From the professionals: CNN

From the professionals: CNN

Sylvester, Judith

In some ways, Rose Arce was uniquely qualified to cover the events of Sept. 11.

As a WCBS-TV reporter, she had covered the World Trade Center bombing on Feb. 26, 1993. She had shared a Pulitzer Prize with colleagues for a subway crash story she had covered for New York Newsday. She covered plane crashes and other disasters there.

Rose, a CNN producer, just wanted to spend a few minutes enjoying a beautiful, sunny day in New York City before running over to her local polling center to cast her vote in the primary mayoral race. “I was going to vote and then cover the election. I was told I would be working a late shift,” she said.

But first, she went to get coffee at a deli across the street. “It was a really beautiful day, just a gorgeous day. Usually by Sept. 11 it’s gray already.” After she got her coffee, she heard on NPR radio that something happened at the World Trade Center. “It sounded ominous. I immediately flipped on my cell phone and called the office. I said, ‘I heard about the World Trade Center. Where do you want me to go because I’m going to start running downtown?’ Whoever answered the phone said, ‘Just go, go, go and call us when you get there.'”

Rose lives near Horatio and Washington, which make a straight line down to the Trade Center. “I started running south, and people were just standing in the street, looking up. I got about two blocks and could see the building on fire.” An African-American woman, who Rose said she would never forget, came by in a black Lexus. She knocked on her window and flashed the press ID hanging around her neck. “I said, ‘Hey, I’m with CNN. Please give a ride downtown.’ I jumped into her car, and she took me down a few blocks from the Trade Center,” she said.

Her cell phone had stopped working, so she ducked into a deli to use the phone to call CNN. Then, she started running farther south with a swarm of people coming at her. “It was like a weird movie. People were running in business suits, all with cell phones trying to talk as they were running. I was running against the traffic. My intention was to get inside the North Tower because that is what I did in 1993. Then there was this hum, like when the subway is passing underneath me, except that it was in the air.”

As she was being pummeled by people running past her, she saw a little girl nearby who was screaming, “Daddy, Daddy! They are doing it on purpose!” First, there was a loud sound, and then a plane came out of nowhere and “just slammed into the building.” She still had her cell phone in her hand and was frantically trying to dial CNN. But, she just kept getting a busy signal.

She ran across the street to an apartment building where a woman was standing. “Do you live here?” Rose asked her. “She said her husband, Jim, was on the top floor, so I ran up the stairs and knocked on his door.” She told him she was from CNN and that she had seen his wife downstairs and wanted to come into his apartment. “He said ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, come in,'” she said. “People were unbelievably helpful that day. Everyone was like ‘the world is going to end, what do I care if you come into my apartment?'” Jim turned out to be a photographer who takes children’s pictures. “I’ve seen him a few times,” Rose said. “He’s a real sweetheart.”

Rose described the apartment as “a construction site because they were redoing the floors.” Several other people were coming in and out of the apartment, but they were a blur to Rose.

“We turned on the television set. Jim had one of those carry-around phones and the battery was dying, so I had to keep running to the back room where I couldn’t see and put it on speaker phones so I could call in to CNN to give them reports of what I was seeing,” she said.

As CNN showed live pictures of the Towers smoking in the distance, Rose described what she was witnessing. She could either stay where she had a phone or try to get closer to the scene. “I was frantic to get inside the building. I was only two or three blocks away. But, I couldn’t because my phone wasn’t working. So, I stayed at this guy’s phone. When I finally got through to Atlanta, they were so panicked. They would suddenly throw me on air again with the anchor. I kept stretching the phone cord and saying, ‘You won’t believe what I’m looking at.'”

Normally, anchors would be asking questions. But, not this time. “There were no questions,” Rose said. “I would just keep talking and there was silence on the other end. It was like they couldn’t believe what I was saying.”

