Front-Line Journalism

September 11, 2001: Members of the New York media reflect on covering a war that hits home.

As History Unfolded

By Peter Applebome

As I headed toward Manhattan on a lovely crystalline morning in September, two unexpected problems loomed. First, Armageddon seemed to be at hand. Second, I couldn't get to work.

I was perfectly aware that Item 1 was of far greater import than Item 2. But journalism routinely operates on two tracks--the sausage-making process of reporting, writing, editing, and production that makes a newspaper come out every day, and the coverage of extraordinary events. So part of me was experiencing the same sickened sense of horror and dread that everyone else felt on September 11 when two hijacked planes destroyed the World Trade Center and a third plowed into the Pentagon. And another part of me was focused on a more banal thought--it was going to be a hell of a day at the office, and I'd better find a way to get there.

In the end, what was most memorable professionally about the biggest and the worst news event I ever hope to be a part of was how hard it was to keep the two tracks separate. Journalists spend a lifetime learning to compartmentalize, but this was the one event where no one could forget for a second that the story was so much more horrific and profound than the news.

On most other days, I would have been at work in a largely empty New York Times newsroom, watching the disaster unfold on overhead televisions that in the morning usually beam out, soundless and unwatched, Regis and whoever the new Kathie Lee is or local cable reports on auto accidents in the Bronx. But it was the day of the New York primary election, and I figured to be at work until midnight. So for perhaps the third or fourth time in my three years of working for The Times in New York (after working for ten as a national correspondent in Houston and Atlanta) I decided to leave a little late and drive to work instead of taking the train.

Bad decision. I heard the first confused reports of some vague but ominous accident at the World Trade Center a few minutes after I left home, and then listened to the story unfold bit by horrific bit as I drove toward the city. I made it about twenty-eight of the thirty-mile drive down the Saw Mill Parkway toward New York before traffic stopped dead at police roadblocks north of Manhattan. I managed to head back north, hoping that the trains might be running, but got to my local train station in suburban Chappaqua in time only to find dazed commuters returning home at 11:30 in the morning, like bit players in Escape from New York. All southbound trains, were, of course, halted.

Figuring I had nothing to lose, I turned back and headed toward Manhattan, feeling like I used to when I was the only one driving toward an arriving hurricane while thousands of cars would be heading in the opposite direction. The sergeant at the check point said only emergency crews, not journalists, could get through. But I hung around for a while and before long he let a CBS-TV news truck through. I began pleading my case again, and he cut me off: "Sir, I don't have time to spend my day arguing with you," he said. I figured he'd order me to leave or threaten to arrest me. "You can go through." With that, I drove alone into Manhattan on a highway as empty as a west Texas interstate, and then through the black and Latino neighborhoods of Harlem and Washington Heights into Midtown toward my office in Times Square.

I spent the day and most of the next few weeks helping to coordinate the local coverage--assigning and editing stories on the disaster, the rescue efforts, the dead and missing, on security, the suspects, and the aftermath on the city and the region. Journalists, of course, were not the heroes in this story. We never are. Still, there were Times reporters who did amazing things in the face of terrible danger or loss. Andy Jacobs, one of our best young reporters, had to be shooed away from the base of Tower 2 moments before it collapsed. Sonny Kleinfield turned out dazzling front-page stories in those first two days, despite being forced out of his apartment in the shadow of the towers and not knowing when or if he'd get home. Others spent days and nights at Ground Zero amid the asbestos dust and stench. I just went to work, feeling the walking-on-eggshells unease that everyone in New York felt, not knowing what shoe might fall next, but never getting anywhere near Lower Manhattan.

Greg Altman '95

Still, even as a bit player and noncombatant, this was a situation that went straight to the core of what we do as journalists. The silly clichÈs about hard-bitten, two-fisted reporters are just that, and most journalists have no more emotional padding than people who've found a different way to make a living. But, in fact, there is a distance that becomes part of what we do. You're not oblivious to tragedy, you're just too busy for it. For most reporters covering disasters large and small, the work is a mad dash to find a narrative in chaos, so every thread, no matter how doleful, is just raw data--a good quote, a telling anecdote, a vivid description.

This was different. It was different because of the scale of the carnage. It was different because it felt not like news, but history. It was different because it was in our backyard, not far away, and most of us knew someone working down there. It was different because, even if we tried to reduce tragedy to data, there was no way to reduce this tragedy to its component parts. It was different because, unlike the ephemeral cavalcade of news events that, large or small, sooner or later fade away, this story would linger forever.

