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Inside the control rooms on September 11, 2001
This is a deleted chapter from the first draft of "Top of the Morning."
At 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, when an American Airlines jet crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, Matt Lauer was on the "Today" show set, about to begin interviewing the author of a book about Howard Hughes. (The same author, Richard Hack, had written a book about morning TV two years prior.) The interview started at 8:47 a.m., at the same minute that news helicopters started pointing their cameras toward the smoke billowing out of the tower.
Control rooms at the major television networks usually have a few small, mostly-ignored TV monitors pointed at their permanent live shots of New York and Washington. The live shots come in handy when coming back from commercial, for instance, or when covering a State of the Union address. That's how Jonathan Wald, who was the executive producer of "Today" at the time, learned of the plane crash.
"Hey, look up at that monitor," a writer in the control room, Sara Pines, said to Wald. NBC's camera atop Rockefeller Center was pointed south, toward the towers, where a plume of smoke was wafting into the sky.
At the same time, another colleague said aloud that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.
At first, Wald recalled, "we think it's a light aircraft, like the one that had hit the Empire State Building 50 years ago."
In the studio, Lauer was asking Hack about Hughes' reputation as a ladies man. In the control room, adrenaline was kicking in. Wald's phone rang abruptly. It was Jeff Zucker, now the president of NBC Entertainment, who was at his dermatologist's office in the Empire State Building.
"A plane hit the World--"
"I got it."
"That was the first and only time I ever hung up on Jeff Zucker," Wald said later.
Wald needed to alert Lauer to the plane crash. And he needed to get Katie Couric back to the set. She was in the show's news production area when she looked up at CNN and saw the North Tower on fire. It was 8:49 a.m., and CNN had become the first national network to carry the news.
"I thought, 'Oh my god, some small plane flew into the World Trade Center,'" she said.
Wald waited until Lauer had asked Hack another question, and then he said through the IFB, "A plane has hit the World Trade Center. Let's take a break, regroup and then we'll come back."
("I didn't want to go on immediately with no clue what was happening," he explained later.)
Lauer waited for Hack to finish, then pointed at him and said, "Okay, I have GOT to interrupt you right now." Lauer squeezed in one more mention of the book and said he wanted to show viewers a live shot of the World Trade Center. He didn't say why. The shot didn't materialize, however. "Do we have it? No we do not." Lauer paused for a moment, awaiting direction from the control room. "We have a breaking story though -- we're going to come back with that in just a moment. First, this is 'Today' on NBC."
During the transition to a commercial, a live shot outside the studio eerily peered up at Rockefeller Center, where the jet had flew over six minutes earlier.
Out on the show's famous plaza, one of Mr. Wald's lieutenants had been working on a segment about pogo sticks when she heard an unusually loud jet fly overhead around 8:45 a.m. She also heard what sounded like the low rumble of a distance garbage truck. It wasn't until weeks later that she realized she had heard the hijacked jet and the moment of impact.
A producer for ABC, too, sensed the crash but didn't know it at the time. Phyllis McGrady was at home watching "Good Morning America" via WABC, the powerhouse ABC affiliate in New York City. At 8:46, she noticed that the picture on her TV set flickered a bit, implying some sort of technical difficulty. She called the control room. Had something gone wrong? Had anyone else noticed what she called a "shudder?"
"Nope, nothing going on," the staffer who answered the phone told her, and hung up.
"We never found out exactly what it was," recalled Stu Schwartz, who was the No. 2 producer in the room at the time. But it was almost certainly caused by the crash. Atop the North Tower were antennas and transmitting rooms for the city's television stations. WABC's engineer, Don DiFranco, was killed on Sept. 11, as were five other television transmission engineers.
Shortly after McGrady's odd call to the control room came another. Schwartz answered. "Something has hit the World Trade Center," a colleague told him. "We don't know what."
In the "GMA" studio, Charlie Gibson was thanking Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, for dropping by. "It is now 48 minutes after 8," Gibson said. "More from Fashion Week in just a moment, stay with us."
