NPR Journalists Reflect: Sept. 11, Then And Now

Ten years ago, Americans watched in horror as their nation came under attack. In the hours that followed, NPR reporters and hosts scrambled to report on the tragic news of the day. We asked several of them to look back on the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and describe what stands out to them now, a decade later.

  • Tom Gjelten: A Humbling Moment

    Tom Gjelten, who covered the Pentagon on Sept. 11, now reports on global security and economic issues for NPR.

    Every reporter can expect to be humbled at one time or another. My moment came at about 9:45 a.m. on Sept. 11, as I was on the air live from the NPR booth at the Pentagon. An airliner had just struck the building in which I was sitting, but it was on the opposite side, and I was unaware of it until Bob Edwards, the Morning Edition host, delivered the news himself from the NPR studio over in downtown Washington.

    "Tom, there's a report that there's a fire at the Pentagon," Bob said, "and you're there."

    "You know, I just walked in [to the booth]," I stammered, "and there was, uh, absolutely no sign of anything."

    An announcement over a loudspeaker outside my booth at that moment, however, was getting my attention. "Just as we're talking now, Bob," I said, "I can hear [the public address system] saying all personnel should, I think they're saying, leave." I had been speculating on air that the White House may have been hit, but then I saw Pentagon police running up and down the corridor.

    "Clearly, something is happening here as well," I reported. Minutes later, I had to vacate the NPR booth and join the 23,000 other people herded out of the Pentagon.

    In hindsight, my dominant thought is how unprepared we all were for that moment. Just a month earlier, the CIA had famously cautioned that Osama bin Laden was "determined to strike in the U.S.," but similar warnings had come before and had not significantly shifted the priorities of U.S. policymakers. George W. Bush had campaigned on a promise of being "the education president."

    War was far from all of our thoughts. NPR at the time had only a minimal investment in Pentagon coverage. In the fall of 2000, we had left the military beat almost unattended in order to devote more resources to the presidential election campaign. Apart from the bombing of the USS Cole in October, there had been little to report on the national security beat.

    The arrival of Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary in early 2001 aroused new interest, but mostly because of his determination to shake things up at the Pentagon. My last story before Sept. 11, airing the morning of the attacks, featured Rumsfeld's criticism of the "bloated bureaucracy" at the Pentagon.

    Two days later, the U.S. military was preparing to go to war in Afghanistan. Nothing has been the same since. War became the overriding theme of George W. Bush's presidency, and the need to follow through on U.S. security commitments has constrained Barack Obama in ways he found unavoidable. Counterterrorism efforts and the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have drained the national treasury, cost the lives of more than 6,000 U.S. servicemen and women, and reshaped American ideals. Where NPR once covered the Pentagon and intelligence agencies with a single reporter, we now have an entire national security unit, with a full-time editor and four correspondents.

    On this anniversary, I recall the blue skies over Washington on that calm September morning, the last day of our relaxed pre-war lives. I walked into the Pentagon at 9:15 a.m., about 10 minutes after the second tower had been struck in New York, but the sign at the guards' station at that hour still indicated "normal" alert level. Ten years later, we have yet to regain that status.

    This feature requires version 9 or higher of the Adobe Flash Player.Get the latest Flash Player.

    Tom Gjelten talks to NPR's Bob Edwards on Sept. 11, unaware a plane has hit the Pentagon.

    This feature requires version 9 or higher of the Adobe Flash Player.Get the latest Flash Player.

    Gjelten reports on the scene after being evacuated.

    Return to top

  • Jacki Lyden: Bearing Witness

    Jacki Lyden, a frequent substitute host, was the first NPR reporter on the air from New York on Sept. 11.

    I was working in Brooklyn, N.Y., that day, and probably there is no single moment I've been asked about more in my time with this network than this one, as I stood looking out the window toward where the towers had been.

    "The nightmare continues to unfold," I told Morning Edition's Bob Edwards. "Every street is now gridlocked with traffic; subways are shut down. There are reports of difficulty crossing the bridges, especially, of course, impossible by car. ... Thick, gray clouds of smoke where the World Trade Centers used to be. Frustration over obtaining reports on casualties. The hospitals have not been able to coordinate. ... I think my plan, after we talk, will be to try to bicycle into the city to get more information."

    Everything that morning was infused with both unreality and clarity. If I wanted to report the story — and I did — then I had no choice but to turn the entire network into a ham radio operation; for by the time I said those words, I had neither Internet nor phone access to Washington. If I wanted my colleagues to have any idea where I was — well, now they knew. Maybe my friends and family would hear where I'd gone.

    On that bicycle, I found a great city imbued with extraordinary quiet, the sort of silence that almost lets you hear your breath. I saw, pushing my bike the wrong way on the Manhattan Bridge, things I'll never forget: faces grimed in ash and soot, faces that were stoic, stunned and in shock. Mostly, people helped one another. People streaming from the city made me think of a flock of birds arising: the sudden migration of then to now, from morning to afternoon, from Manhattan to the outer boroughs, from 9/11 to everything after.

