A FEW DAYS I'LL NEVER FORGET
For six days and nights I did live reports from the shore in Jersey City, New Jersey, with a view of Lower Manhattan. As you see in the image below, the spot where the towers once stood was brightly lit as the frantic search efforts continued around the clock. That lighting made the still-present drifting smoke and dust seem very eerie....so did knowing what happened to produce it.
On September 11th, 2001 I was working as a reporter and fill-in anchor at what was then WB2 in Denver. That day I was sent first to Colorado Springs. The city has key military installations to the North, South, East and West....and there was even speculation that President Bush might be flown to Peterson Air Force Base. (left, below). That didn't happen. By that evening I was back in the Denver area at a church that had been set up as a shelter for stranded travelers. Remember, all air travel was suspended and planes had to land. Passengers were all stuck in places short of their destinations. I interviewed the man in the picture (right) below. His flight out of New York landed in Denver. He had a three friends who worked in the restaurant at the top of one of the towers. He was pretty sure one of them didn't make it.
Early in the day it had been decided that as soon as it was possible to fly I would be sent to New York. I agreed to go without any hesitation. Over the next couple of days we all did nothing but World Trade Center stories. One that really stays with me was a profile piece on Mari-Rae Sopper. The 35-year-old lawyer was, at one time, a gymnastics coach in a Denver area suburb. She was also a 1996 graduate of the Law School at Denver University. She had recently been named the new head gymnastics coach at UC Santa Barbara. She was heading West for that job....on American Airlines flight 77...the one that crashed into the Pentagon. I talked to her former boss at the Denver area gym, an Associate Dean at D.U. and even a classmate from 1996. They all had glowing things to say about the remarkable friend they lost that day.
Finally, by the Saturday after the Tuesday attack the airlines were able to fly again and I was on a plane to the East Coast. I was with a photographer named Zumi Hidalgo and a satellite engineer named Stuart Field. Zumi and I would work together doing stories and live reports every day. Stuart would go to a satellite truck owned by Tribune, which owned WB2, to help other crews get live reports on the air for various Tribune stations around the country. He was eventually running a truck parked along the west side of Manhattan north of Ground Zero, in a spot where I've never seen so many satellite trucks. Below is a view of Ground Zero from about as close as we were able to get.
In order to get that close we needed a special media pass from the NYPD. We had to line up at their headquarters with other media from around the world..for four hours. While we were waiting, Stuart held our spot and Zumi and I went out to find a story. Tribune had an on-the-spot crew covering all of the latest updates on the "nuts and bolts" of the story, the basics on casualties, suspects, etc. Reporter Grant Rampy did those updates for all the Tribune stations. Zumi and I were told just to find people and tell their stories. To the credit of the managers at WB2, they never changed that plan, they never interfered with what we were trying to do. We told them what we had, they didn't tell us what we had to get. As a reporter that's good in a couple of way. First it means they trust your judgment, which is always good, second it meant were were finding real stories, not gathering elements to shape a story to a concept some producer thought up back in Denver. (that happens a lot in TV news)
New York is the city that never sleeps, and the hustle never stops. The street vendors always have something to sell and for them 9-11 was another opportunity. We found t-shirts that...well, speak for themselves. Note the lack of a past tense on "survive" below...wow.
We also found vendors selling postcards with the moment of impact on them. It takes a lot to offend New Yorkers. These offended New Yorkers.
We did some compelling stories in the next few days. We found a woman from Denver who was a volunteer with the Scientologists, giving first responders something like a massage inside Ground Zero. This is Angie below on the left. We profiled a lawyer named Nate who had lived in the city all his life and who couldn't believe every time he looked up the iconic buildings were just gone..He's in the picture on the right. We talked about how the whole idea of life getting "back to normal" anytime soon was probably a myth. It was one of those phrases thrown around way too often, way too early.