Ah, Fashion Week. "Today" and "GMA" had both vied to cover the maternity fashion show that was supposed to take place that morning. Instead of checking in with Spencer, Gibson and Diane Sawyer came back on the air at 8:51 with live pictures from WABC's helicopter. "We just got a report in that there's been some sort of explosion at the World Trade Center," Sawyer started off. "One report said, and we can't confirm any of this -- that a plane may have hit one of the two towers."
The pictures showed that the North Tower had been sliced wide open. "It looked to me like it was not a small plane," Schwartz recalled. Into the ears of the anchors, he said, "We gotta do a special report right now." As the clock struck 8:52, Gibson paused while ABC affiliates in the Western half of the country were taken over by the network.
CBS started a special report at the same time. Bryant Gumbel said immediately that a plane had crashed into the building and started interviewing eyewitnesses on the phone.
Ninety seconds later, "Today" came back with Couric and Lauer on set. "Friends and producers just started calling in," said Wald, who'd patch them through to the anchors. His wife soon called for a more personal reason: she wondered whether she should send their daughter Ruby to preschool. Sept. 11 was supposed to be her first day.
"Yeah," he told her at first, "I don't think it's a big deal at all." Two minutes later, as the gravity of the situation sunk in, he called her back: "You know what, I wouldn't go to school today."
In the control rooms at all three networks -- as at CNN, Fox News, and others -- the directors and producers started calling up other views of the World Trade Center from stationary cameras across the city. Researchers pulled up historical information about the towers and script coordinators printed out wire copy for the anchors to read. "We couldn't let them sit out there in a vacuum," Schwartz said of the anchors.
Within 15 minutes of the first plane crash, with the 1993 car bomb attack at the towers on their minds, both Gibson and Lauer broached the possibility that the plane crash happened on purpose. Said Lauer, "The questions have to be asked, was this purely an accident or could this have been an intentional act?"
The 16th minute answered his questions.
A "Today" show producer, Elliott Walker, was on the phone from her apartment near the Trade Center when she heard a United Airlines jet fly by her window. "Oh my goodness," she said on the air, foreshadowing the jet's impact into the South Tower three seconds later. "Oh, another one just hit," she shouted. "Something else just hit." There were audible gasps in the studio. The impact was shown live on all the major networks.
In a "Today" show segment five years later, Lauer said that he and Couric looked at each other the moment after the South Tower erupted in a fireball. "Our eyes met in a lock. And we knew. This was terrorism."
On the air that day, though, they waited to say so. Walker said she wondered "if there are air traffic control problems;" Lauer said he thought the plane looked small. But then a former NBC producer, Jennifer Oberstein, came back on the phone line, nearly hysterical and gasping for breaths. "It was a jet, it was a very large plane," she said.
Two minutes had now passed. Lauer reframed the twin plane crashes as an attack. "Now," he said, "you have to move from talk about a possible accident to talk about something deliberate that has happened here."
Later, when Lauer used the word terrorism for the first time, Couric was reminded of the Oklahoma City federal building bombing in 1995. "I remember for a moment thinking, 'Be careful.' Because when Oklahoma City happened, initially in the early hours everyone thought it was the work of Muslim extremists," she recalled.
On "GMA," Gibson said within seconds of the second plane crash that "this looks like it is some sort of a concerted effort to attack the World Trade Center." Then he used the word "attack." In the control room, Shelley Ross, the executive producer of "GMA" at the time, thought to herself, "Oh my God, this is Pearl Harbor."
Gibson's colleagues would later praise him for his clear-eyed assessment that morning. Indeed, all the major morning anchors that day remained relatively calm. There were no emotional breakdowns or stray curse words or major ethical lapses. Some misinformation did make it onto the air, but much more didn't -- the false reports, for instance, of a dozen other hijackings. Looking back, Ms. Ross said she was proud of her program's 9/11 coverage "not only for what we put on the air, but what we DIDN'T put on the air."
