Jennings’ Finest 60 Hours, As We Watched Them

“I have to take you back to before 9-11,” Peter Jennings told a reporter from the Orlando Sentinel in 2003. “I used to go downtown a lot. What always pleased me, as a New Yorker, is that so many came to find that New York was different from what they anticipated. It was softer, more generous and more grateful to other people.”

What always pleased me, as a New Yorker. This is what pleased us. Jennings was born in Canada in 1938. He moved to the United States at 26 as ABC News’ anchor, a high-school dropout, in 1964. He became an American citizen two years ago. But it was New York that he loved. And it was New Yorkers who, the day after he died of lung cancer, taped notes and bouquets of roses to bus-stop billboards featuring his photograph.

Without exception, the Monday morning obituaries remembered Jennings for his urbanity, his cosmopolitan character. That was him, in his well-cut trench coat or flak jacket: at the Berlin Wall, and when it came down; during the overthrow of Poland’s communist government; during the hostage-takings at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich; as apartheid ended in South Africa; as India and Pakistan faced each other down; in Bosnia; through the endless election night in 2000.

In town, Jennings tried new restaurants as soon as they opened and complained that there wasn’t enough good food on the Upper West Side. He volunteered with the Coalition for the Homeless, handing out meals and actually pushing the delivery van when it broke down. “He would come and meet us after his broadcast,” said Mary Brosnahan Sullivan, the executive director of the Coalition, “and just roll up his sleeves.”

As a New Yorker, Jennings once lodged a complaint with the city because Al Gore’s Presidential campaign security force had blocked off an entrance to Central Park for an hour one evening. Mr. Gore had stopped to have a beer at the apartment of ABC News political director Mark Halperin. Jennings didn’t care. He wanted to take his dog for a walk.

“By every definition I would use, Peter was a New Yorker,” said Mr. Halperin, who lived across the street from Jennings on Central Park West. “As his Sept. 11 coverage demonstrated, he loved the city and was wounded by Sept. 11, in terms of feeling the city was under attack.”

Jennings arrived in his anchor chair just after 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. For 60 hours, he carried on an epic dialogue with correspondents, experts, eyewitnesses and emergency personnel, taking breaks to collect his thoughts. “It’s not the rest issue here, quite frankly,” he told Elizabeth Vargas as he ceded her the anchor chair at 2 a.m., for his first break, on Sept. 12. “It’s important to get away and appraise what is happening in the country from a broader perspective than just sitting here.”

By 10 a.m., he was back.

When, in those first days, New York City seemed to be a place torn out of the world, Peter Jennings seemed to become a local anchor, telling local news.

“It was his city that was threatened,” said Mr. Halperin.


Jennings picked up the broadcast here, just after 9 a.m., with Charles Gibson asking if he had seen the pictures of lower Manhattan.

JENNINGS: We are, Charlie, we’ve been watching it from the beginning. We—we’ll be watching this for much of the day. There is chaos in New York at the moment. There have been not one but two incidents, as Charlie and Diane have so ably reported, so far, the second one coming at 9:03 when television was on live and you could see what was clearly a jet aircraft flying into the second Trade Tower. Both Trade Towers now, these 110-story-high towers, have now been hit. There is chaos here. Or there’s chaos in the immediate area.

There is confusion in Washington because now everybody is engaged in this. The Pentagon is involved in this, all the intelligence services are engaged in this in the morning, and as we look at those towers, let’s just simply keep looking at these towers this morning. And if you have the feed at home—I actually don’t have it here, so if somebody could please make sure that I have the photo—pictures of what’s going on.

The various airports in the area—Newark and LaGuardia, particularly—have already suspended operations. The city asked the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to close down airspace in all of New York, lest there be a third aircraft or some other untoward incident involved.

At just after 10 a.m., Jennings and correspondents John Miller and Don Dahler watched as the first tower fell.

JENNINGS: Let’s go to the Trade Towers again because, John, we now have a—what do we have? We don’t ….

MILLER: It looks like a new plume—a new large plume of smoke.

JENNINGS: Well, it may be that something fell off the building. It may be that something has fallen—yet we don’t know, to be perfectly honest. But that is what you’re looking at, the current—that’s the scene at this moment at the World Trade Center. Don Dahler from ABC’s Good Morning America is down in—in the general vicinity. Don, can you tell us what has just happened?

DAHLER: Yes, Peter. Don Dahler. I’m four blocks north of the World Trade Center. The second building that was hit by the plane has just completely collapsed. The entire building has just collapsed, as if a demolition team set off—when you see the old demolitions of these old buildings. It folded down on itself, and it’s not there any more.

MILLER: That should be it.

JENNINGS: Thanks very much, Don.

DAHLER: It has completely collapsed.

JENNINGS: The whole side has collapsed?

DAHLER: The whole building has collapsed. I can’t ….

JENNINGS: The whole building has collapsed?

DAHLER: The building has collapsed.

JENNINGS: That’s the southern tower you’re talking about.

DAHLER: Exactly. The second building that we witnessed the airplane enter had been—the top half had been fully involved in flames. It just collapsed. There is panic on the streets. Thousands of people running up Church Street, which is what I’m looking out on, trying to get away. But the entire—at least as far as I can see, the top half of the building, at least half of it—I can’t see below that—half of it just started with a gigantic rumble, folded in on itself and collapsed in a huge plume of smoke and dust.

JENNINGS: We are talking about massive casualties here at the moment and we have—that is extraordinary.

Jennings was silent when the second tower fell.

MILLER: The north tower seems to be coming down. JENNINGS: Oh, my God.

