I was right here, on the air. “Here” back then, was our old CBS2 studio, in Hollywood, before we moved to Studio City.
Our early-morning newscast didn’t start until 5 a.m. back then, before our current 4:30 start time. We had a live picture, before we had any details. During a commercial before 6, producer Paul Carron (still here, producing a nightly newscast on KCAL-9) said into my earbud. “There’s a fire in the World Trade Center: we have a pretty good picture from a weather camera. Ad-lib about it.” Word had not yet come down, that it was more than a fire.
Then things happened quickly. Associated Press reported that a plane had hit the tower. I can access such information from a desk-top computer, embedded in our anchor desk. The toughest thing to do during breaking news is not to say things you don’t know. So I said AP was reporting a plane had hit the tower. I said we didn’t know the size of the plane…. that it might have been a private sightseeing flight. But it wasn’t foggy, so I couldn’t wrap my brain around why a plane would collide with one of the world’s most visible buildings.
Then we heard from our New York desk, that “the plane” was a jetliner. I had the same sickening feeling I had when I anchored the launch of Space Shuttle Challenger. Only this time I imagined the loss of life would be so much greater.
My co-anchor Sophia Choi and reported about what we knew. Remember, all of this was live. I threw in some notes about the famous WTC itself; mostly touristy trivia. Our weatherwoman, Pamela Wright printed out a fact sheet of the world’s tallest buildings. I was grateful to have the background.
Then it happened. Sophia was reading some notes, when there was another explosion– this one, from what appeared to be the second tower. I don’t like interrupting coworkers ever, especially during breaking news. I felt rude. But what was happening on screen took priority. I pointed out the new explosion. Then I said there was the possibility it was the result of a power overload in the first tower, causing a transformer explosion in the second. I didn’t believe it; but anyway it didn’t matter. Seconds later an urgent bulletin flashed on my desktop computer; “Second Plane Hits Second Tower.” And in an industry where speculation is discouraged, I took a breath and decided to say we “must assume” what was happening was the result of a coordinated effort. Turns out, that was not such a risky thing to assume.
Not too long after that, the CBS network took over the coverage. CBS2 in L.A. ramped up our own coverage plans, not knowing when the network would return control to local stations. Our studio lighting was turned off –standard procedure when not in use– and I sat back in my chair and said out-loud to a now dark, empty room with no one there to see or hear me. “We’re at war.” It was my second, not-risky assumption of the morning.