September 11th, 2008
08:50 PM ET

Keeping everyone connected as the phones went down

Editor's Note:
We are devoting many posts today to the anniversary of 9/11, with first-hand accounts, insight, and commentary dedicated to that day seven years ago that changed our world.
[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/09/11/art.911nycmemorial.jpg caption="Memorial today at the World Trade Center towers site."]
Jonathan Wald
CNN Producer

I was about to go to bed after pulling an all-nighter. I had just put the finishing touches to my project – the final requirement of a postgraduate journalism degree – when my brother called me from London and told me to turn on the television. I sat in front of the television with my grandmother, both of us transfixed by the unfolding events.

I struggled to comprehend what I had just seen. Any tiredness was replaced by agitation. Struck by an overpowering sense of helplessness I left the apartment block. I tried to give blood but hospitals turned me away, as they were afraid I might be incubating mad cows disease, having lived in the United Kingdom during the late 80's. I tried to act as a volunteer but volunteer groups turned me away, as they already had enough people to fulfill their needs.

The last place I felt I could be of some use was CNN's New York bureau, where I had been an intern for two months. I walked across town through the endless blare of emergency sirens. The office I walked into was virtually unrecognizable. Only a week earlier, we had released a piece looking at how it had essentially been "a no-news summer" with the disappearance of Chandra Levy saturating CNN's coverage. Now, every person was scribbling, typing, dialing, running and shouting – not in rage but so as to be heard over the accumulative noise of the newsroom.

In the face of the most traumatic news event to ever confront the bureau, it was running at maximum efficiency. For my part and I believe for others, this was a personal as much as a professional necessity. We all knew people who could be in or around the World Trade Center when the towers were struck and collapsed. The only way of dealing with our worst fears was to throw ourselves wholeheartedly into our work.

But as an intern what would my work be now? The moment I came into the view of the assignment desk, a voice called out to me, "Jonathan, deal with line number 2." On the other end of the phone was the wife of a New York fireman, struggling to contain herself. She couldn't contact her husband and the last she saw of him was in some CNN footage as he hurtled, atop a fire truck, towards the burning towers. There were several others like her who caught a glimpse of their relatives in our video and reached out to us in a desperate attempt to trace them. I fielded many of their calls, building a database of people who ultimately had suffered an awful loss or a narrow escape. In the case of the woman I first spoke to, the video proved to be the last she saw of her husband.

The uncertainty and insecurity extended to our own staff. Communication was at a premium as the volume of calls in the city overloaded and crashed the cell phone networks. A giant white board at the center of the newsroom would chart the locations and last time of contact for all our colleagues around Ground Zero. It was an exercise that assumed an increased sense of urgency after the collapse of the towers. We breathed a collective sigh of relief as they all eventually called in.

The grim reality of what had happened became increasingly vivid as tapes flowed back into the bureau. One in particular caught the attention of everyone in the newsroom. It showed a plane slicing into one of the towers more closely and clearly than any other video. Everyone stopped what they were doing and huddled round the same monitor to view it. At the point of impact one producer standing next to me took a sharp intake of breath, her eyes welled up and she bit her lip. After pressing her eyes shut, as if to suppress the image, she returned to her work. For it was all she could do.

In the small hours of the morning before sunrise I waited outside the main newspaper depot and gathered their first reactions to the events of September 11th. All blazoned with declarations of war and tragedy I ran them back to our round-the-clock live position with a view of Ground Zero smoldering in the background.

The streets were barren and still, save for the occasional, lingering siren. The acrid stench emanating from the wreckage of Ground Zero, had begun to fill the air and would remain heavily for weeks to come. I walked back to my grandmother's apartment and lay on the bed for several hours, unable to sleep, before returning to work.

soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. VincentNYC

    i remember that smell vividly – almost forgot about it until i read here

    September 11, 2008 at 10:02 pm |
  2. Alex

    what it was like to answer the phones at work that day, ill never know. thank you for sharing Jonathan

    September 11, 2008 at 9:47 pm |
  3. Sarah Whitley

    i cant even imagine being an intern in the middle of all of this

    September 11, 2008 at 9:24 pm |
  4. Frank Stevens

    Wow Jonathan, thank you for sharing! What a crazy few days that must have been

    September 11, 2008 at 9:01 pm |

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