MILLER: The second—the second tower.

JENNINGS: (A very long pause.) It’s hard to put it into words, and maybe one doesn’t need to. Both Trade Towers, where thousands of people work, on this day, Tuesday, have now been attacked and destroyed with thousands of people either in them or in the immediate area adjacent to them.

Just after 12 noon:

JENNINGS: I remember 30-some or 30-some-odd years ago first coming to New York, and there was a building that collapsed and, you know, the firefighters were ultimately the ones to die, on almost the very first night I was here at ABC, all those years ago. As you say, everybody’s going one way, and they’re going—they’re going the other way.

After a midday report from Diane Sawyer in Times Square:

JENNINGS: I remember working with Diane on the millennium broadcast on New Year’s Eve 2000. Diane had such a joyful time in—in Times Square. It is, whatever you think of New York in general, it is a place where people from around the world gather to express themselves. And so we will go back there on occasion to—to get some—you really get some sense of the world in Times Square.

At just before 6 p.m., ABC News correspondent Bill Blakemore reported from lower Manhattan on the collapse of another building next to the World Trade Center site. Trying to make sense of what was happening—and to stall for a few seconds—Jennings reflected on New York:

JENNINGS: Thank you, Bill. If we could stay with this photograph—or this graphic for just a second. Well, there’s No. 7 coming down …. I mean, this is just stunning to see these things come down inside—in the case of the two—the north and south towers there of the World Trade Center, you know, come down within a couple of hours as a result of the structural damage weakening that was done when these aircraft hit them, and now No. 7, the World Trade Center which is—which is 47 stories tall.

We’re talking with the World Trade Center, north and south, 110 stories tall—an eerie experience to be in them at the best of times. They sway in the wind, and—and people have long had experiences with them. But those—and as Bill Blakemore said just a moment ago, the—the—the landscape of New York City has changed once again. And in this instance, it’s not New York City, it’s not New Yorkers’ city—it’s everybody in the country’s city at this moment, because this was an attack on the—on the United States, no question about it.

Everybody said it all day, a declaration of—of war, an act of war against the United States. Any number of politicians and commentators, us included, who were reminded that the last time there was an attack like this on the United States was Pearl Harbor which—which finally induced the United States to get fully involved in World War—in World War II.

We’re going to go on all day, and we’ll continue throughout the night trying to get some grasp of this.

It was just after 9 p.m. on Sept. 11, and he had been in the anchor chair for 12 hours. And he became highly emotional here, uncharacteristically choking his words, much as Walter Cronkite did when he announced President John F. Kennedy’s death.

It would be another five hours before he took his first real break.

JENNINGS: We do not very often make recommendations for people’s behavior from this chair, but as Lisa was talking, I checked in with my children, and it—who are deeply distressed, as I think young people are across the United States. And so if you’re a parent, you’ve got a kid in some other part of the country, call them up. Exchange observations.

Mr. Jennings was back in his anchor chair at 10 a.m. on Sept. 12. He opened forthrightly:

JENNINGS: Hello again, everybody. I’m Peter Jennings at ABC News headquarters, and as Charlie Gibson just mentioned a short while ago on Good Morning America, ABC News’ coverage of the attack on the United States is simply going to continue.

There is so much to talk about, and joined all together—as we have now been by television, and to some extent by the Internet and e-mail—for the last 25 or so hours is one of the ways that, as a country—as we know from previous disasters—that we have managed to get through this, all of us, whether we’re covering the story, involved in the story, at some remove from the story and wanting desperately to know, and there is a huge amount to talk about.

In response to the—to one e-mail I got from a woman this morning: Sorry, madam, it was not a nightmare; when you woke up this morning and believed that the twin Trade Towers in New York City would be there, they are not there, and I think virtually everybody in the country now knows that.

And probably everybody in the country knows the basics of the story, the basics of this disaster so far. So we’re going to try to operate for the ensuing hours on a variety of different levels. We will—we will do our very best, as we have in the past, to keep telling you what is happening at any given moment. And there’s a lot happening in the country today, both in personal terms, governmental terms, the search, and hopefully the rescue operation continues with quite extraordinary fervor. The Mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, said this morning they’re able to presume that 41 people have died so far, but we continue, as you all know, to worry about the fate of thousands of people.

On the morning of Sept. 12, a conversation with commodities trader Marvin Jackson, who worked on the 36th floor of one of the towers and had just finished telling Jennings how it felt to be in the building when it was first hit:

JENNINGS: What will you remember most about yesterday as a day, aside from the fact, thank goodness, you survived?

Mr. JACKSON: Well, I think—well, right now, I was thinking about those firemen. All those firemen who went up, and especially when I saw the buildings—saw the first, you know, Tower 1 coming down, the first thing that came to my mind was, “Oh, my God. All those firemen are probably still in that building.”

JENNINGS: I know how difficult it is, and I think the—I’m certain that everybody has that same reaction, when you’re thinking of the firemen. As we’ve said so many times before, you were trying to get out, and they were trying to get in ….

Mr. JACKSON: They were trying to get in, yeah.

JENNINGS: … to help the people.

ABC World News Tonight, Sept. 12:

JENNINGS: And New York City has such extraordinary energy, and those of us who are here notice two things about it—we notice many things about it today. One is the extraordinary effort being made by people to help; the other is the turmoil, organized turmoil in many ways, that continues at the foot of the city on the western side at the island of Manhattan. And in far more general terms, wherever else you go in the city, how this otherwise among the noisiest cities in the world, is so quiet. Jennings’ Finest 60 Hours, As We Watched Them