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The news came into Matt Lauer’s ear as he interviewed a Howard Hughes biographer on what felt like another slow news day in the summer of shark attacks and Chandra Levy.
“Go to commercial,” “Today” executive producer Jonathan Wald told him tersely. “Breaking news: A plane has hit the World Trade Center.”
That’s all anyone knew at 8:50 a.m. ET on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. “Good Morning America” hurried out of an interview with Sarah Ferguson, CBS’ “The Early Show” cut off a cooking segment. Lauer and hundreds of other TV journalists in New York, Washington and southwest Pennsylvania didn’t know it then, but they were about to cover the biggest story of their lives.
The Big Three networks and the all-news cable outlets soon televised live shots of a gaping hole belching thick, dark smoke from the North Tower of the World Trade Center. There was little talk of terrorism in those first few minutes; anchors and reporters on the scene remark about how it was hard to imagine how a pilot could run into a 110-story building on a such a beautiful, clear morning.
“We didn’t know anything, so we were going to figure this thing out along with the viewers,” recalled then-”Good Morning America” co-anchor Charles Gibson. “But it was obvious from the size of the fire that we weren’t going to get off the air anytime soon.”
Fox News Channel’s Jon Scott was about to begin his 9 a.m. shift when he was told to run to the studio.
“I thought it was an accident, as incredible as that may seem now,” says Scott, a pilot and aviation enthusiast. “It should have hit me right away that, OK, they didn’t bring the towers down in ’93 so they were going to try it again from the air.” On the air, Scott was talking to an expert at 9:03 a.m. when United Airlines Flight 175 smashed into the South Tower.
That same moment on “Today,” Lauer and Couric were talking to an NBC News producer, Elliott Walker, who was walking her daughter to school nearby when the first plane struck. It is Walker who tells “Today” of the second attack.
“Another one just hit,” Walker says urgently. “Something else just hit, a very large plane.” Another witness confirms: ”It looks like a movie, I saw a jet, a large jet ... I watched the plane fly into the World Trade Center.”
On “Good Morning America” -- and “Today,” where the shot wasn’t live but replayed a few seconds later -- there was a gasp in the studio that went out over the air. It’s no longer an accident but the worst case of terrorism on American soil, a seminal event in U.S. history.
“For the rest of my life, I will second-guess what happened then,” Gibson says. “Diane had the human reaction, and she said, ’Oh my God.’ And I had the reporter’s reaction, which was, well, now we know what’s going on -- we’re under attack. And I wish I had her reaction.”
The attack of the second plane -- and the dawning realization that there might be more -- sent shivers through the sets and control rooms of the major networks. Security increased instantly at Rockefeller Center, the landmark where ”Today” is broadcast. Lauer and co-anchor Katie Couric locked eyes and knew what the other was thinking.
“That was the realization, in an instant, that this is a major act of terrorism,” Lauer says. “And where there were two, there could be more, and by the way, we’re sitting in Rockefeller Center, a landmark and iconic attraction in New York City.”
Lauer still is amazed at not only what was playing out on the TV screens but also what was going on inside Studio 1-A.
“I’m looking at a stage manager, a person I’ve looked at every day since I took this job, and she’s got tears streaming down her face standing next to the camera that I’m broadcasting into,” Lauer says. “It was a very bizarre scene inside the studio because were all justifiably terrified of what was happening.”
Former “NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw, who rushed on the air from a morning workout, says it was hard to keep his composure that day.
“You’re constantly reminding yourself that you have a greater obligation, which is that you are the connection between the people watching and the event,” Brokaw says. “Your job is to provide them with as much reliable information as you can in a cool, calm way. That is why they invented the role of the anchorman. It’s not just to read the news every night but to be there during these very difficult times.”
There were more shocks in those early hours. As the fires in the World Trade Center burned out of control, the networks received word that something had happened at the Pentagon. NBC’s Pentagon correspondent, Jim Miklaszewski, was on the air when he heard a rumble coming from the other side of the Pentagon.
“I don’t want to alarm anybody right now, but apparently it felt just a few moments ago like there was an explosion here at the Pentagon,” he said. It was only a few moments later when ”Today,” like the other programs, showed billowing smoke from the Pentagon where American Airlines Flight 77 had just crashed.
Scrambling downtownMeanwhile, the twin towers continued to burn, and dozens of news crews rushed to the scene even as thousands of Lower Manhattan workers and residents fled uptown to safety. MSNBC reporter Ashleigh Banfield had been getting ready to go to work in Secaucus when the first airplanes struck. Instead of going to New Jersey, she chose to go to the World Trade Center site to cover what she believed would be a story of a massive fire and rescue. Instead, she, like thousands of other people, would be plunged into a kind of hell.
