Washington Journalists Remember 9/11

First published on September 11, 2014.

By Ron Cohen

I was national editor for Gannett News Service. I got off the Metro at DC’s Metro Center, up the elevator just in time to see and hear dozens of emergency vehicles screaming south on 13th Street. It took me 15 minutes to make it to the office in the old Greyhound terminal building on New York Avenue and I still had no idea what was going on. When I entered the lobby, Kathy Kiely of USA Today was dashing past me in the other direction. “Where are you running?”

“New York. A plane just hit the Trade Center,” she said and was gone. By the time I go to my desk the second tower was on fire.

A half-hour later, my boss came into the newsroom and asked me, “How come you are not in the 10 o’clock editorial meeting?”

“Are you serious?”

“We have to have the meeting. We need to decide how to cover this.”

“Every reporter we have is on the street already. This isn’t the kind of story where you need to hand out assignments They will come back with good stuff.”

“You need to come to the meeting.”

“Okay, you can bring the meeting out here to my desk. But don’t interrupt me. If you decide you didn’t like our coverage, feel free to fire me.”

That’s the moment I knew I had to get out of the business I had loved for 42 years. It had turned into a carnival of conference-room mental masturbation, where editors invent story ideas for reporters already working on several real stories of their own. I was reaching 65 in three months anyhow, and when buyouts were stunningly offered two weeks before my mandatory retirement date, I snatched one up like a Komodo dragon swallowing an entire Indonesian family.

Fifteen hours after the towers crashed, I came up for breath. No, I didn’t get fired—not even for refusing to produce a story on how parents should deal with traumatized children. Editorial meetings and pop-psychology in the middle of the biggest breaking news story we’ll ever see. Jesus.

I wrote the parents/children story two days later—it got me out of the dealing with grief sessions the Gannett Human Resources department insisted on setting up for employees.

“I’m a big boy,” I told the counselor who offered to probe my psyche. “I think I can handle my emotions.”
Ron Cohen is a retired journalist who worked for United Press International for 25 years and for Gannett News Service for 15.
By Michael Schaffer

I remember biking to work through Rock Creek Park on an absolutely beautiful morning. I was a little nervous and distracted because I had a tough interview to do with a police official who was not going to like the questions I had. So I was happy to be running a little late.

They’d rolled out a TV into the lobby of our building, which seemed strange to me, but I didn’t stop to look at it. Upstairs, I saw what had happened. My first thought, embarrassingly: I don’t think I’ll call the guy I’m supposed to interview.

We watched the towers fall on TV in the office. Eventually, all of us scrambled out to various places to see what was going on. I remember being right by the White House and realizing I’d forgotten my press pass and thinking I really should have one of those with me in case someone got suspicious–it was like I’d suddenly internalized all the security-state paranoia that was to come. So I biked along the mall getting man-on-the-street interviews. There were fighter-jet contrails overhead.

Somehow I wound up at Hains Point and saw a guy fishing in the Washington Channel. I figured he would have no clue about what had happened. But when I talked to him, he said he worked at the Pentagon, had been sent home, and was so upset he couldn’t think of anything to do but go fishing.

Later I biked past the Washington Post building on 15th Street. There was a line of people waiting to get the special edition. Already, just hours after the planes hit, people wanted some sort of physical, tangible reminder of the day.
Michael Schaffer is the editor of The Washingtonian magazine. On 9/11/01 he was a writer for U.S. News & World Report.
By Wes Pippert

I was having breakfast in the National Press Club when I noticed a few others had gathered around the bank of TV sets at the other end of the Reliable Source room. Someone said, “ A plane just hit the World Trade Center.” I didn’t respond because I remembered when as a boy a light plane had struck the Empire State building with comparatively little damage. I assumed that was the case this time.

A few minutes later I thought I’d walk over and see what was going on—and about that moment the second jet hit the second tower—and life has never been the same.
After his 30-year UPI career ended, Wes Pippert spent a year at Harvard and then joined the University of Missouri journalism faculty as director of its Washington program.
By Jack Limpert

On September 11, 2001, I was having breakfast with Brian Lamb, the founder and longtime head of C-SPAN, at the Mayflower Hotel on DC’s Connecticut Avenue. When we got there at 8:30, another dozen or so journalists were in the dining room—Al Hunt, Bill Kristol, and others.

