Out of the Blue
I was driving in to work in downtown Washington and listening to the radio. It was a little before nine a.m. on Sept 11, 2001. There was a cut-in report that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers in New York.
Probably a commuter plane in trouble, posed the morning jock, echoing initial impressions. ABC Radio soon cut to an eyewitness to the crash, who suddenly became agitated, saying he had just seen what looked like a second plane hit. The world started feeling unsure under my feel, the way you feel when your wife calls to tell you she has cancer. Everything felt like it was about to change forever. And it came, so literally, out of a clear blue sky.
I got into the office as quickly as I could and turned on the TV. Within minutes there was
news of an explosion at the Pentagon, accompanied almost at the same time by reports of other planes heading for Washington, of a massive terrorist attack, then the fall of the first tower.
TV anchors were reduced to speechless horror as they realized what they were looking at.
"And what rough beast, his hour come round at last," I thought, because I am a poetry fan, "slouches toward Bethlehem to be born." Then I had a more pressing thought. "My brother."
He had recently moved into the Pentagon from temporary quarters in Alexandria. After postings in Europe and was in Iraq, a safe posting, we thought, stateside, in one of the most secure places on the planet.
But again, 9/11 had a way of turning solid rock ino shifting sand when it came to our assumptions of security. When I heard where the plane had gone in, over on the helipad side, I knew that was where he was.
My big boss at the time was in Washington for the day, working out of the bureu. He came into my office and we started talking. Did I have news for him. I told him my brother was in the Pentagon and that I couldn't get through to him. did he have news for me. He said his brother worked on an upper floor at one of the Twin Towers and was on crutches from a recent injury. What were the odds? What were their chances?
Either they are OK, or they are not, we said, flatly stating the obvious rather than contemplate the reality, and went back to work.
I had to collect news from our reporters in New York and L.A for what would ultimately be days of wall-to-wall industry news related to the event–the lost New York station engineers working atop the buildings, the massive news operation to cover the events, the death of Emmy-winning Frasier co-creator David Angell and his wife. Lynn, who were aboard American Airlines Flight 11, the canceled events and show's reworked or scrapped because of themes too close to our new reality.
I'd like to say I remember doing that work in those first few hours, but I don't.
The world felt unstable and I was disoriented. ABC's Anne Compton, after working on autopilot and adrenaline as the pool reporter on Air Force One that day, only cried afterwards when her son called to say that one of his friends was among the dead. A human face, suddenly inescapable, placed on what had been a story about someone else, somewhere else. She sat down and cried. I know how she felt.
At a little after noon, after many crossed fingers, bolstered by quiet prayers and promises, I learned that my brother had escaped, shielded by a reinforced wall, though many colleagues only feet away had not.
My boss learned later that day that some good samaratans had carried his brother down a stairwell many flights to safety.
I went out and bought a red, white and blue bow tie that afternoon, which I wear at all black-tie functions. Not because I am a knee-jerk patriot, but because I wanted, and still want, to remember.
When I hear stories like the one about the company hiring homeless people at substandard wages to evict other people from their homes, it helps me to, instead, remember the best of the human spirit, the sacrifice and resiliance and professionalism of people in incredibly tough circumstances.
That was firemen, and rescue workers and doctors, but that was also reporters and camerapeople and editors and producers who worked the story so powerfully and exhaustively; it was executives who dropped their ads and their competitive talons to join hands and report the story wherever it went and for as long as it took, it was the stations that raised money for the victims, and it was all about the unity of purpose that bound us all tightly together and brought out, for the most part, the best in everyone.
That was the real triumph in this unspeakable tragedy, and our industry shares, reflecxtively but proudly in it today as we remember that day.