From Front Row Seat at the Circus, remembering September 11, 2001.
By Jim Heath
It was the Friday night following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on America. As I had all week, I was anchoring the 11 p.m. news live when we aired a three-minute story about families and individuals at Ground Zero passing out “Missing” flyers. They were still holding out hope their loved ones had magically survived in the fallen towers.
At one point, a young man started talking about his younger brother. Holding a flyer with his brother’s picture on it, he talked about how they had shared a room growing up and he couldn’t imagine life without him. Then he started sobbing.
At that second, for me, days of pent-up hidden emotion flooded my head. The horrible attack had left nearly 3,000 innocent people dead in a single morning. It had happened on our own shores, the scope of the destruction almost beyond comprehension. The tallest buildings in our nation’s largest city brought down in two hours. The Pentagon in Washington, DC, the symbol of our military might, now had a huge smoldering hole in its side. A third plane, brought down by heroes on board, had been on its way to destroy either the U.S. Capitol or the White House. How could this happen in America, the most powerful nation on Earth? The family members and loved ones and the entire country were still trying to make sense of it all.
As the story ended, the camera came back to me. For a split second I couldn’t move. I looked down, trying to regain my composure, but a tear was already making its way down my cheek. Feeling suffocated was a new experience for me on live television, but that story—especially the young man looking for his brother—had been too much. Another second or two went by before I looked up and quietly said, “excuse me,” and ignoring what was on the teleprompter, ad-libbed:
“Whatever you’re doing right now please join us in remembering the thousands who died earlier this week and send a prayer to their families.”
It was the single most difficult moment in my television career.
One year later, I traveled to New York City to report on the progress being made at Ground Zero. Life had gone on in America’s largest city, but there were reminders everywhere of the scar the attack had left. I stood and looked at the giant hole in the ground, where the tallest buildings I had ever been in had collapsed, and felt ill. After five or ten minutes, I told my friend Peter Barden (a proud New Yorker who was acting as my cameraman) I’d had enough. Instead of focusing on the giant pit left behind from the fallen towers, my story instead focused on the buildings nearby that were still being repaired because of falling debris.
A fence around the property still had thousands of tribute items on it. The faces a reminder of the humanity lost in a single morning. Church groups regularly performed there, so I interviewed a few people about that.
New York City police and firefighters would stop and take pictures with the endless tourists. Who could ever forget the faces from photographs of those first responders who were running into the burning buildings as many tried to exit? Some of them spoke to me about their experiences— most had been on duty on 9/11.
There were the businesses near Ground Zero still struggling after reopening. I remember one Brooks Brothers clothing store in particular that I had shopped at when visiting Manhattan, and spending time at the World Trade Center, in 2000. Now in 2002 there were no customers. Tourists wanted to see Ground Zero but not shop for clothes.
There were some signs that New York City was recovering—it had to with millions of people living and working there. I reported on a parade honoring Polish Americans that happened on 5th Avenue. There was the Italian festival, which drew quite the crowd in Little Italy. And a street fair along Broadway from 47th to 57th Avenues was packed.
Still, conversation after conversation I had with New Yorkers revealed lingering disappointment, mixed with anger, that our government had yet to bring al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to justice.
We now know, from the 9/11 Commission Report, thirty-six days before the terrorist attack, President George W. Bush received a Central Intelligence Agency briefing paper called “Bin Laden Determined To Strike in U.S.” The brief warned of terrorism threats from bin Laden and his supporters:
“Al-Qaeda members—including some who are U.S. citizens—have resided in or traveled to the U.S. for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks.”
The CIA memo pointed out bin Laden’s history of aggression during the Clinton presidency including the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the bombing of the USS Cole, which left seventeen American sailors dead. The brief also stated the CIA had not been able to corroborate the “sensational threat” that bin Laden planned to hijack a U.S. aircraft.
Thirty-six days later, a total of nineteen hijackers attacked America. Ten flew two commercial jets into the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center in Manhattan—both 110-story towers crumbled to the ground in less than two hours. One jet with five hijackers crashed and blew a huge hole into the Pentagon in Washington, DC—the symbol of America’s military might. A third jet with four hijackers was set to target either the White House or U.S. Capitol but it was courageously brought down over rural Pennsylvania by the passengers on board.
Osama bin Laden, as he later publicly admitted, personally directed all nineteen hijackers.
In the end, 2,973 innocent people were killed in a single morning, making it the worst terrorist attack on American soil in history.
Despite the long-held view that bin Laden’s hatred of America started during the Gulf War in 1991, in a speech in 2004, he said his plans for the attack started shortly after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 during the Reagan administration:
“As I looked at those demolished towers in Lebanon, it entered my mind that we should punish the oppressor in kind and that we should destroy towers in America in order that they taste some of what we tasted and so that they be deterred from killing our women and children… So with these images and their like as their background, the events of September 11th came as a reply to those great wrongs.”
One thing is certain: bin Laden had left the American government plenty of clues through several administrations. Despite a Tomahawk cruise missile attack by Clinton on bin Laden’s suspected training camps in Afghanistan in 1998, he had alluded capture or death until it was too late.
During a State of the Union address in the late 90’s, I left the media center in the U.S. Capitol, walked up the stairs and then out the front doors on the west side. As I stood there on the balcony, on a chilly January night, looking out at the Washington Monument, I could hear the faint applause coming from inside the well of Congress as the President of the United States Bill Clinton delivered his speech. It was quite a moment for a political geek who loves presidential history. It saddens me to this day to think in the aftermath of 9/11, no one will ever have that much freedom to roam around our Capitol, and most of our public monuments and buildings, again.
Read more about 9/11 and Jim’s interviews and reflections with New York Governor George Pataki, U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in Front Row Seat at the Circus.
Jim Heath’s Interview With New York Governor George Pataki:
Jim Heath’s Interview With New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani:
Emotional 9/11 Tribute Aired On KYMA After Terrorist Attack:
Jim Heath’s Report On A Recovering New York