I signed up to take part in the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge for 2020. The final prompt of 2019 was “You.” What do you want future generations to know about you?
I have thought for a while that I should write my memories about the morning of 9/11 and the weeks to follow, so here it is.
I was working as a news producer at WEAR-TV in Pensacola, Florida, on September 11, 2001. My shift ended at 7:00 a.m. Central Time, but I was still at work 46 minutes later when the first plane struck the World Trade Center. I don’t remember why I was working late that morning, but the sequence of events is still clear in my mind. At that time, we had a big open newsroom that connected to the studio. The anchor desk was just a few feet from my desk. One of the morning news anchors, Jared Willets, was standing by for a local news cut-in during “Good Morning America.” I heard him say, “Uh-oh, ABC News Special Report.” That meant ABC was cutting into its own programming, which we aired on a one-hour tape delay.
I looked up at one of the TVs in the room and watched a few minutes of the report. Something hit the World Trade Center, smoke was billowing from the upper floors, at least one witness thought it was a small plane. At that time, I think we all thought that it was an accident. I went back to work, and then minutes later, at 8:03 Central Time, I heard another voice from across the room. It was Christian Garman, our meteorologist. He called out, “Did you see that? Another plane just hit the World Trade Center.” At that moment, I think we all realized it was an attack. I remember standing in front of a TV in the newsroom with the other morning show anchor, Sara Baumgartner, and one of us said, “This is an attack,” and the other one said, “It’s Osama bin Laden.” I don’t remember which of us said which. We were both thinking it. He was behind the attack on the U.S.S. Cole just a year earlier, which we had covered extensively. I remember answering a call from one of our reporters, making sure we were watching. I also remember trying to call my mom several times as I tried to quickly finish up whatever I was trying to do before I left work. When I did leave, I drove to my parents’ house, about 15 minutes from the station. They were working in the garden, trying to get some things ready because they were about to go out of town. I was really frustrated because they didn’t quite grasp the significance of what I was trying to tell them. They started trying to talk to me about their trip and things I was going to have to do while they were gone. Finally I said I had to go because I wanted to see what was happening.
It was about a 30 minute drive to my house, so I turned on the radio and started flipping channels trying to find a station with news. That’s when I learned the terrorists had also hit the Pentagon, and that at least one other plane was missing. When I got home, I decided not to wake up my husband; he usually went to bed after I left for work at 10:30pm. We had PrimeStar satellite service then, and instead of local channels, we had ABC News through New York and L.A. For some unknown reason, I had turned on the Los Angeles station, and they were showing video from New York, but every time a reporter would step in front of the camera, they’d cut away. After a while it sank in, and I switched to the New York station. The cats started demanding breakfast, and I went in to fix it for them. When I came back, they were talking about one of the towers collapsing. I could see one tower on the screen, and a lot of dust and smoke, and I couldn’t quite grasp how completely it had collapsed. I thought the other tower must be behind the one I could see and that if they just changed cameras I would be able to see it. Then my mother-in-law called and that’s when I woke Tim up and tried to give him the brief rundown of the day’s events as he stumbled into the living room. He said later that he wished I would have woken him up.
I watched the New York station’s coverage for days. A lot of it was showing photos of people who were missing, where they worked in the tower. It really made it personal for me. Of course, for weeks our newscasts were consumed by reports coming in from New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, where that missing plane crashed. I would work 11pm to 7am, running profiles of the people killed, hearing from survivors, and covering local response — blood drives and memorials and fundraisers. Local K9s went up to search for survivors in the rubble. We talked to local people who were in the towers and survived. A mother from our area lost her daughter at the Pentagon. After work, I would watch the New York station until I went to bed at 2pm. When I got up at 10pm, I would watch CNN to get the latest updates. By the way, those news tickers that scroll the latest headlines and developments at the bottom of the screen (if they still do that when you’re reading this), they started in the wake of 9/11. It probably wasn’t healthy to be so focused on this terrible tragedy, but that’s how it was, at least for me, in large part because I was working in the industry. I remember it was really difficult to start moving away from 9/11 coverage and trying to return to normalcy. It seemed wrong, and yet it was necessary to help people recover from this horrific national event. I recall gradually starting to put back in my “Hollywood Buzz” entertainment segment, and even that, in the beginning, was all about 9/11. Movies were removing the Twin Towers from scenes. Some films were being postponed because they featured terrorist attacks, there were fundraiser concerts, and I remember there was talk of screenwriters and other filmmakers being called upon by Washington to discuss other possible scenarios. Remember, before 9/11 the idea of hijacking a plane and crashing it into a building was fiction.