First Arriving Network
First Arriving Network

My 9/11 Story – A Ringside Seat to That Terrible Day …. by Steve Marshall

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In September of 2001, I was working as a photographer and editor in the news department of an ABC affiliate TV station. My normal shift ran from 10 pm to 8 am. and my primary job was to edit together the hundreds of the various elements that make up a 90 minute morning news show.

I had gotten into bed a little late on the morning of September 11th, having worked overnight and then covered a small news story before trying to get some sleep. My teenage son was home sick that day, or else I would have slept through the whole attack. He woke me up right after the first plane hit and I went right back to sleep. He was back at my door soon afterward, telling me that a second plane had hit the other tower.

Of course at that point it was obvious that this was far more than an errant plane flying into a building. I got up and watched the first 20 minutes of TV coverage and called my News Director to see if additional help was needed to cover the local angle of the story. He told me that all news personnel were being recalled to work EXCEPT the night-side staff. They were to stay home and try to get some sleep because it was going to be a long night ahead of them.

By now, the attack at the Pentagon was making headlines, although for some strange reason, one network kept saying the attack was a car bomb at the State Department even though we could plainly see it was the Pentagon.

I tried to go back to sleep but it wasn't going to happen. Finally at 6pm I headed for the station, prepared for total chaos. What I found at the station was un-nerving. It was eerily quiet as everyone was standing around watching the story unfold on TV. The Network had taken over with a Level 1 Break-In shortly after the attack and local news was sidelined for the most part. We would be given a 10 minute time slot for a local report and that was all for the 11 pm show…and the morning show was canceled altogether. No one knew how long the Network would remain at Level 1 and in control of our airtime.

My first assignment was to head to our local airport and try to catch some interviews with passengers from a commercial airliner that had been forced to land while en route to another city. By the time we got to the airport, the passengers had been bused to a hotel for the night but the pilot was still there. Even hours after the fact, the pilot was still white as a ghost, obviously terribly shaken up. He told me he had been told via radio to sit his plane down RIGHT NOW at the nearest airport. He asked for clarification, and was told to sit his craft down right away or risk being shot down, as the entire continental United States had been declared a "no fly zone" and was given no other info. He said that the only thing that he could figure that would cause such an order was a nuclear attack on the US and when he landed, he was sure that was exactly what had happened. He actually was somewhat relieved to find out it was only a terrorist attack. We returned to the TV station for further assignment, driving through totally deserted streets, as America hunkered down in front of their TVs and waited for the next blow.

Back at the station, my instructions from the News Director were clear. I would babysit a set of 6 videotape recorders that were constantly receiving live satellite feeds from all over the world, but especially from New York. I was to review all of the video coming in for "suitability". In other words, I was to eyeball every foot of that footage we are now all so familiar with and decide what would make air and what was simply too graphic. I would be archiving the entire event as it happened, fed live from Ground Zero, Shanksville and the Pentagon.

WJET-TV newsroom

As the night wore on, more and more footage was turning up, not only of the attacks, but of the

collapses, the rescue efforts, and the reactions of the Nation.

There exists far far more graphic video footage of the attacks than you could possibly imagine. Most will likely never make air due to the shear emotional power of it.

In my opinion, the most disturbing footage came in from Afghanistan. The locals were dancing in the streets in celebration over the attacks. Right then and there, I decided it was probably a good thing that I had not been the President that day, because I sure as heck would have blown that country back into the stone age.

Late in the evening, our Live Truck and news crew that had sped to Shanksville to cover the Flight 93 crash, returned, totally exhausted. They tossed me their videotape and went home. For the most part, all we could see of the Flight 93 crash, was the now-familiar smoking impact crater, but it was enough to tell the story. It would be weeks before the true story of Flight 93 would come out.

In the early hours of the 12th, the station's General Manager came into the newsroom and pinned up a memo from the Network. It was a very sternly worded order listing about 20 different video clips that were banned from airing on the network. They were the most graphic of the footage. The list included the shots of bodies falling from the towers, close ups of live victims standing in the windows waiting for rescue before the collapse and a number of other shots that were way beyond anything we would even consider airing in our conservative small market. The order included a threat that any station airing any of these clips would be in danger of losing their network affiliation.

The "powers that be" in New York had spoken. The 9/11 attack was being sanitized for Main Street America.

I would continue to archive the footage for the next 7 days. Every foot of the video that ABC, CNN and FOX had fed to the affiliates via satellite, was safely hidden away on tape. At my station, I am the only one that has ever seen all of it.

For the most part, as I watch the replays in the run-up to the 10th anniversary, I can tell you who shot what clip, where it come from and when it was shot. It's burned into my mind. I hope someday the worst of it will be forgotten in the fog of years gone by.

…….. Steve Marshall

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