It was so different that perhaps the most memorable journalism The Times has done since the tragedy are the daily 150-word profiles of the missing and dead. They are the opposite of what most of us in journalism usually get rewarded for--tiny, anonymously written, and emotionally draining miniatures that offer the writer no glory. But they've become like our little sacrament. No one can do them for too long, but everyone has taken pride in doing them. They're our version of leaving flowers at the Vietnam Memorial.

Another great journalism clichÈ is the transforming event, something that in our breathless telling seems to happen almost daily. Chances are--short of a continuing series of plagues--that in the end, the only people who truly will be transformed by September 11 are those who suffered personal losses that can't be erased. But in the short run, this was the rare event that does change the look and feel and tenor of everything.

Much of it, of course, has been for the worse. New York can jangle your nerves even in good times, and the world of anthrax scares and free-form paranoia just gets magnified when every time you walk outside the first thing you see is the electronic news tickers blasting across Times Square or some of the anthrax scares are at your own office. After living with the story non-stop for two months, the biggest peril most of us dealt with every day wasn't physical harm. It was mental exhaustion.

But not all the changes were bad.

I grew up in New York and spent most of my adult life away from it. I came back three years ago with mixed feelings and have maintained them. I like the lovely, green suburb where I live, but have found New York both stereotypically exciting and just too much--too rich, too Darwinian, too Noo Yawk. The days after September 11 are the first since I've been back that I've been able to buy into the idea that what animates New York can be not just grandiose but noble. Now almost everything in New York's cacophonous clatter--the Middle Eastern family selling rice curry on a busy corner, the amazing diversity of the faces on the street, the bombast of Broadway, or the regal hush of Lincoln Center--stands as an emblem of what is good about this country and what separates us from the psychopathic zealots who attacked the World Trade Center.

I have a twelve-minute walk to work every day from Grand Central Station to The Times. About midway through my walk, on 43rd Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues, is Engine Station 65. Like most of the firehouses in the city, it has been turned into a shrine, with flowers and candles, kids' drawings, and spontaneous letters of thanks filling up the front of firehouse and spilling into the street. Before September 11, I barely noticed it. But now, every day when I walk by, I have to fight back the urge to choke up. And each time, in a way that wasn't true before the attack, New York feels like home.


Applebome '71, deputy metropolitan editor of The New York Times, is a member of Duke Magazine's Editorial Advisory Board.

Called to Witness

By Richard W. Grey

It was 3:30 in the afternoon of September 12 and my Dodge Dakota was headed north on Interstate 85. It would be a long trip--Richmond, Washington, D.C., Baltimore and its Harbor Tunnel, the New Jersey Turnpike, then New York and my destination, Manhattan. I'd never been to Manhattan; this was my first time, and I was heading for a war zone.

The events of the day before continued to reverberate in my mind: the Trade Towers in rubble, the Pentagon in flames, the president on the run, the world gaping in disbelief at America's humiliation. As the tragedies of individual citizens flowed through the radio, my heart was broken by a woman in anguish for her lost husband. "He's down there, under all that," she lamented, "and he might be alive; he might be calling for me. And I can't get to him. I can't help him." I cried with her, pained by the thought of losing my own in so terrible a way.

How strangely normal the world appeared as I passed up I-95, one of the nation's primary arteries: heavy trucks transported their goods; people commuted home; gas stations and burger joints were busy. Despite the outer aspect, I knew it wasn't normal. The tension in my shoulders, the unease in my belly whispered that the world was forever changed.

Darkness descended and still my truck hummed its way north. Then my first challenge: as I approached the New Jersey Turnpike, great overhead signs flashed in yellow, "ALL EXITS TO NEW YORK CITY FROM NJ TURNPIKE CLOSED." It was still 150 miles to New York. The entire lane to the turnpike appeared dark and bereft of traffic. I made up my mind and headed up the darkened lane. Fear stirred inside me. It suddenly felt as though I were heading into Beirut. The highway lights had been darkened. The air felt tense. Traffic was extremely sparse. People in service areas along the way--not many people--were glued to television screens.

