Covering 9/11 taught me how to remain calm in the middle of panic and misinformation

Health, Fitness & Food

FILE – In this Sept. 11, 2001 file photo, a helicopter flies over the Pentagon in Washington as smoke billows over the building. Partial remains of several 9/11 victims were incinerated by a military contractor and sent to a landfill, a government report said Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012, in the latest of a series of revelations about the Pentagon’s main mortuary for the war dead. The terrorist-hijacked airliner that slammed into the west side of the Pentagon killed 184 people. (AP Photo/Heesoon Yim,
Heesoon Yim

Like many Americans, I remember every detail of Sept. 11, 2001, like it was yesterday.

I was a congressional reporter in Washington, D.C., for Dow Jones Newswires and was getting ready that Tuesday morning to cover a hearing when I noticed a shot of the twin towers on CNBC instead of the usual market news. I’d been in New York City the week before and just missed meeting one of my college roommates, Elsa Gomez, for lunch in the south tower, where she worked on the 72nd floor as a portfolio manager for Morgan Stanley.

I had just turned off my hair dryer and turned up the volume to hear what the TV reporters were saying when the second plane crashed into the south tower, at 9:03 a.m. My frantic calls to Elsa’s cell phone rolled to voice mail, and then my own phone rang.

My bureau chief, John Connor, yelled, “Do you see the news?”

“Yes, I’m watching it now. I was getting ready for that hearing,” I said.

“Forget the hearing. We’re under attack!” Connor yelled. “Get to the Capitol right now and start reporting.”

Internet and cell service weren’t remotely close to what they are today. I had a flip phone and a pager. The difficulty in communicating on 9/11 would later prompt Dow Jones to buy BlackBerrys for everyone, but few of us had them at the time, and I wasn’t one of them. If I happened to get an offhand quote from a senator or regulator that broke news, I called the main news desk in Jersey City, New Jersey, and dictated my story to the copy desk, which sent headlines and the finished stories to the markets.

My heart was racing. I drove to the Capitol and ran into the Senate side with my laptop, cellphone, reporter’s pad and pens. I got lucky and ran into John Glenn, the former astronaut and retired Democratic senator from Ohio. Glenn said he was told the crashes were intentional, an attack of some kind, and that he was waiting to hear about a security briefing on it.

As we were talking, at 9:37 a.m., a third plane crashed, this time into the Pentagon. A Capitol Police officer grabbed one of Glenn’s arms and one of mine, yelling, “Everybody out NOW.”

We ran out to the lawn along with other Hill staff, reporters and lawmakers. I was panicked. At 30, I had zero experience covering war zones. As a business journalist, I had never even covered so much as a bad tropical storm, let alone a terrorist attack. My most dangerous assignment was facing pushback from the Capitol Police while staking out late-night negotiations on Gramm-Leach-Bliley, the legislation that gave rise to the financial crisis by allowing sleepy banks to open massive trading arms.

We all stood around on the Capitol lawn looking at each other, not knowing what to do. I tried to call in and report what Glenn had told me but couldn’t get a signal. That’s when we saw the smoke billowing out from the Pentagon and heard what we thought were bombs going off across D.C.

We were all terrified, except maybe David Rogers, a veteran congressional reporter for The Wall Street Journal, who liked to call me “Kid.” I watched him coolly stroll beside some staffers while I ran and ducked behind a tree. Even Robert Byrd, the former Democratic senator from West Virginia, was ducking behind a tree about 20 feet away from me. Byrd was president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate at the time, placing him third in line for the presidency should anything happen to the president, vice president and House speaker.

My fear turned to focus. Calming my nerves, I walked up to Byrd.

“Hi, Sen. Byrd, I’m a reporter with Dow Jones. Do you know what’s going on?” I asked, pointing to the Pentagon and fighter jets.

“To hell if I know,” he replied in his signature Southern drawl.

“Aren’t you the president pro tem, the third in line for the presidency?”

“Why, yes, I am,” he said.

“Shouldn’t they have you in a secure location somewhere?”

“You’d think they would,” he said.

“Isn’t there a plan to evacuate congressional leaders?”