We had a nice breakfast and about 9:45 we left, stopping to talk with some of the other journalists and then heading back to our offices. When I got to the Washingtonian’s office, two blocks away, the entire magazine staff was sitting silently in the publisher’s office, staring uncomprehendingly at the TV.

At 8:46, an hour earlier, American Airlines Flight 11 had flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Seventeen minutes later United Flight 175 hit the South Tower and at 9:38 American Airlines Flight 77 hit the west side of the Pentagon.

While all that was happening, some of Washington’s best-connected journalists were enjoying breakfast and had no idea.

Thirteen years ago—our little phones and a lot of the digital revolution were still to come.
Jack Limpert started his journalism career with UPI and for 40 years was editor of The Washingtonian magazine.

Dick Babcock says:

I was on Chicago time, so I first saw reports on the Today show after the first plane hit. I’ll never forget hearing Matt Lauer speculate, “There must be something terribly wrong with the air-traffic control system.”

I went to the Chicago magazine office in downtown Chicago, but within an hour or so, our owners in New York called to tell us to send everyone home.

That afternoon I told my son, who was a high-school freshman, that the world would never be the same—the sort of portentous remark by a father that a son tends to remember. And, indeed, my son has quoted it back to me several times over the years. Of course, I was right—our world has irrevocably changed. But sometimes what surprises me more is how little it has changed, how quickly we returned to the general patterns of life pre-9/11. On my good days, that pleases me.

Ben Armbruster says:

I was 24 years old, wandering aimlessly after college, and was working at my Dad’s Shell gas station on the corner of W. 117th Street and Western on the west side of Cleveland.

I could see the planes flying low overhead as they were about to land at Hopkins Airport. Western is directly under one of the flight paths so we’d hear big jets flying in to land all the time. It was a constant roaring that you just got used to.

My brother’s mother-in-law called to tell us the news, which we all pretty much ignored because she was always making unbelievable claims that never turned out to be true. But after 10 minutes or so we got an old black and white TV out and put in on the counter and we watched the towers come down.

I remember feeling perplexed at how every thing at the gas station just seemed to return to normal while I was quietly freaking out and wondering how out of hand the upcoming war would get.

A half hour later or so after the news really sunk in, we still had customers coming in, doing their regular business as if the world had not just not been turned upside down. We had a TV facing the front and some customers would say how tragic it was but most just carried on with what they were doing. “Pack of Newports.” “10 bucks on pump 8.” “Do y’all have Camel lights?” “Hey I wanna play my numbers.” Playing numbers was one of the more depressing purchases from our customers—many of the lottery players either didn’t have jobs or the ones who did regularly spent a considerable amount of their paycheck on the lottery, and lost. And lost and lost and lost.

Despite the day’s life-changing news, the customers at W. 117th and Western in Cleveland didn’t seem to want the 9/11 attacks to get in the way of their daily routine.

As I went home a bit early so I could watch proper TV, I did notice one thing leaving the station to get into my car. The utter silence which I then realized was because there were no more planes landing at Hopkins.

John Corcoran Jr. says:

No one forgets that day.

I had managed to get my non-fiction book about television news published on September 12, 2001. I was dozing in bed September 11 with a cast on my fused right ankle and a patch over the eye with detached retina repair when the phone rang. My wife answered and shrieked, “Turn on the TV.” Sitting in LA, we watched the Twin Towers fall.

While I felt the agony and the anguish so much of the country endured, I also felt guilty about some self-pity over my bad timing on a book I’d hoped would make a splash.

A couple of days later I got a phone call that went something like this:

VOICE: John?
JOHN: Yes?
VOICE: John Corcoran?
JOHN: Uh-huh.
VOICE: The one who was the entertainment reporter at KCAL?
JOHN: Yeah, sure. What’s this about?
VOICE: One second.

He put his hand loosely over the mouthpiece and yelled out, “He’s alive. It wasn’t him.”

The voice was a reporter from CNN, who said “my” name was on the just-released passenger list for United Flight 175. It was a flight—from Boston to LA—I’d taken before, but the unfortunate “John Corcoran” that day was a 43-year-old Marine from outside Boston, wife and two kids.

Never felt any self-pity after that and pray my namesake’s family has found some peace in the passage of time.

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