As Towers Burned, Family’s Desperate Search for Father on 9/11

It was a beautiful September morning as I walked out of my hotel in midtown New York.  The air was crisp, the skies, sparkling blue. Sept. 11, 9 a.m. I was headed to the airport, about to fly from New York to Chicago to work on a story. But then, came a frantic call from the ABC News assignment desk. A plane had crashed into one of the towers at the World Trade Center … .and  a camera crew was on its way to pick me up at my hotel. We were told to head toward ground zero and find a story, amid all the chaos that was erupting.

 We got as far as Canal Street and Broadway, about a mile from the World Trade Center before we were forced to stop at a police roadblock. As we jumped out of our SUV, I noticed a woman and two little girls at a pay phone. They were in tears. The woman, Brenda Shoenholt, was yelling into the phone: “Have you heard from him?” “Any idea where he might be?”.   When she hung up, she explained that her husband – the father of the two young girls, Remie and Jane — ran a delicatessen in one of the towers. He called her from work that morning to say that the building was being evacuated. But he thought it wasn’t a big deal and decided to stay and put away all the perishables, the milk and all the different meats in his deli. That was the last anyone had heard from him.


I asked what she planned to do. She said, “My daughters and I are going to walk toward the towers — as far as we can go. We HAVE to find him.” I asked if we could follow her and she agreed.


I’ll never forget the long walk that day. The darkened skies from the falling debris. The masses of people – many of them bloodied and covered in ash – running out of the downtown area – as we tried to rush in. After walking for a couple of hours, we were again forced to stop at another police barricade. One of the girls ran up to a police officer and asked where evacuees from the burning towers were being taken.


The officer, obviously overwhelmed by the rushing crowds, yelled abruptly: “I have no idea, honey – just keep moving. You cannot go beyond this point!”  Feeling sorry for the girl, I then ran up to the officer and said, “Officer, they’re looking for their father who was in the building.”  He gave me a cold stare I’ll never forget. “My wife was in the building and I still haven’t heard from my wife.”


We kept walking. Another two hours. My producer was getting nervous. We needed to get back to the studio, edit our story and get it on the air. But  we really didn’t have much of a story – just one family’s search for their loved one … with no real ending.


With the family leading the way, we decided to make one, final stop at  Chelsea Piers  where some of those injured in the attacks were being taken. But  the wounded were very few  - compared with the huge number of fatalities.


I stood with the girls’ mother as she studied the list of the wounded on a bulletin board. “Is he on the list?” I asked. She shook her head sadly, “No.”


Then suddenly, at that very moment, one of her little girls screamed, “Daddy!!!” The camera swung around and there, standing just a few feet away was their father, Steve Shoenholt, holding a dog in one arm, a cat in the other.  He had gone home to rescue the family’s pets. The little girls stayed there with their arms wrapped tightly around their father’s neck for what seemed like an eternity.


We rushed back to our studios where Peter Jennings was on the air, live, round-the-clock, masterfully dissecting the events of that dark day. I quickly wrote my script, edited the piece, and then it went straight to air. Peter who, usually got to see our taped stories beforehand, simply introduced it: “And now, John Quinones reports on one family’s search today for their loved one, a father of two …”


When the piece ended, the camera switched back to Peter Jennings. The eyes of our normally cool, calm and collected anchorman were glistening. He hesitated just a bit, swallowed hard, and then told our viewers, “God, I didn’t know where that was going.”


It was one of just a precious few reports that awful day … with a happy ending.


Watch John Quinones’ original report below:



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