(Charleston, West Virginia) – It’s hard to believe that today marks the 15th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Like many people, I have that day forever etched into my memory. With other seminal events in our lifetimes – such as the assassination of President Kennedy – we recall that “I remember where I was, and exactly what I was doing, and who was with me.” Let’s “brunch” on that this week:
“Breaking News” – Yes, that’s a trite, overused phrase in the news business these days; but on September 11, 2001, news really was breaking. At approximately 5:47 a.m. PDT, I was co-anchoring “The KTVU Morning News” with Pam Cook on channel 2 in the San Francisco TV market. We wear those funny looking earpieces for a reason. Our producer, Melinda Ridgway Tichelaar, suddenly spoke in our ears: “Toss to CNN in New York! A plane just hit the World Trade Center!” And with that, we interrupted the story we had been reading; director Rhonda Nourse pushed one button; and we had the live picture from New York City.
“Just an Accident?” – While we had the picture of the burning World Trade Center live, we had virtually no information to offer other than to describe what we were seeing. I reminded viewers of an accident decades earlier in which a small plane flew into the Empire State Building in New York and that this, too, might be just an accident. All that was put to rest 17 minutes after the first plane hit the North Tower, when another jetliner flew into the South Tower. At that point, we knew this was no accident. Our nation was under attack.
“Chaos in the Newsroom” – All of a sudden, our newsroom erupted into what I always call “organized chaos,” with people barking orders about where to move crews, and plans for our coverage. We were broadcasting the show from right in the middle of the newsroom, so I’m sure viewers could see the panic going on behind the scenes. As usual, even at that early hour, we had about 25 people in the station; many were in a state of shock; and a few of them were crying as they tried to keep working. I remember getting a call on my cell phone very early on in our coverage from our legendary General Manager Kevin O’Brien, who told me, “You must refer to this as a terrorist attack. There is to be no speculating. This is terrorism!’
“The Timeline” – To this day, it’s almost inconceivable the horror we witnessed - live - in just 102 minutes. Just before 7 a.m. PDT, as our show was ending, the South Tower collapsed. At 7:28 a.m. PDT, the North Tower collapsed. By 7:37, the third plane crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. Around the same time, a fourth hijacked plane - with passengers and crew onboard - crashed in Western Pennsylvania,
“Human Reactions” – I spent most of the rest of the day on the air, broadcasting deep into the afternoon. I remember one of the first things I did was to call my wife and tell her to keep our two children – then ages 9 and 6 – home from school. I assumed school would be cancelled anyway, but was surprised to learn it wasn’t. Late in the day, my fellow coaches decided to keep our daughters' soccer practice on. We wanted to keep the kids busy and their minds off the horror many of them probably had witnessed at the breakfast table getting ready for school.
“San Francisco Bound” – With any story such as this, newsrooms always look for local angles to the story. We wondered whether any passengers or airline crew members were from the Bay Area. It’s just a logical newsroom question. It didn’t take long to find out. A source at United Airlines confirmed that the fourth plane hijacked was Flight 93 bound from Newark, New Jersey, to San Francisco. It was the flight that mysteriously crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania; and it just didn’t fit the pattern of the other hijackings. Within days we would know why!
“The Heroes” – One of the most panicked scenes I recall was seeing staffers fleeing from the U.S. Capitol and the White House, especially after the Pentagon was hit. It was known by then that a fourth plane had been hijacked and may have been headed to DC to hit those targets. It turned out that was indeed Flight 93. But because the plane had been delayed taking off from Newark, passengers onboard found out about the other three hijackings through phone calls from family members. Once airborne, Flight 93 was also hijacked. Since passengers knew about the other flights, they decided to take action. Storming the cockpit, they attacked the hijackers. In the ensuing fight, the plane plunged to Earth; and all were killed. But in the process, hundreds – perhaps thousands – of other lives were saved.
“The Names” – One of those who died fighting the hijackers was Tom Burnett, Jr., a businessman, husband, and father, who (as I did) lived in San Ramon Valley, California. His wife Deena was a former flight attendant who soon became an outspoken advocate for the victims of Flight 93 and the others. She came to our newsroom often with her three beautiful daughters who loved to sit on our news desk and play "anchor." They were 7 or 8, as I recall - somewhere around the age of my kids. Deena wasn’t just a newsmaker or an acquaintance. She would become a friend I saw often in my community. Later, she would move to Arkansas and marry again. We've lost touch; but every year on September 11, I say special prayers for her and her family.
“The Advocates” – Another person I got to know well was Alice Hoglan, whose son, Mark Bingham, was one of the heroes of Flight 93. Bingham was a big, muscular former all-star rugby player at the University of California. Like Tom Burnett, Bingham was among those who stormed the cockpit. Alice was coincidentally a flight attendant for United Airlines, and she became a national advocate for making airliners safer, including the locking of cockpit doors. Her deep grief was eased knowing that her son died a hero protecting this nation.
What are your most profound memories of 9/11? Please share your thoughts by clicking the comment button at www.MarkCurtisMedia.com.
© 2016, Mark Curtis Media, LLC
Photo courtesy: Patch.com/California/sanramon/