Rose had with her a two-way pager that she rarely used because it wasn’t very reliable. But suddenly it started going off. “People were paging me, and they were saying, ‘Are you okay?’ ‘Have you heard anything?’ ‘Do you know about the building?'”

In between her phone calls to CNN to get on the air, she called her cell phone. “I was hoping it would ring. I didn’t know if something was wrong with it or the Tower. I could get into my voice mailbox, but I couldn’t get the phone to work. I just kept thinking that if I could get my phone to work, I could go downtown.”

But, the best she could do was retrieve agonizing phone messages from friends. Some of them had friends or family members who might be in one of the Towers. One was perhaps in a meeting on the 90th floor. She was able to call back only one friend. “I told her that it looked really bad. I didn’t know what to tell her. I didn’t know if people were going to get out of there.”

Rose said when she heard these messages she became even more focused on her duties. “I had this overwhelming feeling of ‘Oh, this is what I do for a living.’ It’s this weird thing. You do what you do every day, but sometimes you lose touch with what the value of it is or why it is you do it. All I could keep thinking was, ‘My God, all these people are listening to me on television, and I’m the only news they have.'”

At that point, Rose walked outside to view the buildings. “You could see this enormous hole in the Tower. It was like this big thing had been ripped in it. There were sirens and noise. There was a stampede of people going in one direction, and occasionally a rescue team going in the other direction. Looking up, I could see into the building. It was far away, but I could see shadows of people behind the glass. They were waving.”

Rose returned to the apartment where Jim loaned her his DVD camera. She used its magnification to get a closer look. “It was clear people were starting to break the glass. Sprinkles of glass were coming by. One by one I saw hands coming out the window. Then I saw things being waved. It looked like people’s shirts.”

Rose and Jim began to speculate about how these people were going to get out. Was there something that was going to catch them? What are they doing? “We couldn’t accept the fact that there was nobody to save them. We could see that the fire was getting closer and closer. It was above them, below them. We could see the building was stressing.”

Then the most horrific scene Rose has ever witnessed began. “All of a sudden one person came to the window, and it looked like he was helping people jump. One by one they started jumping. Then, from a variety of windows, a bunch of people started jumping. They were flailing against the wind as they fell down. Some of them were holding hands.”

When people started jumping, Jim screamed. His wife and daughter were standing in the back of the apartment. His wife said, “Jim, be quiet. Be quiet.” Rose told him, “You guys should go. I’m going to stay.” They went down to the basement, and Rose was alone.

The building again commanded her attention. “At some point as people were jumping, there was this buckling. The building was crumbling. From far away, it looks like an explosion, but it collapsed almost like a deck of cards. These huge pieces just came raining down, puncturing the roof of each of the buildings around it. There was a swell, almost like a mushroom cloud, of debris just tumbled over the buildings in front of me that came pouring out toward the building where I was standing.”

Rose started backing up into the center of the apartment as debris started hitting the window. “It was a strange, surreal moment because all I could think was, ‘Is it going to break the glass? Is this building going to collapse?’ And yet, at the same time I was thinking, ‘There is nothing I can do; there is absolutely nothing I can do.'”

Still connected to Atlanta, she screamed into the phone and then just hung up. “Suddenly, it went from being this beautiful sunny day with deafening noise of sirens and people to just silent and black, almost like it was nighttime. It was so quiet. I walked up to the window and tried tosee if the phone would work again. It did. I looked down, and the street was absolutely empty. It reminded me of 10 years ago when there was a blizzard here and there was lots of snow on the ground. The city was so paralyzed; you didn’t see cars. This was the same thing. There was this snow on the ground. Snow falling, and it was totally dark. And there was absolutely nobody. The sirens had stopped. And there was nothing in the air except this tremendous debris cloud.”

Rose’s pager started going off again: “Are you okay? Are you okay?” Messages were coming through asking if she had seen various co-workers and friends. “It was very freaky. There was a time period when I started thinking, ‘I hope this person is okay. What about that person? Am I going to be okay? The whole thing was almost not real. On the one hand, I felt very upset. But on the other hand, I was overwhelmed with this sense of mission. That sense of mission almost made it feel like it wasn’t real because I was so focused on the job.”

