Covering Local Tragedies
Ochberg Fellowship Program
The press release arrived in my email one day in early August. It was from the Fire Department of New York, announcing that—in compliance with a lawsuit brought by the New York Times—the department would be releasing the recordings of its dispatch tapes from September 11, 2001. I read the instructions and felt a tight grip in my stomach. "Not again," I thought.
The prospect of reliving September 11 through the FDNY's dispatch recordings sent my heart racing. I was one of many reporters who covered the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. I recorded the sound of the first building collapse, and ran from the cloud of debris thinking my life was surely about to end. In the days and weeks after the attacks, I wandered the streets of my beloved and broken city, interviewing family members of those who were "missing." I wore a paper surgical mask over my mouth to help breathe through the acrid smell of the smoke that lingered over downtown and seeped into all of my clothes. And I spent sleepless nights—despite heavy doses of Ambien—fearing that another attack was imminent. My radio station was also deeply affected. WNYC is located in Lower Manhattan, just about six blocks away from the World Trade Center site, so we were evacuated for two weeks after 9/11 and had to broadcast from other locations.
I forwarded the FDNY press release to my news director, John Keefe, and went to meet with him in his office. He knew what I'd been through on 9/11 and how the first anniversary shook me terribly. Right away he asked me if I wanted him to assign the job to somebody else. I told him I had mixed feelings. I didn't want to hear the tapes. But I knew I should cover them, because I had spent time with firefighters working on a short radio documentary in early 2002. I had also covered the federal government's investigation of the collapse of the Twin Towers. I knew the blow-by-blow of what occurred on the morning of September 11. It made sense for me to listen to those tapes.
"I'll do it," I told John. "But I'll need a lot of support." He assured me I'd get it. However, three of the four reporters who had covered 9/11 with me (out of our current staff of seven reporters) would be on vacation when the tapes would be released on August 12. We'd have a few anchors who had covered 9/11 who could help us listen to the dispatch tapes. But we'd also have a few other staffers helping who had joined the station after 9/11, and some interns who were new to the newsroom. John wanted to make sure they wouldn't get too rattled by the big assignment so he asked me to keep him posted if I got too upset, so I wouldn't make anyone else upset.
We had a meeting on Tuesday, August 9, to discuss our station's approach to the FDNY material. We included producers from the newsroom and our daily talk show host Brian Lehrer's staff, and members of the WNYC web team. We knew that NPR would want me to do a feature story about it for "All Things Considered" on Friday evening. We would also blanket our local newscasts with snippets from the recordings and plan some special coverage for Brian Lehrer's program. We also wanted to put some material on our website. John stood before a white board with colored markers and drew a chart plotting what each department would do. We'd have a team of reporters and producers in the newsroom listening to the tapes. We'd also get a separate copy of the 23-CD set to Brian's producers. And we'd give another copy to the engineers to help get everything on the website. But what tone would we take?
We were very worried about what effect these tapes would have on our listeners. They had the potential to be extraordinarily powerful. To hear the words of firefighters coping with such a mind-blowing catastrophe would be highly emotional. Especially if those were the last words those firefighters ever said. And what if their family members were listening to our station that day? We did not want to bombard our listeners with the panic and stress of hearing 9/11 all over again, through the sounds of those dispatch tapes, if it wasn't truly newsworthy. We could put this audio on the web, perhaps. But we did not want to lean too heavily on it in our broadcasts. Instead, we decided to focus on audio from the firefighters' interviews with the FDNY. This would be new material nobody had ever heard before. It would also be more reflective and less sensational.
But the next day our entire plan was thrown out the window. The FDNY had sent me an email with more specific details about what we would be getting on those 23 CDs. There would be no recordings of the firefighters interviews after 9/11. Those would be transcribed and loaded as text onto one CD. There would, however, be twenty-one CDs with audio from the dispatch tapes—all between 8:45 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. And another CD would include recordings of emergency responders that had previously been released by the Port Authority of NY and NJ. This meant our only new audio would be from the FDNY dispatch tapes. As a radio station, audio is our medium. It made sense for us to tell this story by broadcasting the tapes. We would just have to strike the right balance and produce something compelling enough to capture 9/11 without being overly gruesome.
On Thursday, August 11, I prepared an 11-page document for everyone who would be listening to the dispatch tapes. I wanted to summarize what we already knew about the events on the morning of 9/11 to help us look for new material, so we wouldn't just gravitate towards the drama. With the help of another producer I relied on four sources: the National Institute of Standards and Technology's federal report of the WTC collapse (they had already heard the dispatch tapes during their investigation); the 9/11 Commission report; the book "102 Minutes" by the New York Times reporters; and the Port Authority tapes which we had broadcast in November, 2002 on WNYC. I also called a few sources for advice about what to listen for.
