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Carol Silva, Chuck Scarborough and 7 other TV journalists look back at 9/11

Veteran News 12 Long Island anchor Carol Silva

Veteran News 12 Long Island anchor Carol Silva poses for a portrait at News 12 in Woodbury Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019. Credit: Barry Sloan

Twenty years later, their first memory is usually the sky: Clear, blue, cloudless. The other shared memory is that blunt force one, still almost beyond words if not emotion.

But the TV reporters who covered Sept. 11, 2001 also speak of a dividing line. It’s the one that separated who they were the day before 9/11, and who they would become the day after.

As a TV news story, 9/11 was an unprecedented challenge — to technology, resources and professionalism. Those covering that day were forced to confront the unknowable and the unthinkable in an instant. There was no margin for error. There was no margin for anything.

Change — fundamental human change — was inevitable to some degree. Hundreds of reporters covered 9/11. Newsday spoke to nine prominent TV journalists. This is how they describe that metamorphosis:

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD

The MSNBC reporter (later anchor), arrived at the World Trade Center just as the north tower began to collapse. Engulfed in dust and debris, she groped through the pitch black and found an open door. Later that afternoon, she was next to World Trade Center 7 just as it too collapsed. Banfield spent the next nine days reporting from "the pile." She is now an anchor with NewsNation.

IN 2001, WE DIDN’T THINK ABOUT MENTAL TRAUMA AND TREATMENT, certainly not journalists [but] yeah, I probably could well have used some mental guidance and never did seek that, which I regret because [afterward] I became what you might call a brittle person — short with people, impatient … The nuances of my changed personality are now palpable to me.

I’m still not able to listen to details about 9/11 … I can’t watch any of it. I get a lump in my throat instantly and tear up a lot. Sometimes that happens mid-conversation. I remember a few speeches where I have broken down on stage and was mortified, or broken down on flights over Manhattan, and uncontrollably burst into tears. I was so ashamed [that] I’d go into the bathroom as soon as the seat belt light went off. I don’t think I’ve really categorized all the aspects of how I feel about it, but terrorism works. I was terrorized and still feel the effects of being terrorized.

AARON BROWN

The CNN anchor was the most watched anchor on 9/11 — seen in dozens of countries around the world in real time, for over thirteen hours straight from CNN’s midtown rooftop, and in the days, weeks and months to follow. Calm, steady, reliable, Brown achieved superstardom that day — which he still regrets. He retired from TV in 2009 to teach at Arizona State University, and now lives in New Mexico.

I KNEW I WAS IN THE STORY OF MY LIFE and knew this was going to be remembered [and] thought I knew how the country would react [to his anchoring], but I was wrong. I didn’t anticipate one bit that I would somehow become known from this. [Before joining CNN that summer] I had been a very good correspondent for ABC News then something like this happens [and] a billion people are watching CNN around the world. I didn’t anticipate that somehow anything that happened would bounce back on me. I thought, I’m just a guy doing a story here. Pay attention to the story, don’t pay attention to the guy. I’m the least important person in this. I don’t care one bit. Go talk to firefighters, to families, to cops … These are the people that are important.

I had been on the air for 14, 15 hours and got off the air and was walking off the roof exhausted [when] CNN’s head of PR asked, ‘you got time to do a couple of interviews?[I thought] you gotta be nuts. She was doing her job, I understand, but I needed a good cry. My country had been attacked, people had died, I’d watched buildings fall …

How did I process it? In some ways, it became easier in the following days because I was just on TV constantly — I used to say I’m unavoidable. Look, this will come out wrong and I know it will because I’ve tried to figure out how to say this and it never comes out like I mean it but there was 9/11, then everything that happened after was less than 9/11. Then it just became work and you went to work.

I don’t mean that there were lesser stories — they were important. Stories of the people who died, who survived, the firefighters who didn’t make it. A million stories to tell, right? But none of them was as historic. I went to funerals every week for a year. [But] everything that happened after one o’clock in the morning after 9/11 was less momentous than everything that had happened in the 15 hours before.

N.J. BURKETT

The veteran WABC/7 reporter (also former Long Island bureau chief) and cameraman Marty Glembotzky (now with the New York Power Authority) were about to do a stand-up under the south tower when it began to collapse. They ducked into the American Express building, saving their lives. Their ordeal is part of a Ch. 7 documentary airing this week, as well as Nat Geo’s "9/11: One Day in America."

IF WE HAD TO RUN for half a block, I wouldn’t be talking. Instead, we turned around [and] the door was unlocked. We ran through the door and I think of that door as sort of the doorway into the rest of my life, because on the other side, if I had stayed, they wouldn’t have found my body for month

[Later] I just decided that I can’t live my life with the what-ifs. I’ve tried to stop asking myself that question — what if no door? What if I had to run around the block? … I’ve spent twenty years running from the towers. I need to stop doing that.