She looked down at the street. It was still totally empty. She was on the phone when suddenly she saw someone: a firefighter running up the street carrying the body of another firefighter. “That was the first time I was genuinely afraid because I thought the rescue workers were running away. I have covered New York City firefighters for 15 years. They run from nothing. I thought if a firefighter is running away, everybody down there is dead, and it is really, really dangerous.”

Rose decided she had to get out of the building, which she admits in retrospect might not have been the best decision. She walked outside. “Once you got out on the street, you couldn’t see anything.” But, she decided to try to find a CNN cameraman. “I ended up running east, and I stopped at pay phones along the way to call in. It was amazing that the pay phones were still working. My eyes were really burning, and I was coughing really hard at that point.”

When she found a cameraman, they kept walking. The second Tower collapsed at some point along her walk, but she doesn’t remember it. “We found a firefighter. His pants had all burned off. He was standing there, quietly staring downtown. I’ll never forget that he kept saying, ‘I’ve got to get back down there. I’ve got to get back down there.’ He had been with his ladder company, and they had been crushed in the debris. He dove underneath his truck and survived. He kept telling me that all the guys on his truck were dead. He had run away to escape the debris. But he was frantic to get back in. The two or three police left down there kept telling everyone to run, to run north. The fireman kept saying, ‘I can’t run away. I’ve got to go back. There’s got to be people down there.'”

Rose said that everybody coming from the area was saying that everyone was dead. “There was just no rescue operation. There was nothing but fire and smoke. The debris was awful-little pieces of everything you can imagine in a building. If you just took people and desks and computers and drywall and porcelain and just put it through a shredder, it would all come back out as little, tiny pieces. People’s business cards, sticky pads, glasses, photos on their desks, all charred and chopped up. And the closer you got blood. It was just awful.”

Rose and her cameraman, carrying a beta cam, kept trying to get closer. “Although people think of the World Trade Center as two tall buildings, it is really a complex, with several big buildings that don’t look big compared to the Twin Towers. Those buildings were completely on fire, crushed and in danger of collapsing. We got very close to those. At that point, I think I was more in a state of shock than I realized until much afterwards. Once or twice my cameraman grabbed me and said, ‘Hey, Rose, we’ve got to get out.’ I was standing there trying to work. And things were not looking good around us.”

Television news is driven by the technology, but Rose says they weren’t focused on that. “At that point, I gathered that we had a lot of material that other people didn’t have. Swirling in my head was, ‘How do we get the tape back?’ ‘What do they know?’ ‘What’s missing here?’ When I called the office, there was incredible activity there, but I felt so disconnected from it. They didn’t even know where to start with this stuff. One of the beautiful things about CNN is that they are very good at covering disasters and breaking news and there’s a certain calm to it all. But, that day, the thing you kept hearing was ‘Give us more! Give us more! Tell us everything you know!’ There was an unending stream of things that needed to be gathered. Questions that needed to be answered.”

In her quest for a good view of the scene, Rose went onto the balcony of a man who had been celebrating his son’s first birthday. His terrace overlooked the Twin Towers. “We talked about it for a while as he held his little boy. It was just so odd. It was like being at Pearl Harbor- just a weird feeling. We were watching the buildings burning and the Twin Towers were gone. I asked him how he was going to explain this to his son.” They projected 30 years into the future when he would tell people that during his first birthday party, terrorists attacked New York City.

Rose went back to the office, bringing back tape. She did a story about what she had seen. After midnight when she finished, she asked for a cameraman and went back down to Ground Zero. “We went to a huge parking lot that was next to the North Tower. It was very chaotic that first day because they were hoping they were going to rescue someone. They were still waiting to get back in because the fire and debris were so enormous that they couldn’t get access to the building. There was very little security. There were firefighters and police who were trying to shut off streets, but there was such pandemonium that we just walked right through it,” she said.