Everywhere we went there was a column of smoke and dust visible where the towers had been. Everywhere we went Ground Zero was the unspoken focus of every glance, every conversation, every story.
There were reminders all around of the devastation...look at this burned out fire truck that we saw being towed out on our first or second day in New York.
We talked to one couple right after they were allowed to go back into their apartment near Ground Zero. They had 10 minutes to gather what they could. They told me it was heartbreaking. I met another guy whose place had a few inches of dust on everything when he went in. He came out with only enough to fill a backpack. I had to tell his story on camera, because he couldn't talk about it yet.
We spent some time in Union Square. It was an unofficial gathering place for families missing loved ones. It's where they posted all of those pictures hoping someone could help.
It was also a place where preachers called for peace and where New Yorkers argued about what the U.S may or may not have done in the past and about what the U.S. might do in the future. The discussion was heated and the stories were emotional.
Nothing came close to the emotion of one of the final stories Zumi and I did....and it turned out that way by almost by accident. There was a barrier on a main major street in and out the area that approached Ground Zero. We were allowed inside the barrier but the public was not. Every day dozens would gather there just to cheer and encourage everyone who came out. I talked about it in the piece as "the best of intentions at the worst of times." It was all New Yorkers could do to encourage those who were working and struggling so hard inside the barrier, at Ground Zero.
We already had the story shot. Then we saw a firefighter or some kind of emergency worker slowly making his way down that street towards the barrier. We were not really supposed to approach the emergency workers..but this was quite a distance from Ground Zero..so we did. I asked him what he thought about the support from the cheering crowd. He lost it.
"You think this is a time for f - - - - - - cheers?" He yelled. "I just pulled a little girl out of there she was still holding her teddy bear. You think this is f - - - - - - cheers"
I didn't respond. I couldn't. I was the target if his anger, and that was ok. He needed to let it out, and he did.
"I've been here since Tuesday. I haven't been home. It hurts. They're just babies!"
Then he walked away. The story that was just going to be about New Yorkers showing support, was now going to be about the fact that nothing could comfort the men and women who had worked so hard, and tried so hard and still been unable to help so many. I never got his name but I'll never forget his face or his words.
I checked with Zumi, and he had been rolling tape on the exchange. Many photographers would not have thought to do that in a moment that was far from a formal interview. I thought it was important for viewers to see that raw display of emotion to better understand just how difficult a time this was for everyone trying to help.
During our time in New York Zumi and I were working out of a satellite truck owned by a Tribune station from Philadelphia. That truck operator would meet us early every morning for our morning show live report, and late every night for the 9pm newscast (11pm New York time) We would shoot a story after the morning report, then I would write and he would edit tape on a portable edit suite in our hotel in Newark. Every once in a while Zumi and I would try to get over to Stuart in his truck. We just wanted to see someone we knew, and we figured he probably did too.
Zumi always worked mornings at WB2 and I always worked nights so we had never even met each other before we went to New York. I was a little worried about that, he probably was too. We clicked though. We got along personally and especially professionally and I'm very proud of what we accomplished in our few days together. The story with the firefighter was eventually nominated for a regional Emmy Award.
After six days the station gave us the option to come home..and we were all ready to do so. It was hard to be in such a great city at such a terrible time. Even in the rain, Times Square is rarely this empty looking.
I had been there before and I've been back a few times since then. I've always really enjoyed it. It was a different place in September of 2001. I'm glad I was there and I'll certainly never forget it..but I'm glad I've gone back since to experience what New York is really like. I'll end with this final photo. Zumi carried a still camera and snapped this one right before one of our many live updates.
There's a copy of it in my house now to remind me of those few difficult but very important days in my career.
Zumi is still shooting news. He's moved around a little but he's back in Denver. We never had a chance to work together again...maybe some day.
Stuart is now out of the TV business, still in the Denver area, and working as an RN. Maybe he was inspired by what we all saw in those few unforgettable days. I was.
We'll talk again soon.
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