Q&A: WCPN's Amy Eddings & WKSU's Andrew Meyer On Covering 9/11

The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center stand high above other gray and brown skyscrapers in Lower Manhattan in a view from the Staten Island Ferry in May, 2001.
The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, seen from the Staten Island Ferry, in May 2001, four months before they were destroyed by al-Qaeda terrorists. [Amy Eddings]
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Twenty years is a long time, a generation. But the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City can still feel very fresh for those who watched it unfold, in person or on television. The fireball from the second plane strike. The billowing black smoke. The collapse of the Twin Towers, one by one. For me, I still remember the acrid smell of burning plastic.  

I covered the World Trade Center attacks and the aftermath for WNYC, the public radio station in New York City. Andrew Meyer, news director for Ohio Public Radio member station WKSU, did the same for WBGO in Newark, New Jersey. We talked recently by phone about what we experienced and how that day still affects us.  

Andrew, what did you do when you heard reports of a plane flying into the North Tower of the World Trade Center?

I had just come back from a run. I turned on one of the local stations, and I was seeing the smoke coming from one of the towers. And it was just a short while later that I was watching on TV as the second plane flew into the second tower. And I was just stunned by it. And of course, you know, as a reporter, it was, “All right, time to start covering this story.”  And so I got on the phone with my news director. I said, “I’m heading in, I’m going to Lower Manhattan.” And he said, “No. Come to the radio station, don’t go into Lower Manhattan.” In reflecting back afterwards, certainly twenty years later at this point, I realize that his instructions may have kept me out of harm’s way.

A structural remnant of 4 World Trade Center, which stood directly east of the South Tower, 2 World Trade Center, in the southeast corner of the World Trade Center complex. The damaged building behind it, to the right, is 5 World Trade Center. The other buildings in the background are the Merrill Lynch Building, left (with many boarded-up windows) and the American Express Building. I was able to get this close because I covered the memorial service held at Ground Zero on Oct. 28, 2001. [Amy Eddings]

I heard that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center from Alan Hevesi. He was a candidate for mayor. It was the mayoral primary. I was covering him that morning. I took the subway into Lower Manhattan. By this time the second plane had already hit, so when I finally got a visual of the towers, I couldn’t understand how what I thought was a small plane could have created such damage. You can hear my confusion talking to this one witness, Tony Houston.

AMY (breathless): Did you see what happened? What happened?

(Sirens are wailing in the background.)

HOUSTON: My wife and I were just waking up, it was about a little bit before nine o’clock. We heard a low-flying jet and sort of a sonic depression and then a boom. We saw the whole thing. You can see the air wing, you can see where it hit the building on this side.

EDDINGS: That slice there?

HOUSTON: That slice there. And then we basically were watching it in disbelief, we couldn’t believe what was going on. And a second one came about twenty minutes later and hit the other side of that building coming this way.

EDDINGS: The other direction?

HOUSTON: Yeah, the other direction.

EDDINGS: So, it went, boom, like a sandwich?

HOUSTON: Yeah, it came – well, one went that way and one came in this way. It was a United Airlines, a gray – it was a pretty big jet.

EDDINGS: We’re not talking a little seven-seater passenger plane?

HOUSTON: No, no, it was a commercial carrier.

EDDINGS: People?

HOUSTON: I’ve seen people jumping –

WOMAN’S VOICE, IN THE BACKGROUND: Get back please!

HOUSTON: I’ve seen people jumping all morning.

I tried calling into my newsroom on my Blackberry, but cell phone service was terrible, couldn’t get through. So, I started looking for a pay phone. This is really dating us! And I found a pay phone, right at the corner of Church and Vesey, which, if you know the World Trade Center complex, that’s right at the northeast corner of that giant, 16-acre complex. So, very, very close.

Construction tarps block the view, but across the street, at the base of the limestone building in the forefront (the Church Street Post Office) was the corner pay phone booth where I called NPR in Washington, D.C. The building with the damaged striped metal facade is 5 World Trade Center. The shadowy building in the distance is the Deutche Bank building, which stood south across Liberty Street from 2 World Trade Center, the South Tower. It was badly damaged by debris and was eventually demolished. [Amy Eddings]

An overhead view of the debris field of the World Trade Center site and its surrounding buildings, taken on Sept. 23, 2001, with outlines indicating where the original buildings stood. The U.S. Post Office ("Old Post Office") is near the upper right-hand corner, at the corner of Vesey and Church streets. 5 World Trade Center is due south. This gives a sense of how gravely affected I would have been had I ignored that police officer's commands and remained at that intersection. [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]

I got on the pay phone and I actually called NPR, down in Washington, D.C. I called the producers of “Morning Edition.” They put me on hold. While I was waiting, a police officer came by and said, get out of here. I said, okay, I’m going, and I stayed. Waiting, waiting, waiting. He circled back and the officer said, if you don’t leave now, I’m going to take your press pass. Just at that moment, the producer of “Morning Edition” came on and said, “Okay, we’re going to put you through now.” And I said, “I gotta go,” and I hung up.

A thick, powdery gray dust covers stacks of denim jeans at Canal Jeans, a clothing store on Broadway near the World Trade Center complex. The collapse of the Twin Towers created an enormous cloud of pulverized cement, plaster and other building materials, including asbestos. Fires burned at Ground Zero for several months. [Amy Eddings] 

And I started walking north, looking for a pay phone and of course, there were 10, 15 people at each one. And I finally gave up, walked to the station, which was in a city-owned building. It was being evacuated. And they weren’t going to let me in. But WNYC’s president at the time, Laura Walker, saw me and grabbed me by the arm and said to the security guards, “She’s with me.” We went up in the elevator to the WNYC studios and saw on one of the TV screens there the South Tower coming down. And I had this moment when I thought, “A lot of people just died.”

To tell you where I was around that moment, I had arrived just outside of the station at WBGO, which is just down the block from the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. If you stand on the lawn in front of NJPAC, you have a clear line of sight to Lower Manhattan. And at that point, one of the towers was gone! And I was starting to talk to people and I came up to one gentleman. And his face was just absolutely pure white. And he very quickly shared with me, his wife goes through the World Trade Center on her way to work every day. And their child’s day care was in the base of the World Trade Center. He was frantically trying to get through to her.

The last steel beam to be removed from the rubble at Ground Zero, Column No. 1,001 B of 2 World Trade Center, was wrapped in an American flag, placed on a flatbed truck and driven off the site during a ceremony to mark the end of the recovery effort on May 30, 2002. [Amy Eddings] 

There are these moments, when you’re a reporter, you have to make a choice. What should I really be doing in the moment? I put my mic down, I put my recorder down. I said to him, “What’s her phone number?” And for I don’t know how long. Five minutes, ten minutes. We kept trying to dial over and over and over again to get through to her. We never did. I have to this day no idea whether or not his wife was okay, his child was okay. I have no idea whatever happened.

It’s that kind of stuff that haunts me to this day. Like, feeling like I could have done more.

I wouldn’t say it took away that instinct to rush to a story. But I certainly have a little more common sense in considering when I’m in a situation which might be a little dicey — and I’ve been in plenty of those since then — just how to make sure that I’m protecting myself at the same time. Nine Eleven wasn’t just a day. It’s been 20 years of involvement in Afghanistan as a result of 9/11. I’m not sure there’s an end point for 9/11. I think it’s something that, not just you and me, but I think this country is going to be dealing with.

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