They crossed Chamber Street, a street that cuts east to west in Manhattan. “There was an armada of firefighters, military, police officers, emergency medical service workers, Red Cross, FEMA, just a convoy of trucks from all over the country. I saw firefighters and wondered, ‘How could you be from a state that far away?’ It was amazing. It was absolutely a war zone.”

She saw bodies being taken uptown, trucks full of debris and people who were injured in the rescue operation. There also was truck after truck containing water, food and supplies. “We maneuvered through it all and got to a parking lot and went through a fence. Inside were crushed, burning cars. We wove through those cars in the construction lot and got out the other end. We were standing at Two World Trade Center.”

There was a makeshift morgue in the American Express Building where they were squirting saline solution into the eyes of the firefighters. “Two World Trade Center was about eight stories high, and was completely engulfed in flames. There were fire trucks crushed like tuna cans all over the place. There was a mudflow of stuff from all the water. We were sloshing through this mud. For the first time, about one in the morning, rescue workers were coming into that area. I thought, ‘Oh, God. This thing has been burning since this morning and this is the first access they have had which means that anybody who might have survived the collapse had been there without any hope of being pulled out because there was just no way in,” she said.

A school across the street housed another morgue. “Everybody was absolutely silent. I had never seen a situation where there were that many people not talking. There were two big spot lights that were trained on the water hoses.”

Rose got separated from her cameraman, leaving her alone to trip through the mud. She became covered in the muck and scratched from shards embedded in it. She was really angry that her cameraman was gone. But, she was able to use her cell phone to call the office to try to locate him. “Finally I merged into an area where there was a flood light. That was the first time I got a real look at the area and what was actually in all this mud. I was essentially walking in mud mixed with blood mixed with body parts mixed with debris and water. It was just awful. There was this overwhelming stench of burning metal.”

Rose wore a mask, but she was “coughing like crazy” as she walked around. She had coughing problems for several weeks after. She also damaged here eyes from sandy debris. “I couldn’t wear contacts for awhile and my vision got weaker.” She knows that some of the elements she inhaled, possibly asbestos, could be dangerous to her future health. “I think all that stuff is very real, but from where I sit now, there is nothing I can do about it. It’s not that I don’t worry about it, but I don’t gain anything by worrying about it.”

Rose didn’t go home until about 4 or 5 a.m. for a quick nap. Going home was “really creepy” she said. “My building was pretty much empty. I changed clothes. I went back in and worked for a few more hours, about 14. By then everyone from Atlanta had come up, so my office was pretty much a battle zone, too. Everybody was freaked out but doing an amazing job. People were very calm and very focused, which really helped me.”

Rose said that a lot of grief counselors were at the office, but she didn’t talk with any of them. She did see her own therapist. “Really, I think the thing that helped me the most was spending time with friends. It was nice to see them and talk to them. I could see that everybody was there, and we could talk about what we were going to do next,” she said. “I think we have on one level or another sought help. What we sought more was time away from it, which has been very hard to come by.”

She also is aware that “many little things that day” kept her from getting killed. She knows that if her cell phone had been working she would be dead. “I wanted to get into the building.

Who in the hell knew it was going to collapse? I wanted to be there. I wanted to get as close as I could and get as much information as I could. That’s what I do,” she said. “I’ve covered breaking news my entire career. My strength has been in not panicking and keeping my wits about me, being able to gather information and be aggressive, clear headed, and able to balance the danger to myself and others with the need to get information. I’ve done all that before, but what it all comes down to is that sometimes it’s just dumb luck.”

