Like many Americans, I remember every detail of September 11, 2001 as if it were yesterday.
I was a Congressional reporter in Washington, DC, for Dow Jones Newswires, preparing for a hearing that Tuesday morning when, instead of the usual market news, I saw a recording of the Twin Towers on CNBC. I had been in New York City the week before and narrowly missed meeting one of my college roommates, Elsa Gomez, for lunch in the South Tower, where she was a portfolio manager for Morgan Stanley on the 72nd floor.
I had just turned off my hairdryer and turned up the volume to hear what the TV reporters were saying when at 9:03 a.m. the second plane crashed into the South Tower and my own phone rang.
My clerk John Connor yelled, “Do you see the news?”
“Yeah, I’m looking at it right now. I’ve been preparing for this hearing, ”I said.
“Forget the hearing. We are under attack!” Connor screamed. “Go to the Capitol immediately and start reporting.”
Internet and cellular were nowhere near what they are today. I had a flip phone and a pager. The 9/11 communication difficulties later led Dow Jones to buy BlackBerrys for everyone, but few of us had them at the time, and I wasn’t one of them. Whenever I happened to get a quote from a senator or regulatory agency posting news, I would call the main newsroom in Jersey City, New Jersey and dictate my story to the editorial staff, send the headlines and the finished stories to the markets.
My heart was racing. I drove to the Capitol and ran to the Senate page with my laptop, cell phone, reporter’s pad, and pens. I was lucky enough to meet John Glenn, the former astronaut and retired Democratic senator from Ohio. Glenn said he was told the crashes were intentional, some sort of attack, and that he is waiting to hear from a safety briefing.
While we were talking, a third plane crashed at 9:37 a.m., this time into the Pentagon. A Capitol Police officer grabbed one of Glenn’s arms and one of my arms and yelled, “Everyone out NOW.”
We ran onto the lawn with fellow Hill employees, reporters, and lawmakers. I was in a panic. When I was 30, I had no experience of war zones. As a business journalist, I had never reported on a bad tropical storm, let alone a terrorist attack. My most dangerous job was letting the Capitol Police push me back while I staked out nightly negotiations on Gramm-Leach-Bliley, the legislation that sparked the financial crisis by allowing sleepy banks to open massive trading arms.
We all stood around on the lawn of the Capitol and looked at each other and didn’t know what to do. I tried to call and report what Glenn had told me, but got no signal. That’s when we saw smoke rising from the Pentagon and heard how we thought bombs were going off over DC
We were all shocked, except perhaps David Rogers, a seasoned Congressional reporter for the Wall Street Journal, who liked to call me a “kid.” I watched him coolly pass next to some employees as I ran and ducked behind a tree. Even Robert Byrd, the former Democratic senator from West Virginia, crouched behind a tree about 20 feet from me. Byrd was President pro tempore of the US Senate at the time, placing him third for the presidency should something happen to the President, Vice-President and Speaker of the House of Representatives.
My fear turned into concentration. I calmed my nerves and went to Byrd.
“Hello, Sen. Byrd, I’m a reporter for Dow Jones. Do you know what’s going on?” I asked, pointing to the Pentagon and the fighter jets.
“Hell if I know,” he replied in his typical southern stretch.
“Aren’t you the presidential pro tem, third in line for the presidency?”
“But yes, I am,” he said.
“Shouldn’t they have you somewhere safe somewhere?”
“You’d think they’d do it,” he said.
“Isn’t there a plan to evacuate Congress leaders?”
“Apparently not,” he said, just as amazed as I was.
Other reporters and some staff gathered around him and shared their knowledge. It was rumored that bombs had gone off at the Pentagon and the State Department and they feared that more bombs would be placed in the city. Most of this information would turn out to be inaccurate – the “bombs” we all heard were sonic booms from jet fighter jets flying over Washington.
The impromptu staff meeting sent us wire reporters to retrieve what we had, but neither of us could get a cell phone signal.
