TV

The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Experiences of those who watched - and presented - the story on television

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - The first indication of the horrors to come was a single camera shot that suddenly appeared on television sets throughout the world: a skyscraper bathed in the morning sun, smoke pouring from a ragged hole in its side. The images grew even worse, as the entire world witnessed the death and destruction of Sept. 11, 2001.

Whether in a bar in Tahiti or office building in New York, television was the central gathering place for people to experience 9/11.

The Associated Press spoke to some viewers who watched it all unfold on TV, and to some people who were part of conveying the event and its aftermath to the world.

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Tom Brokaw was relieved to be in New York Sept. 11 and not out of town on assignment when the biggest story of his career broke. NBC News' chief anchor found out later just how huge a relief it was to be.

Ten years later, that day still seems surreal.

"For those of us on the air, we were out there without a net of any kind," he said. "We had no idea what was going to happen next. No one else did either."

At one point as the twin towers burned, Brokaw remarked on camera that they would have to be demolished when the fires went out. He wondered whether he had gone too far. Minutes later the first tower collapsed on its own.

"It took everything I knew as a journalist and as a father, a husband and a citizen to get through that day," Brokaw said. "And I was very grateful for the fact that I was 61 years old when it happened, to be given the responsibility that I had, because it took everything I had ever learned to get through that day. If I'd been 40, who knows?"

Most Americans learned what happened on Sept. 11 and the ensuing days through three men: Brokaw of NBC News, Peter Jennings of ABC News and Dan Rather of CBS News. All three anchors were veteran reporters with two decades of anchoring experience and uniquely suited for the roles they had to perform. Brokaw is now semiretired, making documentaries and occasionally offering onscreen wisdom during big news events. Rather left CBS unpleasantly following a bungled story about George W. Bush's military service. Jennings died of cancer in 2005.

On the rainy night of Sept. 10, 2001, Brokaw attended a reception for a blind mountain climber. Later, the event's organizer told him that it had been rescheduled because Brokaw was unable to make the original date.

That was to have been Tuesday morning, Sept. 11 — at the Windows on the World restaurant on top of the World Trade Center.

___

Nicole Rittenmeyer remembers screaming at Brokaw on Sept. 11.

Not him personally. Seven months pregnant and with a toddler under foot, she was watching the coverage in Chicago and saw the first tower crumbling into a cloud of dust and a tangled mass of steel and concrete. Brokaw didn't see it as quickly, and perhaps Rittenmeyer figured yelling at the TV set might get his attention.

She's seen that collapse countless times since. Starting with the "Inside 9/11" documentary she made for National Geographic in 2005, the filmmaker estimates she has spent five years of on projects about the terrorist attacks. Her latest, a sequel to the memorable "102 Minutes That Changed America" film of 2008 that focuses on the days after Sept. 11, premieres on the History network on Sept. 10.

Hundreds of hours of attack footage exist. Rittenmeyer suggests it was the most filmed news event ever, and there's probably much more hidden away in sock drawers.

What does watching so much of 9/11 do to your mind?

"There's a process that you go through that automatically puts up a kind of barrier, because you're working on it," said Rittenmeyer. "There are certain pieces of footage that make the hair on my arms stand up or bring tears every time and probably always will."

One was shot by two college students who started filming out their window without really knowing what was going on, and caught the second plane knifing into the World Trade Center. They freaked out, an experience so visceral "it's like you are them and they are you and you're reliving this experience," she said.

"I feel like it's really a privilege to have had that experience of reliving something like that, as awful as it is, through hundreds of people's eyes," she said. "Nobody gets that opportunity. It's one of the reasons I do what I do. I'm clearly drawn to history and that kind of epic moment."

___

Dan Rather had little time to think about it when David Letterman asked him to be part of the first "Late Show" since the attacks.

The night turned out to be one of the memorable television moments of the weeks after the attacks. The idea of resuming life had become a delicate issue in itself, with events such as the resumption of Major League baseball and a benefit concert at Madison Square Garden important milestones in that journey.

The tone was particularly important for a New York-based comedy show and Letterman nailed it with the raw anger of his opening monologue.

During 9/11 coverage, Rather worked hard to keep his emotions in check while on the air for CBS News. It was a grueling stretch that had the veteran anchor, then age 69, awake for 48 hours at one point.

But with Letterman, Rather briefly broke down in tears twice.

"The combination of being off of my own turf and the emotional hammer to the heart that was 9/11 that hit most people while it was unfolding just suddenly descended on me," he recalled. "I was surprised, maybe even astounded, at how it went.

"I was just engulfed, consumed by grief," he said. "I've never apologized for that — didn't then and I don't now. Because, one doesn't apologize for grief."