Rose thinks her previous experience with disasters did help her get through this one. “It does help you because there are certain things that you learn over time. One of those things is how rescue operations work. You get a sense after awhile of when law enforcement is doing something for your own good-and you should be very respectful and heed them-and when law enforcement is simply trying to impede you from getting information. There are things you learn along the way like what’s most important. In TV, pictures are what are most important. But because I’ve done this for awhile now, I knew the most important thing was to call because I knew we weren’t going to be getting the pictures immediately, at least nothing close by. Those things prepare you for the journalistic aspect of this.”

But, she added, “Nothing prepares you for the horror of watching people die. I think at the point where you don’t find that unusual or stressful, you’ve really got a problem. The residue of this has been much more profound than anything I’ve ever covered. The effect psychologically on me and on the people around me has been much greater.

“Really, the real issue for me for the first month and a half or so, was every loud noise, every low-flying plane, the constant sirens were very stressful. There were a lot of sirens because the police were just in a panic with this rescue operation. Every time they went a few blocks they would turn their siren on. I would hear it, and I would panic. I would think immediately, ‘Is this it? Is this the next thing? Should we all run?’ Your body stiffens with the next development.”

But Rose covered the next disaster in New York, the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 on Nov. 12, 2001, in Queens. “The first thing I thought was the crash was completely unrelated. I was thinking everybody should calm down. With the anthrax and everything, it was time for sanity to set in.”

Her CNN office had to deal with the anthrax threat. “We had our mailroom shut down. We have fire drills and an emergency procedure guide. We have a whole plan. I’m one of the captains to get people out of here. We’re very much in ready mode, and that both heightens the fear and the sense of security at the same time,” she said.

Rose also believes that journalists had to deal with a special kind of fear. “We get every bomb scare, every weird tip. Every one of these things is like, ‘Oh my, here we go. Maybe today.’ We hear ‘anthrax,’ and we don’t know where, we don’t know who, we don’t know how bad. By the time most of the public finds out about it, they are getting a very filtered version of events. It’s like at one o’clock they found anthrax but by five o’clock it’s just a spore and nobody was hurt. We suffer the five hours of ‘Is everybody we know at NBC going to be hurt or maybe dead?’ So, in that sense, I think we live with a great deal more tension.”

In regard to showing anguished friends and family members searching for lost loved ones, Rose said, “The problem was that we didn’t know. A lot of families are angry now that they spent so much time searching, but it’s because the authorities told them to keep searching. I suspected from the moment the building collapsed that most of the people left in the building had died. However, you don’t know that. Who am I to tell someone, ‘No, don’t look for your mother’s body’?”

She pointed out that people were looking for more than survivors. “People were looking for any information they could get about how their relatives died. They had a need to know. Who was my mom sitting next to? Was she scared when she died? Did she feel pain? To some people those details are really important. You have this strange balancing act that you do with the viewers out there. There are a lot of things people don’t want to see on TV that frankly represents what is really happening. People have to be presented with the truth however ugly that may be. I think the same debate goes on about how many obituaries will you do? Well, how many obituaries are too many for 3,000 dead people? Two? Five? I think you have to give people a real representation of the grief and anguish that this caused because decisions are made based on people’s sense of the enormity of the event. Political decisions are made. Personal decisions are made. It would be a disservice to what really happened to diminish the enormity of it or to exaggerate it.”

Although Rose’s job did not include making decisions about what would and would not go on the air, she said there were many points along the way when CNN reporters were told what they could and couldn’t show. “Decisions were made to limit certain things. I was extremely impressed in general with how restrained the media were about a lot of this stuff. I expected the worst, and I do think that people had valid complaints about the media as a whole and what they’ve shown. But I think that by and large the media were remarkably responsible. We didn’t show the people jumping from the windows on live TV for hours and hours. We didn’t show the plane hitting the building two months after the event over and over again. We could have.”

Sylvester is the Huie-Dellmon professor for the Media Leaders Forum at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, and Huffman is an associate professor in the College of Communication at Texas Christian University. This chapter is from Women Journalists at Ground Zero published by the Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.

Copyright Newspaper Research Journal, Department of Journalism, University of Memphis Winter 2003

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