“Apparently not,” he said, just as astounded as I was.

Other reporters and some staff gathered around him, sharing what they knew. Rumor had it that bombs had gone off at the Pentagon and State Department, and they were worried other bombs were planted around the city. Most of that information would turn out to be inaccurate — the “bombs” we all heard were sonic booms from fighter jets flying over Washington.

The impromptu staff briefing sent us wire reporters off to call in what we had, but none of us could get a cell signal.

A top aide to Trent Lott, then the Republican Senate minority leader, was storming his way toward the Capitol. I ran to catch up.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“You don’t want to know,” he said.

“I actually do. This is my job.”

“Off the record, a plane is heading for the Capitol building,” he said.

Within minutes, the Capitol Police started to back everyone away from the Capitol grounds.

I camped out at Bagels and Baguettes just outside the Capitol building, inhaled some coffee and a sesame seed bagel with cream cheese and tomato and wrote my story. I paid them $20 to use their landline to call my editor and transmit the article via modem.

My bureau chief said cell phone carriers had jammed their signals so the attackers couldn’t communicate. He offered to call my parents to let them know I was okay. He told me that my colleague who covered Congress with me wasn’t able to get to Capitol Hill, so I was flying solo.

The Capitol Police headquarters, just two blocks away, became a makeshift briefing room for congressional leaders. The press corps camped outside. That’s when I finally noticed how beautiful the weather was. The sky was a crisp medium blue; there wasn’t a single cloud. It was in the low- to mid-70s and a slight breeze washed over the city. Running had made me sweat, so I took off my jacket, feeling awkwardly informal wearing a tank top around the button-down Congress.

We waited for hours outside the headquarters for briefings. Reporters took turns making coffee runs. Washington journalism is cutthroat, but there’s an unwritten understanding that we let each other know if any of us misses anything while, say, going to the bathroom or grabbing lunch on a stakeout.

It had to be close to 11 p.m. when lawmakers came out to say a terrorist by the name of Osama bin Laden was responsible for the attacks. I was able to get a signal by then and called in the story. I didn’t even know how to spell his name.

Congressional leaders moved the last briefing of the night to the Capitol grounds — with a nice shot of the building in the back — for a live press conference on national TV 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 up. We watched CNN replay the collapse of the towers over and over again. I called my editors in Jersey City to see what I missed; they told me to get some rest. I got about two hours of restless sleep and was back on the Hill around 7 a.m.

The next few months were some of the most difficult of my career. It would be two nerve-wracking days before any of us could reach our old college roommate. Elsa had left her cell phone at her desk while narrowly escaping the initial 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 those first few days — until Saturday night when I had my first downtime of the week. My roommate Katrina, who was a Senate aide, and I split a bottle of wine and ugly-cried together over heart-wrenching interviews of Todd Beamer’s wife and the families of other victims.

Covering 9/11 was a watershed moment in my career.

It gave me the stamina I needed to later cover the financial crisis as a Washington-based housing and markets reporter and now as CNBC’s Health and Science editor, overseeing much of our Covid pandemic coverage. It taught me to remain calm in the midst of crisis, helped me understand the complexities of covering catastrophic events and showed me the importance of bringing fast and accurate news to the public.

A lot of bad or half-accurate information comes out fast at the beginning of any catastrophic news event. You have to be discerning. Who do you listen to? Are they qualified, do they have firsthand knowledge, do they have an agenda? Are they merely repeating what they’ve heard from people you’ve already interviewed? Rumors can inadvertently be started or fueled by reporters calling around asking questions. Journalism is a first draft of history, but we are all striving to get the facts straight at the outset.

I don’t take personal offense to 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 skewed outlets that don’t seem to care about facts, and they have greatly damaged the reputation of objective journalism over the last decade. But you should know that the vast majority of us are trying to get it right. Covering 9/11, the financial crisis and now the pandemic is public service journalism at its most basic level, and we all take that responsibility very seriously.

As I edit stories this week about the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I’m still mourning with the rest of America. While coordinating coverage of the Covid pandemic, I’m also mourning the lives lost to this more recent attack out of nowhere. But it was then and still is an honor and privilege to inform the public.

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