High up the turnpike, now late in the evening, my first view of Manhattan suddenly opened to the right. I sucked my breath in. The buildings of the Financial District looked like they were partially enveloped in a black bank of fog. From them a broad black plume billowed up and streamed northward, spreading its pall across the city skyline. The beautiful towers of the World Trade Center were profoundly absent. The Empire State Building appeared lonely and vulnerable. Here was the pained center of the world's attention. My truck struggled to hold its lane as my gaze held overlong to the east.

I crossed the George Washington Bridge, driving down into the city at the first available exit. I was tired and very soon I was lost. I grew frightened and prayerful as my haphazard choice of streets seemed to be leading me into old, poorly lit, derelict areas with rough-looking characters lurking about. "Officer," I said with relief, out of my truck and approaching a flared intersection, "I'm trying to get to St. Vincent's Hospital. I've come from North Carolina."

He looked at my Duke University Health System photo ID. “You a doctor?”

“No,” I responded, “a chaplain, trying to get to St. Vincent’s to help out.”

His face softened and he and his fellow officer gave me directions. Though the directions sounded easy, within five minutes I was lost again. It was midnight. I was tired and anxious and not thinking too well. I found another group of officers, got more directions, got lost again. I was praying hard by now. Finally, a couple fellows pointed to a road I’d just crossed, Broadway. Get on it and keep going, they said, it would eventually bring me right down to St. Vincent’s. Directions I could manage: Get on that road and keep going.

Street numbers began to diminish as I dodged and wove down Broadway: 155th, 145th, 135th. I passed through run-down neighborhoods, and neighborhoods with bright lights and expensive looking stores. The buildings gradually grew larger. Cabs cut in and out. At times, flashing emergency vehicles would come by individually or in convoy—heading south, always heading south.

I had learned earlier that St. Vincent’s was on the corner of Twelfth Street and Seventh Avenue. I encountered a police roadblock at Fourteenth Street. Again I showed my Duke ID and explained my purpose. I was given directions, waved through, and shown a place perhaps 200 feet in from the barricade where I could park. I was in behind TV trucks and equipment vehicles, only a stone’s throw from St. Vincent’s.

At the hospital, a worn-out triage team rested in a loading bay beside the emergency entrance. Tired police officers stood guard. Looking south down Seventh Avenue, close above an uneven wall of tall buildings, smoke billowing up from the destroyed Trade Center. Helicopters flashed and beat the night sky, circling the smoke. A sulphurous smell and acerbic taste hung in the air. An ambulance pulled up and the triage team jumped into motion.

They couldn’t use me at St. Vincent’s, so I flagged down a taxi and made for Bellevue Hospital. It was about two in the morning. A helpful young lady there, alone at a huge information desk in the empty lobby, told me of her own narrow escape from the falling towers. Then she suggested I might find family members to work with at the medical examiner’s station, where bodies were being brought, or that I go to the National Guard Armory in the morning, where people were being directed to file missing-person reports.

I walked the several blocks to the medical examiner’s building. Rounding a corner where countless policemen milled about barricades, I stumbled upon a harrowing scene, like nothing I’d witnessed. The place was lit up like a Friday night football game. The center of activity was a large open door on the side of the morgue. Masked, green-gowned workers filled the large inner room visible within. Others, mostly in white gowns, were in the street outside. As I watched, gurneys would come one at a time, about ten minutes apart, from deep within the building to the area just inside the door. The team there completed final preparations and bagged the body for transport, when it was wheeled by white-gowned workers to one of the large semi containers crowding the road to the right. The workers would open the refrigerated container and place the body bag inside atop others. Other containers to the left of the door, I was told later, contained bodies and remains that had not yet been examined.

Surely this was as much Ground Zero as that smoldering pile down on Church Street. How surreal it seemed, like a Hollywood set. But it was no set. These were real corpses being wheeled by. Elsewhere in the city their families wept and hoped in vain.

Several white-gowned workers spoke to me. They belonged to a group of prison guards from an area prison that had volunteered for this duty. It was hard duty. Fatigue and numbness were etched on their faces. They would never forget this night; nor would I.

After a few hours’ sleep, I brushed my teeth, washed, and shaved from a cup in my Dakota. Coffee and an egg sandwich from a nearby café got my stomach up to speed. Then I headed over to the National Guard Armory on 26th and Lexington. By now I’d grown accustomed to police barricades and showed my ID. It was amazing that with that Duke badge I could get anywhere in this tightly clamped-down, cordoned-off city.