At 9:11 a.m., Gibson handed the ABC special report over to Peter Jennings, the network's top anchor. Similarly, at 9:59 a.m., just as the South Tower collapsed, Gumbel handed off to Dan Rather. But at NBC, the "Today" show team remained in charge -- a reflection of the show's power inside the company. NBC's top anchor, Tom Brokaw, hurried onto the set as Jim Miklaszewski, the Pentagon correspondent, reported a possible explosion there. He stayed there with Couric and Lauer for hours.
"Everybody was happy to have Tom there," Wald said, "because he's Tom Brokaw and because we needed another person to talk to."
That, Wald said, was his initial thought when the special coverage started at 8:53: "I knew we needed somewhere to go, someone to talk to," something to fill the airtime. He instructed staffers to "get Mik up" -- Miklaszewski -- "and get the White House up."
"All I'm thinking is, I have to keep the story moving, I cannot have a second of falling backwards in the reporting," Wald recounted. "Once we were on, there was never even a thought about getting off the air."
Once there were eyewitnesses on the phone lines and reporters in the bureaus, the anchors did not need much coaching. As Wald put it, "They were in those jobs because they could talk."
The trio kept talking until 1 p.m., when "Today" showed a live shot of an American flag flying in the sun outside Rockefeller Center and Brokaw took over as the sole anchor.
At no time that morning did the top producers reflect on the possible propaganda value of the television coverage. Nor did they think about the ways that television images, repeated over and over again, instill fear into viewers. (The broadcasts initially showed the attacks over and over again, sometimes in slow motion.) That morning, there was no time for reflection. Or for competitive posturing: "It's the one news event that I have no memory or knowledge of what the other guys did," Wald said. He said he received a ratings report later in the week, showing that somewhere around 40 million viewers were watching "Today" by the time the towers fell, surely the highest viewership in the history of the program. But NBC never publicized the results, lest it look to be bragging.
While the attacks were occurring, Couric stepped off-set just once, to call her parents (who lived in a Washington, D.C. suburb) and say something that seems nonsensical now, but was a widely shared sentiment that day: "Get in the basement." Lauer passed a note to a producer that read, "Please call my wife."
Though the hosts and producers were relatively sealed off from the rest of the city -- the "Today" control room is literally underground -- they were reminded constantly about the reality outside. At "GMA," Schwartz worried about his daughter Dana, who was at the time a producer for CNN on Capitol Hill. When a rumor spread that a hijacked airliner was heading for the Capitol, "it hit me," he recalled. Sawyer, now off the air, squeezed his shoulder in a gesture of support.
Across town, Tom Cibrowski, a senior producer for the CBS morning show at the time, feared that he had sent two rookie producers to their deaths.
"Get down there, get down there with a camera, go, go, go," he said to the two 25-year-old women in between the first and second plane crashes. With phone lines jammed, he didn't hear from them again for hours, and began to wonder if they had survived. They had -- but years later he found himself wondering, "Would I do that again?"
9/11 was the single biggest news event that had ever happened on the morning shows' watch. Recalling it later, Sawyer was reminded of the cliche that life can change "in an instant." 9/11, she said, WAS the instant. Before and after were captured on tape: one minute a maternity fashion show, the next minute, a burning building. And then another. And another.
The terrorist attacks that day did, for a time, alter the American news diet -- out went shark attacks, in went the Afghan war. The morning shows adjusted accordingly. In due time there began to be laughter again in the morning, led by "GMA," which detected before "Today" did that viewers wanted their cooking segments and couch chatter once more. But viewers of all the morning shows now wanted something else as well: reassurance about the world around them. To put it bluntly, they wanted to know that no more planes had been smashed into buildings while they were sleeping. And if the Bush administration "threat level" had been raised? Well, they wanted to know why.
Perfectly suited for the task were anchors like Couric, who had been the "Today" co-host for a decade, and Gibson, who had been the "GMA" co-host for roughly twice as long. They were trusted by the audience because they had put in the necessary time in the necessary positions -- in Couric's case, general assignment reporting and then the Pentagon beat; in Gibson's, a decade covering Washington. Indeed, 9/11 provided television producers with a stark new test for prospective talent. The producers would ask, especially of less-serious prospects, "Would you want them on the air on 9/11?"