I distinctly remember where I was on 9/11. 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 TV Land or Nick at Night, 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.
That’s how my 9/11 began.
I remember when I first knew it was terrorism
Many claim they knew immediately when they saw the first image of the one tower on fire that it was a terrorist attack.
That first sight from 9/11 didn’t strike me that way. 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.
When I looked at the screen, I could see clearly from the picture that there was no fog. So I knew that low-hanging clouds didn’t prevent this plane’s 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 that watching 9/11 was my own “Oswald moment.”
I called Mom about the second crash
Someone, I told her, 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. He received word in his IFB, an earpiece that allows producers to talk to anchors and reporters, that they were about to switch to a live shot of the Pentagon.
“Oh my goodness, oh my goodness.” That’s what I heard Gumbel say as a wide shot from some kind of “sky cam” appeared. It showed a distant shot of the Pentagon with a tremendous plume of smoke.
Staying in front of the TV on 9/11 couldn’t be an option
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. I knew I should jump up, get dressed, and head to my television station.
There, I could watch news wires and satellite feeds from reporters on the various scenes. But I just sat there. I suppose I was still trying to soak it all in.
Maybe I didn’t want to see more than I already saw.
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 Williams 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.
So I went in to work.
I didn’t think about not going in, because I knew I would have a busy day 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 something to run to give them precious time to “regroup” if something went wrong. In live TV, something always goes wrong sooner or later.
I produced a series of spots that I called ‘Encouraging 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.
In the days after 9/11, this is what I did. I sat in an edit bay, looking at footage feeding from the network’s private news feed. 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.
None of us can imagine what it was like to lose a loved one in the terrorist attacks. We 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 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 projected in my mind but shown on video monitors.