in Western Pennsylvania.” Nightmare, piled on nightmares. I remember thinking – as I read this latest terrible item – Please God, let this one be an accident. An aviation disaster, all right, it’s terrible, but it’s also manageable, from a mental standpoint. But please, please, not another act of terror. Where would the next bulletin originate, the next smoldering fire? For that next hour or two it was all impossible to digest, to comprehend, though of course we had to digest and comprehend, continuously. It was our job. What other aircraft were missing? Where was the President? Shanksville, Pennsylvania joined the datelines. And it had not been an accident. We sent a team there. Another to Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. We asked reporters for stories about airport security, for eyewitness accounts and nationwide reactions. Medical reporters were asked about triage work and asbestos levels – both of which seemed very relevant in those first hours. Geared for the daily 6:30 pm deadline, all of us at World News Tonight now simply took in stories from the field, edited them as quickly as possible, and put them out on the air. Mostly the coverage was live, check-ins with reporters and experts and eyewitnesses all over the world. Still no word from my wife. Still a flood of e-mails. 11:24. From our aviation correspondent: The government has shut down the entire air traffic system in the United States.
11:28. From my soon-to-be sister-in-law, whose wedding was four days away: Please let me know that you are O.K., if you can…We love you all…
11:47. From the ABC News research department: 50,000 people work in the World Trade Center. There are 155 businesses there… I was on the phone with our London bureau when the call came from Brooklyn. It was my wife, and she was all right. She had been among the thousands who sprinted over the bridge when the first tower fell, ahead of the grey-black cloud. She had found our neighborhood grey-black as well, and our daughter, just days past her fourth birthday, was asking questions. Why had someone knocked down the buildings? And – her words – “Why was the plane so pointy?” At some point that morning, my daughter had seen a television. We stayed at work until two in the morning, when Jennings took his first break from the coverage. “I suppose we did all right,” he said. He had been on the air for seventeen consecutive hours. And he would be back in the chair at nine that morning. The overnight team took over. We made assignments for the following day, long lists of stories and new datelines and questions. Several of us checked in to the nearby ghostly Empire Hotel, for a few hours of sleep. The 12th proved another marathon day, another blur of bulletins, that first and last story of rescues at the Trade Center, and a strange moment when my boss – Jennings – was interviewing my wife’s boss – Rudolph Giuliani. That night I shuffled out at a little after midnight, and headed for the subway. Fellow passengers talked loudly about the events, about people they had heard about, about what they felt should be done to the perpetrators. South of Canal Street the A train slowed, and the car hushed, as we moved at a snail’s pace through the Chambers Street/World Trade Center station. People turned to look; a film of dust had settled over the platform but otherwise it was just an abandoned station. A few passengers stood, to stare, or perhaps to say a prayer. Past Chambers, at Broadway-Nassau Street, the train picked up speed again, and raced to Brooklyn. It was one in the morning. I took a brief detour to walk the length of the Brooklyn Heights promenade, long considered one of the best vantage points for one of the world’s most dramatic skylines. For thirty-six hours I had been watching the pictures, hearing the sounds, and talking about nothing else – but that little walk still shocked. The promenade was bedecked with flowers and flags, candles and printed messages. “Pray for the victims and their families,” urged the largest of these. People stood, shadowed in the candlelight, silent and staring. And there it was, across the river, that awful empty space, fully lit and still smoking, acrid smell still wafting, though this night the wind was carrying the worst of it north, to upper Manhattan. Then I was home, surprised to find my wife awake. We said nothing, only held each other close, and I broke down and cried.

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