The Armory proved to be just the right place to be. The day before, families had been going to a number of different locations seeking information about their loved ones. Now word had gone out that all such inquiries were to be handled at the Armory: It was to be the clearinghouse for information on missing persons. At the door, people received a blank eight-page missing-person report, which they would carry to one of many tables where teams of NYPD officers waited to help them complete the forms. These were necessarily detailed questionnaires—birthmarks, name of dentist—and officers were seeing their fair share of raw grief across those tables, doing their best to be caring while trying to hold themselves together. When people had finished completing the missing-person forms, they congregated at a waiting area inside the building. Here they waited to see if their family member’s name was on a list compiled by local hospitals and by the morgue: desperate people clinging to hope, traumatized by inevitable loss.

Along one side of the room, the Red Cross had set up tables where allied health professionals could organize and provide care for families—prominent among these were an area for social workers, and an area for chaplains. I managed to get plugged into the corps of fifteen or so chaplains—Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant. Our task was to move around the Armory on the lookout for families in distress and for police officers in need of support. There was no shortage of work.

I remember one lady just laying her arms and head on the table in complete surrender to her grief, the officers looking on helplessly. I remember a young man very rigid and stern in aspect, trying so hard to keep the floodgates of his sorrow from opening, the anguish within from spilling out. Some people had computer printouts of missing persons pinned to their shirts, with names, pictures, details, and phone numbers to call.

A young woman, Cathy, asked me to show her where the restroom was. I took her arm to steady her. She was very shaky, could barely walk. Her husband, Francisco, a tech support worker in one of the towers, was missing. She’d heard a rumor his name was on a list. The next day in USA Today, I saw a picture of Cathy in tears, asking if anyone had seen her husband.

It was a tough place to be, a valley of shadow, and emotions were raw. I spent a lot of time going from table to table to see how the NYPD officers were doing. When they had a break between cases, I’d approach. Most of them were ready to talk, appreciative of someone who would listen, and surprised someone would come there all the way from North Carolina to lend a hand. It was gratifying to be able to support these heroic men and women, and equally gratifying to represent my friends and colleagues back home in this hour of need.

As the day wore on, the crowds grew heavy and the system for processing them got backed up. Tempers flared. Mayor Rudy Giuliani spoke to us. He was a reassuring and calming presence, and clearly comfortable in his authority--everything a good leader should be in a moment of crisis.

By late afternoon I was exhausted and knew it was time to go. I got back to my truck, then managed to find my way to the now-opened Lincoln Tunnel. With a sense of relief, I drove beneath the Hudson on my way to the New Jersey Turnpike. As I headed south, lower Manhattan still smoldered to my left. It would be weeks, months, I knew, before the cleanup was well in hand, and years before the damage was erased.

Why had I come to this place? Did my little bit of energy and effort make a difference in the midst of so much tragedy? I had come because I’d felt an undeniable call to do so. I did not decide to come. I had to come. I came to be a witness, to look with open eyes and compassionate heart on a people thrown down and bereft. I came simply to be with my fellow citizens in their hour of darkness. And I came to offer my modest set of skills to any who would accept them. Half-expecting than no one would, it came as a gratifying surprise that the NYPD and a few others had.

Later it struck me, too, that I did not go in isolation. I was alone, but my Duke colleagues, and especially my Triangle Hospice family, were with me. I was a representative of a compassionate, caring, community in North Carolina, a community that also grieves yet continues to do its vital work in its proper place. I wore my Duke badge throughout my time in New York—it opened doors, and gave me a sense of belonging throughout. In so many ways, the reality of my community informed my every step. From community I came. To community I was called. In community I witnessed and served.

Grey is a spiritual care coordinator for Triangle Hospice, a part of the Duke University Health System.

Copyright © 2001 by Richard W. Grey

Greg Altman '95

Video Witness

By Phil Hirschkorn

For me and thousands of other New York City dwellers, the day began with the most fundamental exercise of our democracy: voting. It was primary day for candidates hoping to become the 108th mayor in the city's history. My assignment for CNN was to cover the leading Democrat, Mark Green, and the leading Republican, Michael Bloomberg, going to the polls.

We need a mayor who can bring all of this city together," Green said to reporters after casting his ballot in an Upper East Side school gym. It was 7:30 a.m. In half an hour, the first of two jetliners unwittingly targeting the World Trade Center would take off from Boston. The city was about to be brought together in a way no one had envisioned.

