I was wrapping up an interview with a pair of visiting Russian cardiologists Tuesday morning when a pale-looking PR guy motioned me out of the conference room.
"You may want to reconsider waiting. A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center...."
The tone of his voice told me he was serious, and the implications of such an impossibility raced through my mind as I gathered up my gear. Minutes later I was behind the wheel of my marked news unit. As I weaved an angry thread through the maze of morning traffic, frightened voices describing unimaginable scenes poured from the Explorer's speakers. Leaning forward, I punched the accelerator and tried not to look at the speedometer. Suddenly the pager on my belt started humming and vibrating - an hourly occurrence that now sent chills down my spine. Not bothering to even look at it, I took a hard right and pulled into the TV station parking lot.
The smokers on the loading ramp were uncharacteristically quiet. A friend of mine from sales seemed to be crying as she fumbled for a cigarette. She made a point of looking away as I approached her. Before I could say anything the door burst open and a portly photog lumbered out, straining under the weight of his tripod and camera.
"Crazy-ass Bullshit", he muttered -- as he headed for the only remaining live truck in the parking lot.
Inside, the newsroom was an exercise in bedlam. Frantic staffers ran about in every direction - phones rang unanswered, tape machines reeled and screamed. Every one of the thirty or so TV monitors in the cavernous hall were on - all blaring impossible images of airplanes slamming into skyscrapers. In the feed room, two normally glazed-eyed young editors were yelling satellite coordinates with the fervor of sinking submariners. Just past them I could see anchor row was empty - the on-air talent having abandoned their desks for the studio down the hall.
"Where the hell are Hoyle and Donna?" shrieked a frazzled producer in
tie-dye as a nearby cluster of sharp-suited managers debated where to send the sat truck. I pushed past them all, feeling somehow impervious to the mad action all around me. Squeezing past another wide-eyed colleague fumbling with a handful of scripts, I ducked into the morning conference room.
It was empty, and that struck me as strange - though all my attention was drawn to the bank of televisions. Six 25 inch sets, set side by side flush in the wall above the giant dry-erase board. Below the screens small neat placards identified their permanent settings -- CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN FOX #1 and 2. Countless are the times I've drifted off during a morning meeting in that very room, scanning the row of monitors for something interesting as a co-worker pitched their story idea. But now as I collapsed into a chair and looked up, the usual parade of talk-show blather had been replaced by a surreal montage of mortally wounded skyscrapers.
From behind me a good friend's voice. "Did you SEE that shot?" Wick
plopped into a chair beside me and handed me a tape. Before I could answer - another voice, that of an assignment editor broke over the loudspeaker --
"Swensen, load up in five and meet Zander at the airport!" Wick snorted in contempt as we both took in the madness onscreen. Suddenly the room filled as the gaggle of suits stammered in, our stiletto-heeled news director leading the way. "Hell no we're not showing Queen Latifah, Layton says stick with network. Call Foster and Gina, get em on set and order pizza. Send whoever we got to the airport - Swensen why the hell are you still here?"
Looking over at my surly photog friend, I noticed for the first time just how punch-drunk he appeared. He opened his mouth but before he could utter a caustic reply, the sound of a woman's shriek filled the air. Heads snapped in direction of the sound and we all saw a colleague recoiling from the TV in front of her. Swinging back towards the bank of monitors above us we watched as a kaleidoscope of camera angles captured the incredible sight of the first great tower toppling. Frazzled voices trailed away as the rumbling descent of pancaking floors snuffed out thousands of souls. For once no human voices could be heard in the vast newsroom, with only the off-kilter ring of a dozen phones left to fill the void...