‘The Horror Was Relentless’ : ABC’s Katie Couric Remembers 9/11

Do you remember that Crayola crayon color, cerulean?  It’s the color of new hydrangeas, my daughter’s mittens and on Sept. 11, it was the color of a vibrant, cloudless sky.

It was a day when it felt like fall, with no foreboding of a harsh winter ahead.   “The Today Show” was about to wrap up for the morning. I waited in the production area for Matt Lauer to finish interviewing an author of a biography of Howard Hughes before returning to the studio to say our goodbyes.

Instead, all eyes were transfixed on the image of a burning high-rise on CNN.   It wasn’t just a high-rise. It was the World Trade Center, and it was on fire.

It took me several minutes to wrap my head around what I was staring at.

“Oh my God,” I thought, “some pilot flying a small plane must have had a heart attack.”  

I looked at the clock, 8:52 a.m., and drew the misguided conclusion that because it was not yet 9 a.m., many people had yet to arrive at their offices, sadly underestimating the work ethic of New Yorkers.

I ran into the studio, sat next to Matt and Al Roker, and the day unfolded in a way that resembled some kind of high-tech disaster movie, not real life.  Al had covered the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 when he worked in local news and was incredibly knowledgeable about the structure of the Twin Towers.  We were talking to people on the phone for eyewitness accounts, including Elliott Walker, one of my favorite producers, when we watched, in horror, that second plane hit the second tower.  My hand was shaking uncontrollably.

I gasped just a bit when Matt announced that this was clearly a terrorist attack.  I remembered how the media had pointed the finger at international terrorists for the Oklahoma City bombing when it turned out to be a homegrown attack.  But it became clear that this was something much bigger, more orchestrated and probably international in scope.

The horror was relentless. During a cross talk with Jim Miklaszewski, he said he had heard a loud explosion.  Having covered the Pentagon, I knew the building was massive and I remember thinking, “Oh, they must be doing construction there.” Then I remember being handed a wire that said there had been a plane crash in Shanksville, Pa. 

I was so shocked that yet another plane had crashed.

I ran to a phone during a commercial break, called my parents and told them to go into the basement.  I had no idea when it was going to end.  My daughters were in school and I remember thinking that was the safest place for them to be. Ellie told me later most parents had gone and picked up their kids.  Our nanny, Lori Beth, picked them up at their regular dismissal time, after having her own harrowing experience making her way uptown from NYU where she was taking classes.

The days following Sept. 11 are a blur:  Family members desperately searching for their loved ones.  Frantically made Xerox posters with the faces of victims everywhere you looked. The “Portraits of Grief” in The New York Times that reminded us that the people who perished were just like you and me.  Firefighters somberly serving as members of the “bucket brigade,” as the occasional body was carried out of the still smoldering debris. The acrid air filling my neighborhood as people walked around holding candles, still in shock from what had happened that morning.  New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani announcing what so many people already knew but couldn’t face.  No more people would be found alive in the wreckage of the Twin Towers.

Every year, when MSNBC re-broadcasts what happened on Sept. 11, I relive that day.  But not in the same way families and survivors do – not only on every anniversary, but every day.