After capturing Bloomberg voting, videotaping the sparse turnout at a West Side polling place, and interviewing voters about their choices, I headed back to our bureau across from Penn Station with my crew. The nine a.m. show wanted the tape. About ten to nine, I called in, to be told of some sketchy report of a fire at the World Trade Center. Could I head straight downtown and check it out? I quickly handed off the tape to a colleague in the lobby and asked her to take it upstairs. It never aired.

Back in our Ford Explorer, all-news radio started reporting a plane had collided with the twin towers. We thought we were being sent to an accident, most likely a prop plane or Cessna brushing up against the indestructible buildings. Just two weeks earlier, a French daredevil had landed a parasail on the Statue of Liberty, hoping to bungee-jump from the lady's torch. Could this too have been a stunt? I knew the towers were built to withstand the impact of a 707. It would be hours before I learned the plane that crashed into the north tower was an American Airlines 767. While we were driving, a United Airlines passenger jet plane struck the south tower.

Heading downtown as quickly as possible, we had to pull over when we saw the gaping wound in the north tower. I remember thinking, that's going to take months to patch up; it had to be a commercial plane. As we arrived on the scene, parking outside Stuyvesant High School as far south as police would let us travel, both towers were on fire. We were the first CNN crew on site.


I immediately tried calling the Atlanta control room on my cell phone to offer live reports on what I was witnessing on the ground, but the attack had knocked out a huge Verizon switching station, and getting a call through was impossible. Our microwave truck was on site, but the antenna that received and relayed the signal was atop the World Trade Center's north tower, and it would be a while before we could transmit elsewhere. Silenced and frustrated, out of the live game, I decided we would be a tape crew documenting what was happening, our pictures and sound to be used later as part of the historical record.

Greg Altman '95

I instructed our cameraman to stay focused on the two towers, the flames, thinking that at some point the fire would be extinguished. We kept moving, trying to get as close to the towers as possible, moving south and east. The closest we got to the burning structures was Barclay Street, two blocks north of the WTC complex, a block behind the forty-seven-story WTC 7 building that housed the city's Office of Emergency Management, a $13-million, high-tech control center to coordinate responses to natural and man-made disasters. That building would be gone by the end of the day.

Rumors of a third incoming plane crackled on police radios. On the corner down the block from OEM, we saw what looked like plane debris--broken glass, foam, strips of metal--and stopped to tape it. There I met our first eyewitness, a Salomon Smith Barney employee, en route to work, who saw the first plane hit. "First thing I heard was an airplane really low. I looked up and I thought, there's no way it's going to miss that building. It was obviously intentional," he said. "You would see some debris flickering down, but then you could clearly see people in suits jumping from where the hole was."

The flames after the initial explosions appeared to have receded inside WTC 1, but above where the plane had struck, you could see bright red, like coals on a campfire. Later, we would learn the jet-fuel heat exceeded 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

"I could hear people screaming," a Morgan Stanley investment banker told me. "I could hear a man screaming at the top of his lungs, 'Help me!'" He had skipped the complimentary breakfast preceding a nine o'clock seminar inside the north tower, instead emerging from the Vesey Street subway station right after the plane hit his meeting place at 8:48 a.m. Like so many people that morning, he had found that a run-of-the-mill decision to be later than usual to work, or to run an errand, had made the difference between life and death.

We proceeded east in search of a better vantage point. By 9:45 a.m., we were at the southern end of City Hall Park. The street was Park Row, the block of J&R Music World, where, I made a mental note, Mahmud Abouhalima stood on Feb. 26, 1993, as a bomb-laden Ryder truck left by his co-conspirators sat in the south tower's underground garage. On that day, Abouhalima saw a puff of smoke and waited for the first tower to tumble into the second.

Greg Altman '95

But at this moment on September 11, forty-five minutes after the planes hit, no one expected the buildings to fall--not the hundreds of firemen and emergency workers still inside and not the hundreds of curious and concerned New Yorkers standing what seemed a safe distance on sidewalks watching the fire. And not us. Suddenly, about five minutes before ten, we heard what sounded like an explosion. Were there bombs inside the planes? No. It was the sound of acre-wide concrete floors dropping like pancakes, one on top of the other. The fire had melted the steel beams supporting the floors, and gravity took over. The building fell straight down. Our cameraman had been recording the whole time.

