New York Local News Teams Hold Their Own in the Face of World Trade Center Catastrophe

“No one is able to grasp the enormity of what we are looking

at, what we are dealing with,” Judy Woodruff said. It was early on the

afternoon of Tuesday, Sept. 11-a few hours after a pair of passenger planes had

ripped into the two World Trade Center towers-and the CNN news anchor, like

many of her colleagues in the media, was trying to put the unspeakable into

words.

No words, of course, could adequately describe what

happened. The images alone from downtown Manhattan

were astonishing, terrifying. Shortly before 9

a.m., stations started carrying live shots of the fire inside the

first World Trade

Center tower. Initially, it was

unclear what had happened. Was it an explosion? A tragic

airplane accident?

But then, at 9:04, live cameras picked up a second airplane

as it swerved across the Manhattan skyscape, barreling south and-after a haunting

pause that felt like forever-tearing into the guts of the other Trade Center

tower. The image was shocking, impossible to fathom, and briefly confusing. “I

didn’t even see the plane,” said WPIX

11 cameraman Keith Lopez. “I saw the explosion.” Only after reviewing the tape

did he notice the aircraft. “Usually in this business, you get there

afterwards, but to see it happen is unbelievable.”

Meanwhile, news teams scurried for information on what was

quickly becoming the most catastrophic news day in New

York City history. Ms. Woodruff’s CNN colleague, Aaron

Brown-brand-new on the job-commandeered a south-facing deck on the 22nd floor

of CNN’s headquarters at 5 Penn Plaza near 34th Street, the billowing cloud of

destruction over his shoulder. Shepard Smith, a correspondent for Fox News,

held tight in his chair and delivered reports as intercoms in News Corp.’s Sixth

Avenue headquarters urged employees to evacuate

the skyscraper.

As the chaotic day progressed, television networks, both

national and local, alternated between serving as news-delivery outlets and

public-address systems. With phone lines jammed, people relied upon their

televisions-as well as radio-news outfits across the dial-for information.

“Nobody moves, everything’s shut down, bridges and tunnels are closed,” MSNBC’s

Brian Williams said sternly.

Newsrooms, both local and national, were in chaos. Virtually

every staffer was assigned to the task. There were the heavyweights like Tom

Brokaw, who urged calm, but even those staffers not typically associated with

hard news pitched in. Dave Price of WNYW, usually a comic foil, delivered a

sobering man-on-the-street report during the mid-afternoon. One of his

interviewees broke into tears. “It has torn at the emotional strings of anyone

who has seen it either in person or on television,” Mr. Price said.

In covering the tragedy, some members of the media community

placed themselves in direct danger. People were hurt, and there were also

scattered, unsubstantiated reports of missing news personnel in the downtown

area, especially after the collapse of both towers. Reporters who work every

day in the financial district were also put in danger. Bloomberg News said that

three staffers who had appointments in the area were missing after the blasts.

Describing his calls to friends and sources in the financial community, Herb

Greenberg, a columnist for TheStreet.com, wrote that he felt “numbness and

fear.” He added, “Everyone, it seems, knows somebody, directly or indirectly,

who is most likely gone.” Barbara Olson, a frequent legal commentator on CNN,

was one of the first known media casualties, killed as a passenger on the

aircraft that crashed into the Pentagon.

Those who returned safely

to work described an awful scene. On WCBS 2, a 60 Minutes staffer described being shielded by a New York City fireman when a fireball rolled down a narrow

street. Fox News replayed harrowing footage from a cameraman who held his (or

her-it was not clear at press time) ground as an explosion hurled smoke and

debris into the camera’s lens.

Bill Muller, a cameraman for WPIX 11, said he rushed down to

the World Trade

Center as soon as he heard about

the incident. “I was two blocks away from the World

Trade Center

when it exploded,” said Mr. Muller. “The third time it exploded, I just turned

and ran-there was a few-hundred-foot-tall tidal wave of black behind me.” Mr.

Muller said he jumped inside a building as the smoke blasted by. “I saw it go

by me.”

Jonathan Fine, a cameraman for WB 11, was taping footage of

a triage area set up directly beneath the World

Trade Center

when the first tower collapsed. “I heard what I thought was a third plane

exploding,” he said. “I turned around and, like an avalanche,

there was a wall of soot like the fucking movies. All I could think of was Pompeii,

and I was going to die in this fucking ash.”

