On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was awakened by a ringing telephone. I had fallen asleep on the couch the night before, having watched some mindless classic sitcom on TVLand or Nick at Nite, most likely, and the television was still on.
The call had come from my mother, who was at work, but had heard on the radio that a plane had crashed into a New York skyscraper. As she told me the news, NBC’s Today show was showing pictures of the World Trade Center where the plane had crashed. We didn’t talk long, but I told her I’d let her know what happened when I found out.
Unlike those who claim to have known immediately and beyond a shadow of a doubt upon seeing that image that we had been the victim of a terrorist attack, that wasn’t my first thought. I recalled an old news story I had read about from 1945, when a B-25 had crashed into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building on a fog shrouded morning. I could see clearly from the picture that there was no fog…I knew that whatever type of plane had crashed into this building didn’t do so because low-hanging clouds prevented the pilot from seeing it.
Perhaps I subconsciously chose to believe that there must have been some kind of mechanical failure…that typical “hydraulic leak” that is part of so many plane crash movies…that prevented the pilot from being able to steer clear of the tower. I was watching when the second plane hit the tower. That’s when I knew the first crash hadn’t been an accident.
Oddly enough, though, at the time, I thought of another old news story and my mother’s telling of it. She had described being at her sister’s home on Sunday, November 24, 1963, watching Lee Harvey Oswald as police escorted him through the basement of the Dallas Police Department. Right there on live television, they saw murder happen as Jack Ruby shot him. It dawned on me, and I don’t know why my mind jumped to the comparison, that I was watching my own “Oswald moment” that morning.
I called my mom to tell her that a second plane had crashed. I told her that someone must have hijacked both planes. I promised to call back when I knew more.
I was watching Bryant Gumbel who was then on CBS’s The Early Show when he received word in his IFB, an earpiece that allows producers to talk to anchors and reporters, that they were about to switch toalive shot of the Pentagon. “Oh my goodness, oh my goodness.” That’s what I heard Gumbel say as a wideshot from some kind of “sky cam” appeared. It showed a distant shot of the Pentagon with a tremendous plume of smoke.
I work in television, as many of you know. I’m not a reporter, though I once was. I’m not a news junkie, per se, unless there is big news happening at that moment, then I want all that I can get. But wheras I should have jumped up, gotten dressed, and headed to my television station where I could have watched the news wires and satellite feeds from reporters on the various scenes at the same time I was watching the actual on-air signal, I just sat there. I suppose I was still trying to soak it all in.
I knew, once I saw that second plane hit, that there would be nothing specific for me to do that day. That’s because I am a promotion producer: I do those commercials that tell you what’s coming up on the evening news. I also do the spots that tell you why our anchors are better than theirs. At the time, I even added our station logo and airtime to promos for syndicated shows like Judge Judy, Montel or The Andy Griffith Show. But it was obvious that none of that would be airing that day. I knew that it was a given that network coverage would go “wall-to-wall,” that there would be no time for local commercials or promos.
I didn’t think about not going in, because I knew that I would be needed in some capacity. That capacity turned out to be producing spots that could air instead of commercials when the networks would allow local news and programming to resume. Most advertisers were pulling their ads so there would have been few commercials to air. But at the same time, the news and production departments wanted to have the option of having some kind of spots that could run in order to give them precious time to “regroup” if something went wrong.
I produced a series of spots that I called “Enouraging Words.” They basically were little more than motivational music, footage of the aftermath, especially people helping strangers that day, and alternating words or phrases that appeared on the screen. Over the course of the next few days, this is what I did. I sat in an edit bay, looking at footage that had fed from the network’s private news feed, being bombarded with images that some of you never saw because they were too horrific. I produced a music video to Ray Charles‘s rendition of “America.” I produced a thirty-second promo that alternated between shots of candlelight vigils and prayer services and quotations from notable Americans.
Over the next few days, as coverage slowly returned to normal, I had produced several spots that all accomplished basically the same thing, just in different approaches. I was proud of the work, but at the same time, drained from having to see all of that footage over and over again. I can’t imagine what it was like to lose a loved one in the terrorist attacks. I can’t imagine what it was like to be there in person and see it happen. But I can’t forget what it was like to be forced to witness replays of it that I thought would never stop.
Someone asked if I had nightmares after the attacks. I didn’t. My nightmares were in the daytime, not being projected in my mind but being shown on video monitors.