The way I’ve coped with 9/11 is to plunge myself into work and keep on going — that was my way of coping and processing … Marty quit television, not long after 9/11, and decided he wanted to be a wine salesperson in Rockland County. I went the other way — covered four wars in Israel, mass shootings, terrorist attacks.

Hardly a day goes by when I don’t think about the firefighters and the police officers and the office workers. I have a fair amount of survivor guilt [but] I do think it’s made me more sympathetic as a reporter [and] have a new appreciation for what people have suffered through. But, I mean, I don’t think it gets any better as time goes by. It’s always there with me [and] if I stopped working, it will come tumbling out of this box in my mind where it’s sealed and closed in my mind.

Twenty years later. It’s still so raw for me.

ANN COMPTON

ABC News’ White House correspondent was with President George W. Bush on Sept. 11, as the broadcast pool reporter on Air Force One, right up until the president’s arrival at the White House that evening. She retired from ABC on Sept. 10, 2014. That was the day she joined the network 41 years before.

IT WAS A 10-HOUR ODYSSEY [on Air Force One] but the weight of it didn’t hit me like a thunderbolt until we walked back into the White House at 7 p.m. that night with the President, who was to address the nation. I went back to my ABC booth, opened my laptop and there was an email from my son at Vanderbilt who said ‘mom, our fraternity brother, Ted Adderley, was in the first tower …’ At that moment, it had a human face — of a handsome young man who had gotten his first job out of college and was a friend of my children — and I sat down and crumbled into my chair and cried. That was the moment when it all became real and personal to me.

One of the things I loved most about covering the White House was this was where every issue comes to rest, whether a presidential scandal or financial collapse, the Persian Gulf War … even when George [H.W.] Bush said he didn’t like broccoli. We even put that on the evening news. The stories about policy, the unexpected world crisis, the human stories — all of that is what makes covering the White House so intoxicating to me and I loved every minute of it. Because of the array of things you cover at the White House, when an event comes literally out of the blue, that’s so unexpected, so unfathomable, it jars you. But the enormity of it didn’t hit me until 7 that night [and later] when I was safely back in the house, no longer the pool reporter.

I [now] look back at 9/11, covering the biggest story in my 40-year career, and that’s made me remember that the center of my universe is not the Oval Office or Air Force One or being on national TV. The center of my universe is past the front door of my house, where I still live with my husband … the sense that my universe revolves around my family is something burned much more into me in the 20 years since.

ED GORDON

BET News’ chief anchor during 9/11, was at home in New Jersey when the first plane hit, and for two days could not get to the Manhattan studios. In the interim, he produced audio reports from home. Gordon — who has also reported for CBS News, NBC News and NPR — is now host of iHeart’s "1Hundred: The Ed Gordon Podcast."

FOR US AT BET, IT BECAME THE STORY OF EVERYONE IN AMERICA. In the news media, we always talk about the ‘story of everyone’ but often it’s not. When the media talks about the ‘melting pot’ for many years, it was not a melting pot. It was a story told by white news directors who told it from their purview. But this was one of those times when it was an everyone story — each gender, every economic stratum, every race, every creed. It was one of those times.

This was one of those times where it was just an every-person story — every parent would appreciate someone wanting to find their child, or if you were a first responder, everyone could appreciate what they were going through. It didn’t matter what color they were [and] I can truly say we all just felt the same way. It didn’t matter if you were poor or rich [because] for one time there was this shared national feeling and shared national mourning. For me, it was also one of those times where you understand the idea of not taking life for granted. You appreciate every day because you don’t know what tomorrow brings.

9/11 wasn’t just a number or statistic but there were stories behind these people and [the TV media] was the conduit of these lives to the majority of viewers — to give those lives honor.

JIM MIKLASZEWSKI

NBC News’ Pentagon correspondent, was first to report that a plane had flown into the building — not far from his office, in fact. After he got off the air, he ran through the corridors to reach the site of the crash, then reported for days outside the crash site. (His wife, Cheryl, made it through cordons and first response teams to bring him a suitcase full of clothes he could change into) He retired in 2016.

BY THE TIME [THE MILITARY] WAS PUSHING US AWAY FROM THE BUILDING [outside the crash area], you could still see the open areas where people were jumping through cracks in the floor or jumping across flames. The immediate reaction of everybody in the Pentagon was amazing … there was a group of guys who had gone into a very dangerous area where there were flames and where some of the wall had fallen down, and they got on their backs and used their feet to lift it up and pull [survivors] out to safety. I [later] talked to one of them and said, ‘well that was brave’ [and] he looked at me and said, ‘I shouldn’t get that kind of accolade [because] there were too many people screaming that I couldn’t get to.’

Did that day change me? The only thing that changed me was — and I get choked up just talking about it — my admiration for other human beings, particularly in the military. I saw the best of them that day. [Long pause]. Oh yeah. Oh yeah.

