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Saturday, September 11, 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon.

The 20th Anniversary of 9/11: Looking Back at Covering the Attacks on the World Trade Center

Amy Eddings
Ideastream Public Media

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. Amy Eddings says she still remembers the acrid smell of burning plastic.  

She 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. The two talked recently about what they 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."

Amy Eddings
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.

For 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."

In that interview from the scene of the World Trade Center, Houston describes how he and his wife heard a low-flying jet and then a boom, saw the second jet fly into the South Tower and what they witnessed as people jumped from the buildings.

"I tried calling into my newsroom on my Blackberry," Eddings said "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."

Amy Eddings
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.

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.

"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."

Amy Eddings
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.

"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.'"
At that moment, Meyer was 12 miles away in Newark, New Jersey. "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."

Amy Eddings
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.

"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."

Eddings says it’s that kind of stuff that haunts her to this day: feeling like she could have done more.
Meyer continued. "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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