    I rode my bike as close to the craters of ground zero as I could before smoke made it impossible. I was about to inhabit a new world, along with everyone else. In the days that followed, I felt useful. I'd sleep in the early evening, and at 2 a.m. make my way to ground zero by subway, walking down from Canal Street. Every day, as the sun came up, I'd talk again to the country, secure on the NPR airwaves — my home of many years — talking about what I saw: the workers walking into the smoldering tangle of steel beams; the helpers serving coffee at the periphery; the anxious relatives, searching the posted handbills for information about the missing.

    And for all the loss, for all the blitz that had befallen not only New York but the entire country, I was never prouder than spending a small portion of my life telling that story, bearing witness. I was proud of my city and my neighbors and my country — proud, too, of my local firehouse, where no one came back. I was proud then, and I'm proud now. And I never look out that window without thinking of them.

    This feature requires version 9 or higher of the Adobe Flash Player.Get the latest Flash Player.

    Jacki Lyden describes the scene in New York on Sept. 11.

    Return to top

  • Noah Adams: 'A Nation Breathing As One'

    Noah Adams, who hosted All Things Considered on Sept. 11, is now a contributing correspondent for NPR's National Desk.

    Back in early summer of this year, I had a chance to talk with NPR listeners in central Kentucky. They always want to know, "What was the best thing that happened to you on the air?"

    It was a bright morning in the Bluegrass. Supporters of WEKU Richmond had gathered to hear me talk a bit and ask some questions. At the risk of dampening a Saturday morning brunch mood — including country ham biscuits — I asked, "Who was listening to NPR on Sept. 11?"

    Lots of hands went up and, to be sure, you could hear people take in a deep breath — now we have arrived at something important.

    "I was on the air the afternoon of 9/11." Robert Siegel, Linda Wertheimer and I had started All Things Considered and stayed on the air for hours, just talking.

    Now no one was smiling. They were, to a person, recalling where they were that day, how they heard the news from New York; then Washington, D.C.; then Shanksville, Pa.

    And then the long days to come. We sat behind our microphones in Studio 2A, checking with staff reporters, NPR member stations around the country, and we talked with as many listeners as we could. Many people had been away on 9/11 and were trying to find a way to travel without airplanes. NPR became their home base for information and reassurance.

    Our network marked its 30th anniversary in May of that year. Thirty years of building a community of listeners. And I was always aware of their presence and trust in the time following 9/11. I could be talking in the studio and sense a nation almost breathing as one.

    As I explained this to the WEKU members, I could see people nodding, smiling. It was an experience we shared by way of radio, and the memory helps sustain us.

    This feature requires version 9 or higher of the Adobe Flash Player.Get the latest Flash Player.

    Noah Adams interviews a witness to the World Trade Center attack on Sept. 11.

    Return to top

  • Robert Siegel: How We've Changed

    Robert Siegel, now senior host of All Things Considered, hosted the show and reported from New York on Sept. 11.

    What stands out now, 10 years later?

    First, we are, as a country, far more engaged with Islam — with Muslim countries and with Muslim Americans — than we were before. The negative reactions to that engagement — opposition to mosque construction and hysteria over the alleged rise of Shariah in the United States — get the most attention in the media, but the positive reactions are at least as deep.

    It is now commonplace to speak of what Americans do and hear in their churches, synagogues and mosques. The stories that lead news programs and appear on the front pages are to a remarkable degree about Muslims and Muslim countries. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have exposed the military to Muslim societies in ways it had not been exposed before. Of course, the U.S. had contact with Islam and substantial immigration from Muslim countries long before 9/11, but I think that Islam only moved to center stage in the nation's attention just after it.

    Second, we now know what life is like during a prolonged conflict, actually two of them, with a professional military that is backed up by reservists and the National Guard. Military communities have experienced a dramatically different decade from civilian America. Americans in uniform have known multiple deployments, loss of loved ones, civilian careers interrupted and an epidemic of post-traumatic stress. The rest of us have known few threats to our well-being and a wartime "homefront" where we have not been asked for even economic sacrifice.

    Third, we have traded away our sense of efficiency for security. I am reminded of air travel in the old Soviet bloc, which was maddeningly slow and bureaucratic compared to our in-and-out experience of an airport. Now, we're getting there. We are also accustomed to metal detectors and ID checks in workaday circumstances where they would have seemed paranoid 10 years ago.

    This feature requires version 9 or higher of the Adobe Flash Player.Get the latest Flash Player.

    On Sept. 11, Robert Siegel talks with volunteers at Bellevue Hospital in New York.

    Return to top

  • John Ydstie: Finding 'The Courage To Act'

    John Ydstie reported from Pennsylvania on Sept. 11. He currently reports on the global financial crisis and serves as a frequent guest host.

    In the midst of al-Qaida's 9/11 assault on the United States, a small group of courageous Americans mounted the first counterattack. They boarded United Airlines Flight 93 in Newark that day, bound for San Francisco, unaware of the ordeal they would face. But, over the woods and fields of Somerset County, Pa., they rose up to challenge the four hijackers who were guiding the Boeing 757 toward Washington, D.C.; their target, almost certainly, the Capitol building or the White House.