The big day was upon us. On Friday, August 12, I went running right after I woke up to release some anxiety. By 10 a.m. I was waiting in the blazing sun with dozens of other journalists outside FDNY headquarters in Brooklyn. We all wanted to get our hands on the recordings as soon as possible so we would know what we were dealing with. We had so little time to prepare our broadcasts and newspaper stories. My deadline would be around 4:30 p.m. but other journalists would have even earlier deadlines. When the FDNY press people ushered me into the public records office, shortly after 11 a.m., I gave the clerk a money order for $69 and walked out quickly with 3 sets of 23 CDs. Each set was in its own small, unmarked cardboard box—and they were thankfully very light, with no excess packaging. "What's in here?" I wondered, worrying about my deadline and how I'd react to what I'd be soon hearing.
I took the A train back to my office in Lower Manhattan and arrived in the newsroom by 11:45. Immediately the entire newsroom gathered around the morning producer's desk. The FDNY had divided the recordings by Manhattan dispatch, Brooklyn dispatch, citywide dispatch and EMS dispatch. There were four or five discs for each, spanning the hours of 8:45 to 1:30. We obviously would focus on the first two hours—which would take us through the two building collapses. John had set aside a good group of people in order to divide up the workload. We had two anchors, two producers, two interns and two reporters. John pulled out a white board and markers and mapped out who was listening to what.
I went to my desk with the first hour of Manhattan dispatch. The recording began with a battalion chief saying: "Battalion 1 we just had a plane crash into the upper floors of the WTC, transmit a second alarm." It was chilling. A few desks away I could hear the newscast producer listening to the same material on his own copy of the CD as he hastened to find something for the noon broadcast in 15 minutes. Again and again I heard the battalion chief yelling the frightening words. I needed to stay calm so I focused on my task. I took notes on my computer as I listened to the recording, watching a split screen with the time code showing what I was listening to as I typed into a Microsoft Word document. I heard the dispatchers get a call requesting as many ambulances as possible; calls reporting jumpers from the upper floors of the Trade Center; and confusion over which tower was which. I typed furiously as I logged what I was hearing. Each firefighter reported what company he was with as he called into the dispatch center. But most of the time they never said their names.
The atmosphere in the newsroom was tense but focused. Our afternoon anchor arrived with a few boxes of cookies and a chocolate bar. (I had requested sugar for everyone, especially myself.) John told me later that people would come to him whenever they heard something particularly riveting. Meanwhile, NPR wanted material for their national newscasts. I was overwhelmed and told them I couldn't do anything except focus on the upcoming feature story that would be airing in a few hours. Producer Collin Campbell stepped into the role of reporter for them. Later, John appeared on another public radio show called "To the Point" to describe what our newsroom had learned so far from the tapes and to explain how we were processing everything.
At around 1:15 John assembled everyone into the middle of the newsroom for a brief update. We each took turns reporting back with what we had heard. Anchor Kerry Nolan said she heard an EMS dispatcher who seemed to be completely bewildered when a person called to say a plane had just struck the World Trade Center. "Say what?" said the dispatcher. Kerry also heard an EMS dispatcher who said she couldn't send more people to Lower Manhattan because she had so many other crises happening around the city including a cardiac case uptown. I wrote these two examples down on a sheet of paper and circled them to remember later. It was a side of 9/11 we hadn't heard before.
Reporter Fred Mogul told us he heard mayday cries from a firefighter stuck in the rubble after a tower collapsed. I wanted to use this and made another to myself. Then, when it was John's turn, he said he heard a civilian stuck in the debris who seized a firefighter's radio to call for help. "Can anybody hear me?" he asked, "I can't breathe much longer, save me!" John said it was incredibly upsetting—much too disturbing to air. We all respected his judgment. (Other broadcast outlets would later play this recording; it also turned out that the man had survived, something we weren't able to nail down by 4:30 on Friday). Meanwhile, Producer Kathleen Horan found some very dramatic tape of a firefighter trapped under a vehicle on the west side highway. He said his name was Fuentes, so she did a Google search and discovered that he survived—a bit of "good" news that we and our listeners could all use in this awful story.
