Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Day We'll Never Forget

Like so many of my friends in broadcasting, I was on the air live when the first airplane hit the World Trade Center; I remember the confusion and uncertainty, and then the dawning realization, confirmed when the second plane hit the other tower, that these were deliberate acts and that our nation was at war.

Broadcasters, particularly news anchors, are trained to deal with getting information to the public and putting their emotions on hold as best they can.  You need all your powers of concentration to deal with disseminating accurate information as it unfolds in front of your eyes, gathering facts from multiple sources, synthesizing the information, and relaying it to your audience.

On this day 11 years ago, our son was a freshman at UW-Madison and our daughter was a senior at LaFollette High School.  Far in the back of my mind, as I did my best to serve the audience, were the nagging questions “what’s next – are the kids safe?” and “how is this horrible attack going to change the world they will inherit?”

I’m struck by how many of the friends I was working with that day – friends who have in so many cases done what the broadcasting industry demands and moved hundreds or thousands of miles away, to take another step up the career ladder – have posted remembrances of the day on social media sites, and how clearly they recall the events of that horrible day, and how it has affected their lives so markedly.

My first awareness of the events came from the TV monitor in my studio.  I did TV newscasts on Channel 14 at 7:00, 7:30, and 8:00 AM, and suddenly the picture switched from the program usually airing on Channel 14 at that time, to a live CBS news feed.  I looked at the smoke streaming from one of the World Trade Center towers, and saw the secret news hotline extension light up at nearly the same time.  It was a call from the director at Channel 14, saying they were switching to the live CBS feed for coverage of - whatever was going on in New York - and he had to get off the line.

Why would there be flames coming out of that building and so much smoke streaming into the sky?  Some sort of explosion or fire?  I switched my headset to "TV Audio" and....the world changed forever.

I have saved hours of audio from what our on-air teams did that day; I’ve never listened to it, but I’ll never be able to part with it.  I remember the numb feeling I had as I walked from the news studio a few steps down the hallway to the studio of Q-106, where my friends John Flint and Tammy Lee  were doing their top-rated morning show (which they've since taken to San Diego), and saying “there’s something going on in New York City this morning – I may need to break in quite a bit.”

As that unforgettable morning wore on, I wondered in the back of my mind if our son would be drafted to serve in the military, to fight whichever nation had attacked us, in the war that was certain to follow. There are still well over 80-thousand troops in Afghanistan right now and countless others deployed in foreign lands in the aftermath of the attacks 11 years ago, and on average, one American soldier is killed every day in the ongoing war.

I remember the kindness and generosity of so many of our local emergency responders and emergency government officials, who, of their own volition, called the newsroom to offer their expertise to help our audience better understand what the NYPD, FDNY, Port Authority, and the scores of other NYC public safety officials were facing that day, and what preparations and precautions were being taken locally.  I recall the manager of the Dane County Regional Airport calling in to help explain what was going on with the air traffic system, and what was being done here to deal with the events in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania.

As the morning progressed to mid-afternoon,  we had a full contingent of news people and volunteers helping in the news room, and the big boss came into the studio and said “great job – we’ve got it covered now – go home and get some rest and prepare for another long day tomorrow.”

Early the next morning, long before I was scheduled to go on the air with the first newscast of the day, while I was writing copy updates, I remember a call to our secret newsroom “hotline” phone from a friend in the local emergency government structure (I’m still protecting him as a news source 11 years later by not giving his name or specifics) telling me “my God, Tim – New York is asking us how many body bags we have available – you can’t use this on-air but if the subject does come up, here’s my cell phone number and I’ll go on with you if this becomes an open question”.  We still, at that point, were getting widely varying estimates of how many people actually lost their lives at “ground zero.”

We all have our own special, vivid memories of that day.

In some ways, our nation has still not “recovered” from those horrible acts of terrorism eleven years ago; and every American’s life has been touched directly in some way by the events of 9-11. 

I’m confident none of us who lived through that day and its aftermath will ever forget.


  1. Great post, Tim. Thanks for telling the story. As it happened, I wasn't on the air that morning, convinced (erroneously) that I had licked my addiction and that I was happy in a corporate cubicle. As best I can remember, I did not miss being on the air, although I appointed myself the office go-to guy for information since I was among the more Internet-savvy of my colleagues in that bygone time.

    They didn't send us home, although nobody worked much. A few of us sat through a surreal product meeting that afternoon--it seemed as though the younger people found it easier to focus on work than the older ones did. We older people talked quietly amongst ourselves about what this was likely to mean. And those of us who feared that it was about to usher in an era of perpetual war turned out to be right.

    1. Perpetual war. bin Laden is dead but the war rages on.

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