Reviewing TV coverage of 9/11 as it was happening shows shock and panic

Posted 10 September 2022 at 11:46 am


Back in 2001, I was driving to work when I heard a radio report that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Soon after arriving at my job, the radio said that a second plane had struck the other tower.

I decided to go back home, and watch TV coverage. Turned on the television and VCR (remember those?) at around 9:37. Of course, I could watch, and record, only one network at a time. I had on CBS right before 10:00 – its coverage was below par to say the least, and I switched channels again and again.

I recently discovered that YouTube has nearly complete recordings of the different networks, and even local NYC and Washington stations available for viewing; many from 7 a.m. on.  I wondered whether CBS’s other coverage was as awful as what I had watched, as I had rotated through ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and Fox News till around 11 that morning. Being long retired now, I’m free to spend my time as I please, and I decided to watch as much as I could of those recordings.

At 8:51, Matt Lauer on NBC’s Today Show was about to wrap up an author interview. He cut it short to announce “breaking news,” but the expected “live” shot of the North Tower wasn’t ready, so they went to commercials.  When the show returned, Katie Couric said “Apparently a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center,” and began taking calls from witnesses.

Matt said he thought it had to have been a large plane, judging from the size of the hole it made. He was about the only broadcaster to make that correct observation. (A 767 has a 156 ft. wingspan, and the towers were 208 ft. wide. A 737 is only 93 ft., and a 757 is 125.) Katie soon wondered “Could this be an intentional act?”

One call-in witness had been in a car blocks south when the plane struck, and was nearly hit by a large tire that came at him from the sky. NBC’s Jim Miklazewski was stationed at the Pentagon, and was reporting from there by 9:20. At around that time, Katie mentioned a phone call that a news service had made to Cantor-Fitzgerald, whose offices were in the top floors of Tower One. The person who answered said “We’re (blanking) dying” and hung up.

When the third plane crashed into the Pentagon at 9:37:45, Mikazlewski was again heard from in less than 2 minutes – he was luckily on the opposite side of the Pentagon, and only knew that “the building shook and the windows rattled,” and didn’t yet know what had occurred. NBC had “live” video of the Pentagon by 9:41.

Over at ABC, Good Morning America reported “an explosion at the World Trade Center” at 8:51. Diane Sawyer said that “a plane may have hit.” Correspondent Don Dahler called to say he had heard what sounded like a missile, or perhaps a jet. Their “live” camera angle showed the second plane strike the South Tower at exactly 9:03. Anchor Peter Jennings took over at around 9:10, and reported at 9:13 that “a plane was actually hijacked.” He managed to stay calm and professional throughout.

At 9:42, ABC had a view of smoke rising from behind the “old Executive Office Building” near the White House – they had no idea that the smoke was 2 miles beyond it, and did not report a fire at the Pentagon until 9:44, and didn’t have a good camera angle until 9:50.

The South Tower fell at 9:59. It had completely collapsed before any ABC reporter noticed it.  “Maybe something has fallen off the building.” Dan Dahler, who was near the scene, reported that “The whole building has collapsed.” An incredulous Jennings asked “A whole side has collapsed?” I can’t understand how he couldn’t see what I saw, on my screen, on his studio monitors.

CBS was airing its “Early Show.” Their special report began at 8:42 with “a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center.” This was not Bryant Gumbel’s finest hour. A doorman at a nearby hotel called in. He had “sort of” witnessed the first plane.

Bryant asked him “Do you know how many people were on board?” Other later callers got a bit upset with him, as they insisted that they had seen the planes hit the buildings “intentionally.”  Even after the second plane, he was asking “What makes you think it was intentional?”

Back when I was watching and taping the events “live,” I had the CBS network on at a few minutes before 10. As I could see the South Tower crumble and 10 a.m. approached, Gumbel started to turn things over to Dan Rather in his studio. The last thing he said was “We understand there’s now a secondary explosion on Tower 2.”

Dan Rather might as well been reporting from a dark closet with a blanket over his head.  He started by saying “The word of the day from nearly everybody (???) is ‘steady’.” At 10:01, he still hadn’t noticed that a very large building was missing entirely. “There ARE known injuries; whether there are any DEATHS or not, it’s too soon to know. There are NO confirmed fatalities.”

It was 3 minutes after the collapse before he said that there were reports that “a portion of one of the towers has collapsed.” At 10:04:45 – “Portions of one have collapsed may be true.”

At 10:14, a CBS Washington correspondent reported that “Osama Bin Laden is suspected.”

Even at 10:16, Dan Rather was saying “The top half of one has collapsed.” In fact, up until after the second tower fell, the message at the bottom of the screen still said “the top half.”

Fox News had the best “reporter on the street” coverage, if only because it had the closest coverage of people on the street escaping the carnage. It included a brief, touching interview of a construction foreman talking from his car about what he had witnessed.

Local NYC and Washington stations did an excellent job. “Regis and Kelly” went on at 9 as usual – knowing something awful was occurring, they still tried to go on with several minutes of their usual “happy talk about nothing,” until they finally cut away to network coverage.

You may or may not want to view what happened 21 years ago yourself – it was the first time that such “history” was recorded “live.”

Let us hope we see nothing like it again in our lifetimes.

Tom Taber