Mr. Fine, like his colleague Mr. Muller, tried to outrun the

ash, but only got half a block before it overtook him. He jumped into a

vestibule as the area became pitch-black with soot. “I [couldn't] see a thing,

so I turned on my camera light and aimed at the ground like a headlight in the

fog,” he said. With his camera light leading the way, Mr. Fine was able to get

to safety.

As their colleagues in Manhattan

were filing from the field, networks were also trying to deliver the national

picture. By mid-morning-after a third aircraft had smashed into the Pentagon

and a fourth crashed in southwestern Pennsylvania-it

was evident that the hijackings and crashings were indeed an organized

terrorist attack. There were initial, frightening reports of other possible

hijackings-early, uneasy reports estimated four to

eight additional lost planes. President Bush went on TV in the morning and

sternly pledged to “hunt down and punish” the perpetrators.

Despite the understandable emotions in the wake of the

attacks, the networks showed reasonable restraint with the hype and wild

speculation. CNN chose “AMERICA UNDER ATTACK” as its tag for the event. MSNBC went with “ATTACK ON

AMERICA,” and Fox News

used “TERRORISM IN AMERICA.” Most of the on-air commentary was muted and sober,

though it occasionally grew high-pitched. “This is an act of war against the

American people,” Newt Gingrich said on the Fox News Channel. “We have to react

as we did in 1941 after Pearl Harbor.” Other voices

heard throughout the afternoon included Senators John McCain and Orrin Hatch,

and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Mayor Giuliani was a constant

presence on television, boldly walking down the streets with an army of

reporters in tow.

It is patently absurd in

an event such as this to declare one network’s coverage superior to another, as

if it were a hurricane or a horse race, but it is

worth mentioning the impressive performance of the city’s local news operations

during the crisis. Local news teams justifiably take a lot of grief for their

shallow approach to the news, but on this day, the performance of these

operations was almost uniformly superb. Of particular note was WCBS Channel 2,

which was the only broadcast-television news source for many people in the city

without cable, since the explosions knocked out the signals of stations with

transmission equipment atop the World Trade Center. (Later in the day, the city’s local stations

were also among the first to telecast incredible amateur video of the

explosions taken by freelancers in the streets.)

As their television colleagues grappled with the news in

real time, the city’s print reporters were busy on the scene, too-and again,

risking their own lives. Robert Ingrassia, a reporter for the New

York Daily News ,

was walking over the Brooklyn Bridge

when the first tower collapsed. “I saw it go down and I thought, ‘This is the

biggest story of my life,'” he said. The

New York Post made plans to come out with an extra edition by 6 p.m., but canceled Page Six for Wednesday’s

paper. The Daily News canceled Tuesday’s edition of its afternoon free paper,

the Daily News Express , but planned

to publish a morning paper on Wednesday, Sept. 12. The New York Times also planned to publish on Wednesday. Because of

the emergency, there were early concerns about how the city’s papers would be

distributed in Manhattan. As the

day progressed and some bridges reopened, those concerns began to be

alleviated.

But

there was at least one paper where publishing was the smallest of concerns. Dow Jones and The

Wall Street Journal lie in the shadow of the World Trade Center, blocks away at 200 Liberty Street. The company ordered its offices evacuated by 9:15 a.m., shortly after the second plane attack. Staffers

exited to the Hudson River and then walked north or south. Authorities also

evacuated Dow Jones’ offices in Jersey City, where the paper’s newswire staff is based.

Later, a skeleton crew from downtown Manhattan and Jersey City gathered in the company’s office in South Brunswick, N.J.,

outside Princeton. A spokesman for the paper said The Journal

intended to publish on Wednesday.

Internet news sites also provided a wave of coverage during

the morning and afternoon. CNN.com stripped its site to its bare bones, offering

a flurry of breaking, bullet-pointed stories. Newsday.com’s site headlined its

Web coverage with an ominous “WHAT WE KNOW.” The New York Times sent e-mail updates to its subscribers.

By afternoon, there was

more information, as well as video, on Web news sites. And predictably, there

were emotional reader reactions on their message boards. “We here in the U.S. better wake up,” one reader posted on CNN.com.

“This is just the start.”

-With reporting by

Sridhar Pappu and Petra Bartosiewicz .