We were stunned. We were also in danger. A tidal wave of smoke headed toward us. It was a huge black-and-gray cloud like a volcano eruption. Cops were screaming, "Get back!" and running. Everyone started running, and so did we. We sprinted several blocks north, certain we would be covered in toxic dust. Luckily we had a few blocks' head start. The cloud petered out as we reached the lower Manhattan federal courthouse, where I had spent much of the year covering the embassy bombings trial--associates of Osama bin Laden being convicted for the 1998 truck bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

After the second tower collapsed an hour later, a strange silence ensued. There was little we could do, except look for and talk to survivors. Where were they working when the explosions occurred? How did they get out? Were they all right? The rescue effort was, in effect, over. With the exception of five firefighters pulled from the rubble the following day, no one would come out alive. Hastily set-up triage centers remained empty, unused ambulances lined up and down the block. People waited on line for hours to give blood, and did, though it proved unneeded.

Forced to retreat by police, all the CNN crews in the area congregated a few blocks below Canal Street along the West Side Highway, now a private road for emergency vehicles. I sneaked back to Stuyvesant to retrieve our car just blocks from Ground Zero. It was like a nuclear winter. All the vehicles, the streets, and sidewalks were deserted and covered with two to three inches of white ash. I could see the fire burning, as it would for days, the world's largest rubble pile doubling as the world's worst funeral pyre. The plume of smoke stretched for miles over Manhattan, a dark scar across what was otherwise a picture-perfect blue sky. My eyes would sting for two days. The smell would linger longer--a mix of burning electrical wires and what was undoubtedly burning flesh. Was this what it was like outside the gates of Auschwitz?

A week later, I found myself in synagogue for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. In one section of responsive reading, the rabbi said, "When will redemption come?" The congregation answered, "When we master the violence that fills our world." Let's not hold our breath, I thought. The service highlight is the sounding of the shofar, a ram's horn turned musical instrument. Its burst of sound represents freedom and liberty ringing, and a call to the heavens on a day when humankind is supposedly judged and its fate is sealed. This year the shofar sounded too much like the sirens wailing around downtown New York.

Our rabbi broke the news at services that her predecessor, our family's rabbi for thirty years until his retirement, had lost his son in the World Trade Center attack--a father of two who had worked at Cantor Fitzgerald, the nation's leading U.S. Treasury bond trading firm that occupied the 101st through 105th floors of the north tower. Nearly 700 of the firm's employees, or one out of nine people killed in the WTC attack, worked there, all trapped when the first hijacked airliner turned into a missile. The firm's CEO, Howard Lutnick, is alive today because he chose to escort his son to his first day of kindergarten at Horace Mann, my alma mater, in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. One fellow HM alumnus perished in the trade center (and six fellow Duke alumni, I would discover) as did so many friends or relatives of friends. At a minimum, everyone in New York is two degrees of separation from the fatalities.

A month after the terrorist attack on my city, 80 percent of the towers' rubble was still there, with some buried metal beams still smoldering and the stench of death filling the air above lower Manhattan. On October 11, Mark Green won the Democratic runoff in the delayed mayoral election, but his path to City Hall was blocked by Bloomberg, who won an upset victory in November. The seemingly indispensable Giuliani will reluctantly relinquish power next January. Part of getting back to normal is restoring our democratic process interrupted with everything else on September 11. We have no choice but to look forward, as one meditation in my temple liturgy says:


We pause in terror before the human deed, 
The cloud of annihilation, the concentrations of death, 
The cruelly casual way of each to each. 
But in the stillness of the hour, we find 
our way from darkness to light.


Hirschkorn '89 is a news producer for CNN in New York

The Difficulty of Detachment

By Mary Carmichael

Greg Altman '95

I moved to New York five months ago, and when my boyfriend came to visit me, he wanted to see only one famous sight: the World Trade Center. We had dinner at Windows on the World on his last night in the city. We looked outside and saw the lights of Brooklyn, the Statue of Liberty. We danced on the wooden floor. Still, I grumbled that we were acting like tourists, that we should've gone to Nobu instead. I might have been right, Tim said as our cab pulled away: "It's not like the towers won't be here next time."

Every day since September 11, I've thought about that conversation, and about the little things I saw that night: the carpet at Windows on the World, with yellow WOWs emblazoned on the fabric; the Italian family on the elevator with us; how breathless and scared and delighted we all were on that elevator, zooming toward the top, our heads spinning, our ears popping as floor after floor passed us by. I try not to think about the people who jumped, and whether their ears popped on the way down.