Rather, who said he hasn't seen a tape of the appearance in years, did apologize in a way at the time. During the second breakdown, the old-school newsman asked Letterman to go to commercial break and upon their return he said, "I'm a pro and I get paid not to let it show."

___

Growing up in New Jersey, Nathaniel Katz could see the World Trade Center from the windows of his best friend's house.

But on Sept. 11, 2001, Katz was about as far away from New York as you can get: studying for a semester in the Australian capital of Canberra. It was shortly before 10 p.m. in Canberra, about 170 miles southwest of Sydney, and a friend brought him to a student lounge so he could watch "The West Wing" for the first time.

The series was interrupted to show what Katz thought was a private plane crashing into the trade centre. He watched as other images filled the screen. About 30 other people quietly streamed into the lounge behind Katz, the only American.

To the others in the lounge, it seemed like a Hollywood movie. To Katz, it was home. He broke down and cried uncontrollably.

"I pride myself on having a fair bit of self-control and I completely lost myself in this situation," said Katz, now a ministry fellow at Harvard University. "I could feel all these eyeballs in the back of my head. But I didn't care."

His friends told him he might hear some ugly things in the coming days and he did; some folks suggested the United States deserved what happened. Katz didn't return to the United States until December, missing the surge of patriotism that happened after the attacks.

___

There was silence on the other end of the phone line during a recent interview. Ashleigh Banfield had become so practiced at pushing aside memories of Sept. 11 — "it was a bad day" was her stock answer, before changing the subject — that being asked to recall specifics brought some tears.

She was working at MSNBC that day, and disregarded a suggestion that she go to the network's New Jersey headquarters. Instead, she headed downtown in a cab as far as it would take her and then on foot.

Banfield was close enough to be enveloped in the black cloud created as the second tower collapsed. A companion kicked in a nearby building's door and she sought refuge with a police officer who was also looking for a safe place to breathe. She emerged when the cloud began to lift and flagged down a nearby NBC truck that could film her as she gave reports into a cellphone.

"For whatever reason, I thought all of the buildings were coming down," she said. "If these two were coming down, what was next? I was so scared. So many people said you were so brave to do that reporting that day and I think just the opposite. I was just so childishly scared."

For the next couple of years, Banfield said she couldn't go on an airplane without weeping. She sought counselling to talk it through. She's proud she was a part of covering such a defining moment, but it also taught her about some limits to endurance.

Banfield, now at ABC News, got married and had two children in the past decade. She said she would react differently today.

"I think of how much I've changed and how I wouldn't do (what I did) right now with two little kids," she said. "I took enormous risks, probably didn't know how big the risks I was taking were. I probably wouldn't run those 50 blocks against a sea of fleeing people. Stupid would have kicked out and pragmatic would have kicked in."

___

Work brought rock guitarist and singer John Hiatt to New York from his Nashville, Tenn., home on Sept. 11. He had a new album being released that day, and a round of interviews set up to support it.

A glance at the television that morning and he knew all bets were off.

"My wife called me in my hotel room," he recalled. "As I was watching it, she was watching it. She was terrified. We were trying to figure out how to get out of town."

His appointments all cancelled, Hiatt spent much of the day walking the New York streets. Later, he walked from his midtown hotel to Penn Station and boarded a train south.

Within the next two weeks, he wrote a song about his feelings from that day, "When New York Had Her Heart Broke," and performed it when he appeared in the city later that fall.

Otherwise, he shelved it. Writing the song was largely a way to work through his feelings and he figured there was enough musical material coming out in response to the attacks, some of which felt a little tawdry to him.

Now, 10 years later, he recorded the song for an album that was released this month.

"Hopefully, there's enough distance," he said. "In the tradition of a tragic folk song, maybe it helps."

___

Knowing the location of his wife Katherine's office and the trajectory of the first plane to hit the World Trade Center, Charles Wolf eventually became convinced she was killed instantly on Sept. 11. He never heard from her that morning.

For most people, television that day was a way to experience a terrible story that did not yet involve them. For Wolf, it was a lifeline. TV is where he got his information, learning areas that were set up for possible survivors or places to find out about victims.

"You're looking for shreds of evidence of whether she's alive or dead," he said.

He watched the coverage for hours, even though deep down he knew Katherine's fate when he saw the north tower collapse. "I stood up and said, 'I guess I have to start my life over,'" he recalled.

What grew excruciating was when networks played key footage over and over, particularly of the second plane hitting the south tower. He called ABC News to complain about the repetition; the network later said it would curtail use of the footage, in part because children couldn't understand they were not seeing something new.

He has no interest in watching 10th anniversary coverage, which he calls "made-for-ratings television." Instead, he will attend a public memorial at ground zero.

Television, he said, "is for everybody else. ... Television has given them the ability to participate in something when they can't really be there."

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