Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, North America

MEDIA-9/11: Remembering the Journalists

Miren Gutierrez*

ROME, Sep 5 2006 (IPS) - “If there’s only one sight I’ll remember from the destruction of the World Trade Centre, it is the flight of desperation – the headlong leap from the top-most floors by those who chose a different death than the choking smoke and flame,” wrote John Bussey of The Wall Street Journal on Sep. 11, 2001.

Bussey had remained behind at Number One World Trade Centre after the building was evacuated. “When the windows exploded and the rubble started raining inside the office, I dove under a desk. I was trying to save my life,” he recalled in an interview days later.

The journalists who witnessed the massacre understood instantly that nothing would be the same again. Yet they did not imagine what was in store five years down the line: the military campaign in Afghanistan, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, embedded journalism, and the so-called “war on terror.”

A total of 103 journalists and media assistants have been killed in Iraq since the start of the war in March 2003, according to Reporters Without Borders. Two are still missing. This news agency lost contributor Alaa Hassan in a shooting in the streets of Baghdad last July.

But that day, right after the first impact, while a torrent of people fled the epicentre, firefighters, policemen and journalists were running in the opposite direction. The courage of the policemen and firefighters has been captured in different films and documentaries. But most of what journalists experienced eluded the limelight.

William Biggart was probably the first photojournalist on the site. His body was recovered among the ruins of the World Trade Centre four days later. David Handschuh, from the New York Daily News, was luckier. He was pushed under a nearby parked car by the shockwave. He escaped with fractures in one leg.

Seth Cohen, another photojournalist, was awakened by the telephone. He lived six blocks from the Twin Towers. He took his bicycle and rushed to the World Trade Centre, camera in hand. He couldn’t believe what he saw, he said later. People covered in dust – a completely hallucinatory scene. He tried not to think, and went on taking pictures. His photographs, in black and white, show a phantasmagorical fog engulfing trees left standing, a traffic sign that shows the lost way to Wall Street.

Xavier Araújo of Puerto Rico’s El Nuevo Día captured images that reveal the hell inside the towers. “We took photos of people jumping from the buildings,” he said shortly after the attacks. Instants of absolute desperation.

“I was sleeping when my editor called me,” said Greg Kelly, a former reporter for the local television channel NY-1. His first impulse was to head to St. Vincent’s Hospital on 11th Street. Hundreds of injured people were expected.

“Right away, it was clear that it was not the best place. No one was arriving,” he recounted in an interview. Kelly decided to approach what was left of the Twin Towers. He was stopped by a National Guardsman, who in the confusion mistook his pass for a police permit. He didn’t correct the guard, and was one of the first television journalists to get into the area.

“It was so smoky that everyone looked disoriented. Nothing was in the right place. Someone pointed at a piece of something on the pavement that looked like rubber. ‘Human parts’, he said. It didn’t look like any human part I knew. I didn’t feel anger; I was worried about being discovered and thrown out, and getting my stuff confiscated,” he said.

“Suddenly, we heard a loud thunder, couldn’t say where it came from, and we were in a bubble of rubble. Number Seven was going downà While that was happening I was on the phone. ‘Nuclear holocaust’ was the only description I thought of.”

That evening, your correspondent queued with dozens of others at St. Vincent’s Hospital, not far from where I used to live in midtown. Like Kelly, I was going to find out that there would not be many wounded victims. Being O negative, my blood type was supposed to be in short supply. They took my name and my number. They never called.

Yuri Kirilchenko, a radio reporter working for Itar-Tass, was parking his car nearby when the first tower collapsed. A tsunami of debris started chasing the crowd in front of him. Kirilchenko, a two-metre-tall giant, hoisted someone on his back and took off. Between one dispatch and another, he helped others reach safety. Then he felt ill. His wife and his editor found him lying unconscious near a fire hydrant. Six hours later, he emerged alive in a hospital bed having undergone emergency heart surgery.

Minutes after the second crash, Number One World Trade Centre, across the street from the Twin Towers, was evacuated. The tenant was The Wall Street Journal, and the immediate concern was how the biggest paper in the country could be published the next day.

The Journal had a second office in New Jersey and a backup emergency plan. But where were the journalists? It wasn’t immediately evident how many of the 900 people who worked at the Dow Jones journal near Ground Zero were unhurt and could cross the river, as Manhattan was almost cut off, except for a staggeringly crowded ferry.

John Bussey, editor of the international pages, was on the phone talking about the destruction he was witnessing for CNBC, a sister TV channel. The building started to crumble. He stood up from under a desk where he had taken refuge and began feeling the wall, trying to find the way out. Disoriented, he twice passed by the entryway.

Meanwhile in New Jersey, some workers started arriving, one by one.

By four in the afternoon, a group of about 30 journalists, out of the total 400 on a normal day, had arrived. “There were no editors in sight, so Jim Pensiero, whose job was to put together the newsroom’s budget but had some editorial experience, became the editor for the day. As soon some dusty journalist arrived, he was assigned a task, even if it wasn’t his usual job. By the time I got there, there was nothing left to be done, so I started to write what I had seen,” said Bussey.

“Some fell swinging their arms and legs, looking down as the street came up at them. Others fell on their backs, peering upward toward the flames and sky,” he wrote. “The scene looked like Pompeii after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Inches of ash on the ground. Smoke and dust clouding the air.” His chronicle was on the paper’s front page next day.

In another newsroom in Midtown Manhattan, that of The New York Times, things developed in a more orderly manner.

“The attacks happened early in the morning, so we had time to organise things,” said Serge Schmemann, one of the paper’s main writers. “But the Times immediately understood that it confronted a huge challenge: the world would be watching us. It was a transcendental event with a historical dimension.”

“The coverage would have to be appropriate, sober, comprehensive, and not speculative, that is why we didn’t talk of thousands of deaths or mention Osama Bin Laden as an automatic culprit. We didn’t want to cause panic or contribute to the repression. We had to pass the test of history.”

As he watched the towers collapse on television, Schmemann began writing his story; it was on the front page of the paper next day.

“While doctors and nurses at hospitals across the city tended to hundreds of damaged people, a disquieting sense grew throughout the day at other triage centres and emergency rooms that there would, actually, be less work: the morgues were going to be busiest,” he wrote. The rest is History.

*Miren Gutierrez is the Editor in Chief of IPS. When the attacks happened, she was the only writer from Spain’s El País present. This article is based on interviews done at the time.

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