I try not to think, but it never works. It doesn't help that it's my job to think about these things, in accordance with the news cycle, twenty-four hours a day. I'm a reporter for Newsweek. When the towers crumbled, I went to the hospitals--not to give blood, not to find a loved one, but to pester grieving people. Later that night, I went to lower Manhattan. I climbed the rubble outside the World Financial Center, dodging a sharp scrap of metal that came screeching from the sky, trying to get facts, names, and numbers. I told my new sources I'd call them back "when things calmed down." Of course, things never did.


I suppose I should feel privileged that I got to cover this, the biggest story of my young lifetime. I suppose I should feel lucky that I was able to sneak past the barricades in the back of a squealing police car. I suppose I should treasure the dubious souvenirs--a hardhat, a gas mask, a stockbroker's notebook from the rubble.


Instead, I feel like one of those hundred people on the 106th floor, just one story under Windows on the World, whose final thoughts were recorded in a 911 operator's notes: "NEED DIRECTIONS ON HOW TO STAY ALIVE." Like most people, I try not to think about what's happened, but at the same time I can't stop thinking about it. The day of the attacks, I worked thirty-three hours straight. I didn't want to go home; I didn't want to be alone. The minute I sat down on my bed I bawled like a baby, then lay awake. It's happened every night since then. I don't go to bed until three a.m. now. Some nights I just stare out the windows.

At Newsweek, it's fashionable to say that we young reporters on "Team Terror"--most in their mid-twenties, a few in their early thirties, and me, the baby at twenty-three--have been turned into war correspondents. I don't think so. From what I've read, war correspondents are hardened and solitary. We still need each other. A week after the attack, we gathered at an Irish pub in midtown. Somebody played the piano. Somebody mentioned they'd seen body parts. Everybody smoked. Everybody threw back a shot of whiskey. Who needed the Employee

Assistance Program? Like grizzled old newshounds, we were drinking our grief away.

But the next morning, our spiritual malaise lingered like a hangover, and it is with us still. Weeks after the attack, we are afraid to walk under bridges, afraid that the elevators in our building will come crashing down, or worse, that the building will. We're not supposed to admit these fears. But I, at least, need to keep worrying, keep calling my parents every night, because as long as I keep talking about it, that's all it is: talk. To stop worrying would be to acknowledge the futility of worry in the face of certain attack. I can't do that.

Greg Altman '95

For now, the plan is to stay in New York and keep doing my job, a job I was just learning when I was plunged into all of this. I've done cop reporting before, and I've seen a man executed; I thought I would be prepared. I wasn't. Three weeks after the attack, I received a reporting assignment more heinous than any trip to Ground Zero: Call the victims' families and ask them how much they've lost. How could I have prepared for that?

As I sat there on the phone, listening to stories of best friends and T-ball coaches and husbands of fifteen years gone, I felt it creeping in. Jaded. I was going to become jaded. And oh, the relief it would bring--if I didn't care, I wouldn't fear.Reporting would be so easy if I just didn't think.

But I kept going back to a column that Anna Quindlen wrote after the terrorists shattered our safety: We are not them, and we will never be like them unless we fail to value human life. So maybe our grief and terror is merely a reminder that we are still human, still alive. I read once that fear is an evolutionary gift to keep us out of danger. What better proof is there that we still value our lives than a nagging worry that we may lose them?

I'm glad I'm not an aged war correspondent, out on front lines that look to my eyes like any other. I'm glad that when I do sleep, I dream I'm dancing on the wooden floor again, looking out those windows on a world that is no longer there. In a way, I'm glad my daily life is stilltinged with fear, because as long as I can feel fear, I can also feel hope.

Carmichael '01 is an intern for Newsweek.

Greg Altman '95

Bringing it into Focus

By Jim Rosenfield

Like so many Americans, I first learned of the attack as I finished getting ready for work the morning of September 11. I saw our regular local news cut-in during the Today show turn into an extended special report filled with horrifying eyewitness accounts of the initial strike on the north tower of the World Trade Center.

My two sons, ages seven and ten, were already at school. My wife, a freelance producer for NBC News here in New York, was in the shower. When I saw the ball of flames erupt from the south tower, I must have yelled out, "Oh my God," because my wife asked what had happened. I told her the second tower had been hit--and with that I rushed out of our apartment in midtown Manhattan and headed for Rockefeller Center, home to WNBC and NBC News.

