Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Seven Years Ago

We all know what happened seven years ago. I wanted to record my personal experiences regarding the day’s events and all the days that followed. It started as a fairly typical day. I got off my commuter train in Scarsdale and visited my dentist. When I rejoined Metro-North, heading for New York City, the train was very crowded and I had just enough room to stand by the door.

I walked across Manhattan as I did every day. The route took me through midtown from Grand Central Station to the far west end of 57th Street. At the time, I worked at the CBS Broadcast Center as the manager of CBS News Graphics. I arrived at about 8:45 am and settled into my office. About ten minutes later, the guy who worked in the office next door to me said ‘Hey, you have to see what’s on TV! A plane crashed into The World Trade Center!’

Both of us were watching local TV newscasts and flipping back and forth between channels. It was approaching the top of the hour at nine o’clock. Our morning news show, The Early Show, was just about to sign off. Anchor Bryant Gumbel ended the last moments of the show with a shot of smoke coming out of the Trade Center making a quick comment as end credits ran on the air.

At the top of the hour, all the network and local newscasts returned to the air live. Everyone was confused. Immediate reports speculated that it might have been a wayward small plane. Distant shot or close-up, the entire world seemed to be watching the accident via television. Just a few minutes later, we saw the silhouette of another huge plane make a unusually large turn over the Hudson and plow into the other World Trade Center tower at full speed. We didn’t know what was going on but we knew it was going to be a long day.

Both my next door neighbor Brion and I were responsible for show crew requirements and we were already on the phone calling everyone we knew. The message was simple: Come to work and prepare to stay a long time. Newscasts would be on the air all day long and someone had to be in the studio to make it happen. We had mixed results. Some people wanted to run in. Others insisted on staying home. By about 9:45 am, we started hearing scattered reports about other plane hijackings around the country although the various accounts were only fragments of information.

Around ten, the first tower collapsed to the ground. I remember concentrating on my recruiting work and watching the TV in my office through the corner of my eye. Various directors and producers were calling clamoring for every person they could think of. Hotel rooms were being booked. Alternate transportation was being arranged. By 10:20, I remember NBC’s Today Show mentioning that there was a possibility that several other planes may have been hijacked with unknown destinations and that there was a massive fire at The Pentagon in Washington, D.C. It was obvious that an attack was in progress en masse but why it was happening and who was participating was a mystery.

Around the same time, people down the hall at CBS Master Control had received phone calls from the transmitter engineers on top of the North Tower. They were pleading for help surviving with the oxygen provided by Scott air packs that they had for emergencies. The panic was intense. How would they get down? There was a tremendous fire from the plane crash below them. I remember my corporate e-mail begin to be filled with reports from observers and gatherers of news as all-points bulletins to everyone who could read it. No one knew where this was going. It was around this time that I realized that my amateur radio handi-talkie had been stolen out of my carry-all bag never to be seen again.

At 10:30, the North Tower teetered and fell to the ground. The signature tall red and white TV antenna wobbled on the way down like a car whip antenna in the breeze. I remember thinking ‘So that’s what they look like when they fall’ knowing that I would probably never see anything like that again.

During the next hour, we heard more details about The Pentagon plane crash and another aircraft down in Pennsylvania. Fighter jets were everywhere, it seemed. All commercial flights had been diverted and grounded. Where was President Bush? Had Vice President Cheney taken over the government? Only then did we think that the CBS Broadcast Center might be a target, as well. Things calmed down a bit. I was glued to my phone still working on crew requirements.

As the day progressed, we heard that the Hudson River crossings were closed and that the West Side Highway had been halted in its tracks, as well. One of my Chyron operators was stuck in her car, stopped at a dead halt, for nearly six hours. Traffic was impossible. Some people managed to get in and arrived every once in awhile. Around 3:30 pm, my friend Kevin and I decided to venture outside to a local deli to bring back a late lunch. The air smelled like a wet construction site. We were miles away, yet we could easily sense our proximity. This was real.

By this time we were all exhausted and tired looking for adrenaline to carry us through the long haul ahead of us. One of my friends, a camerawoman named Michelle, had been rumored to have been at the site during the collapses. Later that evening I saw her covered with white powder as a souvenir of her plight. I was so glad to see her alive and well. It was another reminder of how close we were to the site.

The afternoon dragged on with endless speculation regarding what had happened. Of course, non-stop news and special reports were to continue all night. My telephone pleading for crews changed to a relentless search for hotel rooms. The work never ended. The requests kept coming for every future day part. Crew the overnight show. Crew the morning show. Get people in for emergency edit sessions. All of the New York City TV stations were off the air except Channel 2 who still had a transmitter at The Empire State Building. All the broadcasters’ equipment at WTC was now crushed and buried in the tower rubble.

If I remember correctly, we finally got off the air with continuous coverage at 9 am Wednesday morning about a full day after the initial events. My wife called me asking me to call my daughters’ school. It had not occurred to my daughter, until she went to class, that I had not come home. I insisted that she be brought out of class so I could tell her that I was OK. She sounded very relieved when she heard my voice. I had been up the entire night and I was hungry and tired and sleep-deprived. I finished my final hotel and crew arrangements and had my ducks in a row. I headed home just around noon time.

Manhattan was as quiet as it might be on an early Sunday morning. I walked across town back to Grand Central Station. I think only the main entrance was opened. The train home was unusually full. Grown men were seen wearing sunglasses to hide their eyes as they were crying and weeping aloud. Nearly every station I passed had women with children standing on the platform waiting for fathers and husbands to finally arrive. Some never did.

The days that followed were the beginning of a new world. Police and National Guardsmen were seen at nearly every Manhattan street corner. Complete streets were closed off by large concrete barriers. Travel was limited and restricted. Every building wall and lamp post was covered with flyers seeking missing people. Business was not back to usual for quite a long time. We got used to armed patrols on our commuter trains and in Grand Central Station. Suddenly, we really were in a police state.

As time went by, we heard about the casualties: The husband of a tennis partner, the brother of an old work mate, the sister of an employee. Everyone seemed to know someone who had been taken victim by the disaster. We all felt the lack of freedom. We all saw the new Manhattan skyline – towers missing in the distance. The planes following the LaGuardia flight path, that sends aircraft north up the Hudson River, now gave me chills and continues to. Things will never be the same. My daughter visited the disaster site months later. On a piece of plywood fence she left her summary: ‘god Bless Amarica. One home. One peas.’

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

oh yea, you hung the picture of what I wrote up on the fridge. that was a long time ago. I think I was in, like, 1st grade...