A senior adviser to Trent Lott, the then minority leader in the Republican Senate, stormed towards the Capitol. I ran to catch up.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“You don’t want to know,” he said.
“I actually do. This is my job.”
“Overall, one plane is heading for the Capitol,” he said.
Within minutes, the Capitol Police began evicting everyone from the Capitol grounds.
I camped at Bagels and Baguettes right in front of the Capitol building, inhaled some coffee and a sesame bagel with cream cheese and tomato, and wrote my story. I paid them $ 20 to call my editor on their landline and modem the article.
My bureau chief said the cellular service providers interfered with their signals so the attackers could not communicate. He offered to call my parents to let them know I was fine. He told me that my colleague who was covering Congress with me couldn’t get to Capitol Hill, so I flew alone.
The Capitol Police headquarters, just two blocks away, has been turned into a makeshift meeting room for congressional leaders. The press corps camped outside. Then I finally noticed how nice the weather is. The sky was a clear medium blue; there wasn’t a single cloud. It was the mid to mid 1970s and a light breeze was blowing across the city. Running had made me sweat, so I took off my jacket and felt awkwardly at ease wearing a tank top around the button-down congress.
We waited for briefings in front of headquarters for hours. Reporters took turns making coffee runs. Journalism in Washington is cutthroat, but there is an unwritten agreement that we will let each other know if either of us misses something, like going to the bathroom or having lunch while being monitored.
It had to be around 11 p.m. when lawmakers said a terrorist named Osama bin Laden was responsible for the attacks. I was able to get a signal by then and called the story. I didn’t even know how to write your name.
The leaders of Congress moved the final briefing of the night to the Capitol grounds – with a nice shot of the building in the background – for a live press conference on national television some time after midnight. I don’t remember the exact time. I was wide awake but exhausted. I got home around 2:45 a.m. My roommates were still awake. We saw CNN repeat the collapse of the towers over and over again. I called my editors in Jersey City to see what I’d missed; They told me to take a rest. I had a restless sleep for about two hours and was back on the hill by around 7am
The next few months were some of the toughest of my career. It would be two nerve-wracking days before either of us could reach our old college roommate. Elsa had left her cell phone on her desk when she narrowly escaped the first plane crash and then the collapse of the towers. But she was safe, unlike many of her colleagues and more than 3,000 other people who died in the attacks.
I was too busy, too focused, had too much adrenaline to feel anything in the first few days – until Saturday night when I had my first downtime of the week. My roommate, Katrina, a Senate adviser, and I shared a bottle of wine and cried ugly in heartbreaking interviews with Todd Beamer’s wife and the families of other victims.
Coverage of 9/11 was a turning point in my career.
It gave me the stamina I needed to cover the financial crisis later as a Washington Real Estate and Markets reporter and now as CNBC Health and Science Editor, and oversee much of our coverage of the Covid pandemic. It taught me to remain calm in the midst of a crisis, helped me understand the complexities of reporting catastrophic events, and showed me the importance of delivering quick and accurate news to the public.
At the beginning of a catastrophic news event, a lot of bad or semi-accurate information quickly comes out. You have to be demanding. Who are you listening to Are they qualified, do they have first-hand knowledge, do they have an agenda? Are they just repeating what they have heard from people you have already interviewed? Rumors can inadvertently be fueled or fueled by reporters shouting and asking questions. Journalism is a first draft of history, but we all strive to get the facts straight from the start.
I don’t personally resent people on social media who don’t understand how news organizations work and blindly attack all media. There are a few news personalities and politically warped media out there who don’t seem to care about facts, and they have severely damaged the reputation of objective journalism over the past decade. But you should know that the vast majority of us try to get it right. The coverage of 9/11, the financial crisis and now the pandemic is public service journalism at its most basic level and we all take this responsibility very seriously.
As I write stories about the 20th anniversary of September 11th this week, I am still grieving with the rest of America. While coordinating coverage of the Covid pandemic, I also mourn the lives lost out of nowhere in this recent attack. But it was and is an honor and a privilege to inform the public.