Traffic was already snarled. Thick black smoke was rising into the air in lower Manhattan. I abandoned the taxi in favor of walking. It would be faster. I kept trying to call in to the newsroom. Cell phones didn't work. As I turned onto Fifth Avenue, I could see the scarred twin towers with their upper stories shrouded by the smoke.

When I arrived at 30 Rock, there was something different about the famous gathering spot--the plaza usually reserved for lunch breaks or taking in that larger-than-life Christmas tree. On this beautiful late summer morning, people were being kept outside, apparently for safety reasons.

I arrived in the newsroom to find a microcosm of the shock, fear, and uncertainty that gripped all New Yorkers. Colleagues were crying, hugging each other, praying. For a brief time, we were unable to reach several of our co-workers who had been sent to the scene, but we soon learned everyone was accounted for.

Just before the north tower gave way, I hit the air, joining the morning co-anchors. My job in the early hours: giving our viewers information about evacuations, logistics, cancellations, and closings--information that changed by the minute. On videotape, we saw our mayor walking quickly away from the scene, urging people to "head north," but for several hours, we had no further official word from city leaders just what to advise our viewers in Manhattan.

In the midst of our coverage, our building was evacuated, at which point we all gathered in the newsroom, where we were told we could stay or, if we felt the need, we could go. Virtually no one left. In the meantime, our colleagues from other departments, such as sales, promotions, and programming, crammed into the newsroom to help us through the crisis. Tough executives were in tears taking calls from eyewitnesses telling harrowing tales of what was going on at the scene.

As I tried to keep focused on the task at hand, I also worried about my family. Had my wife, Dana, made it downtown before or after the twin towers collapsed? And what would my sons' school do with students on New York City's West Side? I was fairly sure Dana had headed downtown as the second tower imploded. But I was unable to reach her on her cell phone. I finally learned from her bosses in the New York bureau of NBC News that she was okay and was coordinating live coverage from a satellite truck manned by NBC News correspondents Ashleigh Banfield, David Bloom, and Anne Thompson near Ground Zero.

As for the children, my wife and I had quickly crafted a plan before she left the apartment to have a classmate's mom pick them up and take them to her home near school. We knew they were safe, but I wondered aloud on the air, what would we tell them? How would we explain what has happened to our city and our country? It would be after midnight before I would have to struggle to find the right words of comfort. That's when I finally got off the air and went to pick them up. It was all over, I told them. I couldn't possibly tell them I feared the nightmare had only just begun.

By the next day, midtown Manhattan was awash in red, white, and blue. Businesses were closed; retail windows were transformed into eloquent messages of hope, sadness, and concern. New York had been shaken out of its arrogance; strangers were talking with one another, friends were checking in on friends, calls came in from relatives and friends around the country.

Later in the week, after work one night, I ventured down to Ground Zero to meet up with my wife. From a nearby rooftop, where television cameras were pointing toward the huge mountain of debris awash in floodlights, we could see a sobering image: a New York Fire Department fire truck freshly uncovered in the midst of the twisted wreckage. It was so dwarfed by the debris around it that it looked like a child's toy.

At that moment, I thought of the 1993 bombing that I came to New York to cover as a Chicago reporter. It was New York firefighters who had so impressed me the night of that earlier terrorist bombing. My cameraman and I had discovered an open door and sneaked into the building. We made our way to a stairwell to the sub-basement. As we started down the stairs, a firefighter was coming up from the basement. Rather than escort us out of the building, he said to us, "Want to see something incredible? Follow me." He took us into the bombed-out basement from that earlier "Ground Zero." An office area opened up onto a huge crater, which had been the parking garage beneath the twin towers. After we had gotten our "exclusive" footage, I thanked the firefighters who had helped us out. I remember being so impressed with those brave men then. I wonder how many of those firefighters whom I met that night are gone now.

As I left work at the end of the first week of coverage, I passed by Saint Patrick's Cathedral. New Yorkers were standing motionless on the sidewalk outside. Somber music from the choir could be heard on the street. It was the memorial service for the hundreds of fallen firefighters lost in the attack. I felt compelled to stop and listen. I couldn't move. No one could. For once in New York City, no one wanted to.

For once, we had no place more important to go.

Rosenfield '81, a news anchor at WNBC-TV in New York City, is a member of Duke Magazine's Editorial Advisory Board.


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