I went back to my desk and listened to a little more of the recordings. Then I went into an edit booth with our afternoon producer, Dan Blumberg. John had already arranged for our engineers to download some of the audio into our digital system and Dan was hard at work isolating the soundbytes we potentially wanted. Some—including the first battalion chief calling in the plane crash—were already loaded for our newscasts so they were easy to find. I had the notes with me that everyone had typed so far. I looked through Kerry's EMS dispatch log and found the two bits I had circled during our meeting. Dan loaded and labeled them. I found Fred's log with the mayday call. It was long and frightening. But we thought the first few seconds would reveal just enough of the horror.
At around 2:30 anchor/reporter Richard Hake came back from a news conference with some 9/11 families who had sued for the dispatch tapes and were reacting to the release. He helped me choose two more soundbytes for my story. By 3:30 I had a total of 16 soundbytes that I wanted to use for my seven-and-a-half-minute feature story. We were just an hour-and-a-half from broadcast time. Normally I would take a couple of days to write a piece with so much rich material! But I had yet to write a single word. My editor at NPR in Washington was getting nervous. He wanted to know when my script was coming; he wanted to hear the tape. We sent him the soundbytes we had chosen through the internet so the audio engineers in DC could get to work, buying me a little time. The dispatch tapes were muddy and scratchy sounding, given the nature of these recordings, and would need a little tweaking by skilled professionals.
I ran back to my desk and started writing, letting the 16 soundbytes guide me along. This was fairly easy to do because I was writing about a chronological sequence of events. The sound would tell the story. In my discussions with everyone, I felt confident that we had selected a pretty wide range of material. There were dramatic and scary moments like the mayday calls Fred had found. But there were also newsworthy moments that revealed the confusion over which tower was which. In our rush to get this story on the air, we also had to be accurate of course. Whose voices were we listening to? We knew that one of the mayday calls came from an FDNY employee with the last name of Brown. But when one of our interns did a search, he discovered that there were two FDNY employees with this last name and the department's press office couldn't confirm whose voice was on the tape. With no time to nail down his identity, we decided not to use the man's name on the air but to play the tape anyway because it revealed the frightening situation firefighters were facing.
I wrote a lead for the NPR "All Things Considered" host to read, warning that some of the material in this report would be disturbing. At 4:30 I sent my first draft of the script to NPR editor David Sweeney in Washington. The engineers were having trouble with the audio, which wasn't high quality given that it came from dispatch tapes, so we had a difficult time mapping out what the piece would sound like. WNYC had to resend some of the soundbytes. Just before 5 p.m. NPR made the decision to move my story from the 5:06 slot to 5:20 in order to give us more time to pull it together. But we wouldn't have enough time to mix the story, meaning I couldn't pre-record my narration. I would have to read everything live while the engineers and producers in Washington read along with my script, playing all 16 elements in sequence. This is something I had never done before in my 10-plus years of reporting for WNYC and NPR! There would be no room for errors. If I flubbed a word or read from the wrong section, it would be a mistake heard round the country.
I sat down in a recording studio and put on my headphones. The NPR producer in Washington spoke to me briefly and said "you might want to meditate!" I said I could really use a drink. He said he could, too. I did a little yoga breathing and tried to relax. Then the microphone went on and I could hear "All Things Considered" host Melissa Block introduce my story. I started to read my script and hoped for the best, trying not to let the microphone pick up the sound of me turning the pages.
Thankfully the gods of journalism were looking out for us. Everything flowed almost perfectly. The engineers played each cut where it was supposed to go and I stumbled only once, briefly, as I read the narration. Seven and a half minutes later, I sank into my chair and felt like crying. John came into the studio and gave me a high five. I was shaking and my heart was racing. Suddenly, I could feel how stressful this assignment had truly been. My neck and shoulders hurt and I had a pounding headache. "Was it good radio?" I wondered. "Would NPR's millions of listeners across the country appreciate reliving 9/11 or would they find it too stressful, as well?"
A few hours later we had an informal news meeting to discuss what we produced that day. John sent out hero-grams thanking everyone for their efforts. And he invited the whole staff to go out together for drinks. We felt pretty confident that we made the right call in our choice of material. We let our listeners hear what happened on 9/11 through the voices of FDNY personnel. But we were also careful in our presentation. Maybe even too careful. The editors at NPR didn't think we needed to warn the listeners about how disturbing my report would be. There were no curse words. Perhaps 9/11 sounds different to a national audience—or to people who weren't there that day. But to this New Yorker, any reminder of that day is jarring and painful. And yet, I can't always turn away when the subject comes up. I'm drawn to it because it's something I experienced as a New Yorker and as a journalist. And because of that, WNYC and I will always feel an extra responsibility when we revisit the event for our listeners.
Your contributions help the Dart Center nurture informed, innovative and ethical news reporting on violence, conflict and tragedy worldwide.
The Dart Center is a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.