Banfield tried the subway from uptown, but the subways stopped running. Taxis refused to head south into the maelstrom, and Banfield was forced to run about 40 blocks down Sixth Avenue. She was about 25 blocks away when the South Tower fell, reporting on it via cell phone to MSNBC, then got within a block of the site.
It was 10:28 a.m., and the North Tower crumbled in front of her. She and hundreds, maybe thousands of other people on the street were caught up in the rumble and the debris that rained down and blocked the sunlight. Banfield, along with one other person, ran, terrified, to a locked front door. Banfield broke a window, opened the door and shut it quickly as the awful gray descended.
They opened the door twice — when an NYPD officer rapped on the door and when a World Trade Center security guard frantically knocked. Even today, she doesn’t know how long it took and how long the four were in the vestibule, covered in dust and debris.
“I was absolutely terrified. I was shaken, and I was absolutely unsure of what had happened. It was pitch black. The last thing I saw was 110 stories coming down in all of like five or eight seconds,” recalled Banfield, who is now an anchor at Court TV. “It happened so fast that processing the real facts and details were next to impossible.”
At Studio 1-A at Rockefeller Center, things weren’t much better. The South Tower falls live on “Today,” as Brokaw, not looking at that monitor, describes the implications of a terrorist attack. Lauer, who next to him is by his own account ”glued” to the set, interrupts to ask the control room to rerun the last 20 seconds.
“It knocked the wind out of me. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Lauer says. “Immediately you start to think about all the people who were trying to rescue those people and probably had no warning that the building was coming down.”
Veteran anchor Paula Zahn was newly hired from Fox News to take over CNN’s morning show but wasn’t supposed to go on the air until May 2002. She called her boss in Atlanta and volunteered. She was told to go to CNN’s New York offices; she didn’t know where they were. When Zahn arrived, she was pressed into service co-anchoring the daytime coverage with Aaron Brown on a roof overlooking the site.
“It was very tricky territory. There was a tremendous sense of fear,” she says. “No one knew what was going to happen next. What I didn’t want to do was create fear unnecessarily.”
Every network confronted contradictory information, some putting even more stops on the information until it could be confirmed. Some bad information, like reports of a car bomb exploding in front of the State Department and an unclear number of hijacked planes, made it on the air.
“My tendency is always to put out what we hear. We qualify it, but we always put it out,” says Steve Friedman, then-executive producer of “The Early Show” on CBS. “On this particular day, the thing got so crazy, there were so many reports -- 110 planes missing, bombs everywhere -- that we didn’t do it that way.”
In the hours after the initial attacks, Fox News correspondent Brian Wilson reported that there was another plane believed to be in the air headed for Washington.
“It turned out to be Flight 93,” Scott says. “I remember getting chills down my spine because it seemed like nobody had a handle on where these planes were coming from or how many of them there were.”
The networks would remain on the air, without commercial interruption, for days, chronicling what had happened and the massive rescue and recovery efforts in Lower Manhattan, a hill overlooking Washington, and a reclaimed strip mine an hour and a half outside Pittsburgh. The story was so enormous that many journalists recall the concern they had about whether they could tell the full story.
Dividing the workEach network mobilized everyone in the news division. CBS, like the other networks, assigned “The Early Show,” “60 Minutes” and “48 Hours” chunks of the day to program so that no one would have an overwhelming load.
“Especially on that first day, you were really just going to whomever had a piece of information,” says “48 Hours” executive producer Susan Zirinsky, whose team produced the primetime coverage that first night. “You were getting cameras up, you were putting people in place, you were trying to wrap your brain around it. You wanted to step back and synthesize some of the information, which is what we were trying to do ... At that point, we thought there were many more dead, and it was still a search-and-rescue mission. It was a very, very complicated day to try to give context to.”
ABC’s Gibson recalls the show’s concern about “Good Morning America” and whether they would be able to tell the story adequately in what would become a free-form five-hour broadcast.
“Really the only thing that mattered was the tone of the broadcast that day,” Gibson says. “And I remember thinking when I walked into the studio that the tone really had to be that it was awful, it was terrible, but that we would get through this. That we as a country would survive.”
In some ways, TV news has changed little since that day five years ago. The summer of 2001 was marked by shark attacks off the Florida coast that made national headlines. A missing Senate aide, Levy, was in the headlines, and President Bush was visiting a Florida school when the attacks occurred. There were no serious stories that hit the news in a long time. Today, there is still the tabloid element in mainstream, and stories like the false breakthrough in the JonBenet Ramsey murder trial and the pictures of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’ baby can clutter the airwaves. But there also is a realization that, in a very real sense, things haven’t been the same since Sept. 11.
“Television journalism has evolved into the church of what’s happening now,” CBS’ Friedman says. “The problem with some of that is that there are very little analytics going on. With cable and the Internet and with things going like they are, there is no news cycle. You’re on the treadmill 24 hours a day. It has changed the way we cover things and the way we present things.”