BYRON PITTS

The co-anchor of ABC News' "Nightline," was then a new reporter at CBS News on 9/11. He got to the south tower just before collapse where he met up with fellow CBS News reporter (now with MSNBC) Mika Brzezinski. They sprinted up the West Side highway just ahead of the advancing plumes and ducked into an elementary school that was being used by the NYPD and NYFD as a staging area. They filed their early reports on the school’s phones.

THE DAY BEFORE [9/11] I WAS AN AMBITIOUS JOURNALIST AND THE DAY AFTER I BECAME A SERIOUS ONE. It was the recognition that this was the new normal … I’m also a Christian, and anyone who knows me knows my faith is important. Before 9/11 I believed God is good, and have believed that ever since [but] I also believe that men and women have choices, and that only we can embrace our responsibility to make life good … Was my faith shaken? No, no, no.no.

That day we saw the heroism of all kinds of people — firefighters, first responders, police officers, construction workers, office workers, bystanders.

I will also say this — that of every story I’ve ever covered, 9/11 is the only one that I think about every day because it informs how I see the world. If something bad happened in my personal life, I would go back to 9/11. If I’m covering a major story, I compare it to 9/11. If there was a mass shooting, I would think about 9/11.

One of the things about 9/11, professionally for me, is that it was a day whereas a journalist you focused on the who, what, where and how — the why would come later — and you got to see how wonderful human beings can be. As an African-American man, it was one of the few days in my life where I did not feel the weight of race in America. I saw young Black guys helping old women, or white men banding together with men of color trying to figure out how to get a door open or trying to get someone off the ground. Your race, your gender … none of it mattered. It was people trying to stay alive or to help people stay alive. It was incredibly reassuring.

CHUCK SCARBOROUGH

The veteran WNBC/4 anchor, had worked late the night before, and was sleeping in. The phone rang. His sister-in-law had called to tell him that his brother, Jeff, a Ch. 4 cameraman, had gone to the World Trade Center where a plane had struck a tower. Scarborough arrived at 30 Rock after begging a police officer to let him cross a bridge into Manhattan. Only much later would he learn that his brother had disappeared and was presumed dead. Jeff survived the day and is now retired in Colorado.

THERE IS A MISCONCEPTION ABOUT TEARING UP ON THE AIR. I was at the massacre at Sandy Hook and standing a block away from an elementary school where 20 first-graders were lying dead on the floor … I was trying to set the scene [for viewers] and I was overwhelmed and had to stop. It was too tragic. How is that different from 9/11? It was different because I was close and it was children [but] the same inhumanity, the same mass taking of life — it was so acutely awful because the killer had deliberately set out to shoot little children [and] the Jihadists were set on mass murder of the innocent in the name of God.

I suppose that my view of humanity was changed by that. I think it was the depth of inhumanity that was so incomprehensible and that remains to this day — how anybody can justify that kind of savagery?

Certainly this story was bigger than anything I ever covered [and] I don’t think it will ever go away … You don’t get used to that. You don’t get inured. It is just too awful. But it also brought out the other side of human nature. We saw the worst of humanity that day, the depths of depravity [and] we also saw the real heroics — the sacrifices of so many then and in the days following. It was a unifying event — an attack on our country and city and we put all of our silly political differences aside, and our socioeconomic differences too.

As an anchor, it reinvigorated me too. I rededicated myself to what I had been doing. This story needed to be told and it was so big and with so many ramifications that it suddenly seemed far more important than anything I had ever done. And gosh, 20 years still isn’t enough to cover all those ramifications.

CAROL SILVA

The News12 anchor expected an average morning on an average day, and had just the average story to go with it — a group of New York Jets fans outside the studio, showing how to cheer at home games. Then, during a commercial break, a producer told Silva and her co-anchor, Doug Geed that a small plane may have hit one of the Twin Towers. News 12’s marathon coverage bonded it to thousands of Long Island viewers, many of whom had lost loved ones on Sept. 11. Silva retired in 2019.

I DON’T THINK [9/11] CHANGED ME AS MUCH AS REINFORCED WHAT I REALLY BELIEVE — that most people are so good. Listen, it was a devastating disaster. It was shocking. It was the Pearl Harbor of our generation, with the devastation and the clear recognition of what evil can do. But when people talk about 9/11, what stands out strongest in my mind — aside from the lost husbands and wives and brothers and sisters and the children who lost parents — is the kindness and goodness of people. There were so many Long Islanders who went to Ground Zero to help — cops, funeral directors, dentists, doctors, construction workers, everyday people, even veterinarians who were worried about the dogs that were part of the search-and rescue. These people stayed for weeks and months [and] News 12 became the heart of Long Island [because] we had people call in, desperate for help in finding somebody who was missing. They were desperate [and called] to talk about somebody who they suspected was lost forever. But they just wanted to talk. Other people called in because they wanted to help.

The feeling that I carry with me to this day is the goodness of people. I was enveloped in the best of humankind during the worst disaster ever. It does reinforce what I know about people — that most are really good at heart. We have our weaknesses and we get scared and that comes out sometimes in unattractive ways. But people are good.

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