    No one knows exactly what happened on that plane that day. We do know, through telephone conversations between the passengers and people on the ground, that the passengers had organized to fight back. Stirred to action by Todd Beamer's words, "Let's roll," they engaged the hijackers, apparently attempting to storm the cockpit.

    In the final minutes, the cockpit voice recorder reveals a struggle. Voices in English yell, "Let's get them," and, "In the cockpit. If we don't, we'll die." A hijacker prays, "Allah is the greatest." More scuffling, then a voice in English: "Turn it up," followed in Arabic by "Down, down ... pull it down, pull it down ... Allah is the greatest." Seconds later, the recorder goes silent. Whether the passengers got into the cockpit and wrestled for the controls, or whether the jet was flown into the ground by one of the hijackers, remains unknown.

    In any case, when I arrived at the crash site near the tiny hamlet of Shanksville, after a furious drive from Washington, I expected to see more than the slightly smoldering trench at the edge of a reclaimed strip mine, just where an open field melts into a stand of hemlock trees.

    I'd been stunned that morning by the scenes on television from New York as the World Trade Center towers crumbled. From my desk at NPR, I'd seen the smoke rising in the bright blue sky over downtown Washington as the Pentagon absorbed the impact of another hijacked plane. I was quickly dispatched to cover the reported crash of a fourth plane in Pennsylvania. But here I was, standing on a hill above the crash site, staring at a smoldering ditch with no recognizable sign of an aircraft: no looming tail section, no twisted wing fragments, no seats, no luggage. The aircraft had been shredded into small pieces and the passengers largely vaporized by the impact and explosion.

    Partly because there were no striking pictures, the story of Flight 93 was overwhelmed by the powerful images from attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, both iconic symbols of American might. And, of course, the loss of life in those two places was far greater than the 44 lives lost in the bucolic Pennsylvania countryside.

    But in the dark days and months after 9/11, the story of the passengers on Flight 93 uplifted a country trying to regain its footing. We got to know them: a former policewoman, a federal fish and wildlife agent, several emergency medical technicians, an activist for the disabled ... people not unlike each of us who, though they faced almost certain death, found within themselves the courage to act.

    We found in them the fortitude and the resilience that we needed to move forward.

    This feature requires version 9 or higher of the Adobe Flash Player.Get the latest Flash Player.

    John Ydstie describes the scene near Shanksville to NPR's Noah Adams on Sept. 11

    Return to top

  • Scott Simon: 'A Strong, Steady Light'

    Scott Simon, host of Weekend Edition Saturday, hosted NPR's coverage in the early morning hours of Sept. 12.

    I was getting a haircut. My wife, who not long before used to rollerblade all through Chinatown and Little Italy, from where she would look up at the Twin Towers, found me in the hair salon (this was before we had cell phones — which we got because of 9/11) and told me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. All I could think was that a small private plane had lost its bearings — something like that had happened to a Lake Shore Drive skyscraper in Chicago when I was a kid — and I told her, "Oh, darling, that's tragic for the pilot, but you'd be amazed how sturdy those buildings are."

    Within minutes, the second plane hit the second tower. Then a plane plowed into the Pentagon, and another in Shanksville, and my first enduring image of the days to follow was of all of us in the salon bolting up in our black smocks, spilling hair, and just walking out to look for our loved ones. Claudia, the proprietor, was locking up, crying in confusion, and just told us, "Get out. Pay me later. Stay safe."

    For the next few nights, the crew of our show was called in to be on the air overnight. Millions of Americans were anxious and sleepless. Thousands of travelers, grounded by the nationwide cancellation of air travel, were driving across the country in spontaneous groups of strangers to get home. It was a time when all of us felt the need to do something, and we were glad to be able to be a strong, steady light on the dial in those times, opening the lines to people across the country. We were glad for the chance to talk and listen.

    The next day, producer Peter Breslow and I went down to the area surrounding ground zero. We rode with a New York police sergeant, a woman. The air was gray, wooly, thick and itchy. As we got closer, I realized that we were traveling on a scorched gray landscape of what had been in the towers at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 11: newspapers, office papers, bagels with a schmear, shoes, shirts, tacked-up family photos, and bits and pieces of humanity. The New York police sergeant had friends who had died on the site. We were all in tears, but I took out a pocket handkerchief and handed it to her so that she could daub her eyes while she drove. She laughed a little at the scene of a citizen handing a handkerchief to one of New York's Finest.

    My wife and I hadn't had our children yet. I think this is the first anniversary that they'll notice, and I want them to know that in addition to 9/11 being a crime and a tragedy, it was also a time of bravery, sacrifice and consideration.

    This feature requires version 9 or higher of the Adobe Flash Player.Get the latest Flash Player.

    Scott Simon talks to listeners who called in during the wee hours of Sept. 12.

    Return to top

Related NPR Stories

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.