20 years later: 680 NEWS recalls emotionally charged coverage of 9/11 attacks

By Lucas Casaletto

This Saturday, we mark a sombre 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 (9/11) terrorist attacks in New York.

The breaking news coverage won’t soon be forgotten by those working in a newsroom. Canadian journalists were reporting on what would turn out to be the deadliest terrorist attack in human history and the single deadliest incident for firefighters and law enforcement officers in the history of the United States.

We spoke to three key members of the 680 NEWS team that reported on the devastating events of 9/11, who bared the responsibility to get the rapidly evolving story to everyone around the world, at a time of no social media and the early years of cell phones. Journalists from around the world were a significant source of information when people needed it most.

They shared their personal experiences and how the tragedy shaped subsequent coverage in the years to follow.

Paul Cook – 680 NEWS morning show anchor and managing editor 

Paul recalls long-lasting memory of covering the 9/11 attacks:

Q: Did you ever think you would cover a story like this live on the air?

Never. It is one thing to be on the air when a bulletin comes in that a passenger jet with hundreds of people on board has crashed, but four of them within minutes of each other? Inconceivable, with two of the four airliners crashing into two of the most iconic skyscrapers in the world.

But then to watch those magnificent twin towers collapse in front of our eyes on the TV monitors in our control room, knowing the magnitude of the loss of human life we had just witnessed; never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined anything like that happening while we were on the air.

The world had suddenly changed forever in the middle of our show.

Q: What was it like in the newsroom covering the story in real-time?

An in-house production crew filmed the newsroom for a Rogers corporate video as the 9/11 attacks unfolded by pure coincidence. Remember, this was before phones with cameras. There were no news apps, Twitter, or even satellite radio. If you weren’t in front of a TV, and you were in your car, 680 NEWS was among the very few radio stations providing live non-stop coverage from New York via our phone interviews and CNN audio, along with updates from our reporters at potential local targets.

The in-house video cameras quickly became invisible to us as we tried to process the horror unfolding for ourselves and our listeners. If you look at some of the footage, you can see the shock and fear on our faces and in our body language.

I remember telling myself, “Just calm the f*** down. Do not scare the listeners. Just stick with the facts.”

Q: Did you realize the magnitude of what was happening at the time?

At first, none of us did. Obviously, a plane into a skyscraper is a huge story, but it wasn’t until we saw the second one hit on live television that we knew. Then we watched in horror as the twin towers collapsed and knew things would never be the same.

Two of our reporters, Carl Hanstke and Kevin Misener, drove to New York and got across the border just before it shut down. They gave us a valuable Canadian, and Toronto perspective since so many families on this side of the border were profoundly impacted.

Q: 20 years later, what is the one moment that still sticks out to you?

After all this time, the moment that sticks out for me is finally getting home and hugging my eight and 4-year-old sons tighter than I ever have before. I kept thinking how many kids will never have a moment like this again, with their mom or dad, and how you could kiss a loved one goodbye as they left for work in the morning, and that would be the last time you would ever see them.

Carl Hanstke and Kevin Misener, 680 NEWS morning show reporters

Kevin speaks to woman that escaped World Trade Center:

Carl describes surreal setting at ground zero in New York:

Q: Where were you, and what was your reaction to the news?

Carl: I was in the newsroom just after the first plane hit. I was standing watching coverage on TV when the second plane hit. Everyone screamed in shock and disbelief.

I was standing beside our news director, Stephanie Smyth, who looked over at me and said “Get to the airport!”

I ran and grabbed supplies like extra cellphone batteries (cell phones were big and clunky then and used detachable nicad batteries. I had a Nokia phone and scrounged up five batteries to take with me) and then raced home to pack. All planes were then grounded, so I jumped in my news vehicle and drove to New York.

Kevin: I was getting ready for work and heard a report on 680 NEWS about a plane crashing into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Like many people, I assumed this must be a small plane that flew off course. I turned on CNN and saw the fire and smoke and suddenly realized this was much larger, and then the second plane hit the south tower.

As I drove to work, my editor called telling me to go home, pack a bag and meet Carl Hanstke at Pearson Airport to fly to New York immediately.

WATCH: 680 NEWS’ behind-the-scenes coverage of 9/11 attacks, TV cameras caught the historic moments

Q: What were your feelings about heading to New York to cover the story?

Kevin: Flights were quickly grounded, so Carl and I jumped in the 680 NEWS car and drove 10 hours to New York, filing reports along the way; first with reaction from Americans at the border trying to get home as their country was under terrorist attack.

Honestly, I was scared. My heart was pounding and my hands were sweaty, afraid of what I would encounter trying to cover such a massive and evolving event.

But I also thought this might be the biggest story of a generation, and I knew I needed to focus on doing my job as best as possible.

Carl: I covered everything going on at ground zero and in lower Manhattan itself. I was the “eyes on” reporter tasked with describing what was going on and weave in stories, sounds, words and emotions from people and responders.

It was the biggest story and most significant challenge of my career.

Q: What were the challenges of covering the story?

Carl: There were many challenges covering the story: physical, emotional and technical. The main physical challenges were getting down there, finding a hotel room, getting to and from ground zero, and getting around Manhattan when everything was shut down. Plus, there was so much dust and smoke in the early days you couldn’t see 10 feet in front of you.

The cell towers were destroyed when towers fell, so cell signal was sporadic at best. There was also only one payphone left working in lower Manhattan, several blocks from ground zero. That meant a lot of running back and forth to do live hits on all the stations across the chain, using up all my cell batteries with no place to recharge them. I found a restaurant that still had power, and they let me plug in a charger there sometimes. When I first arrived in NYC, Manhattan was sealed off, so I could sneak in past police blockades. That was done by slipping down some side alleys. Eventually, we were allowed in and given press passes to get past roadblocks.

The biggest emotional challenge was trying not to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the situation and all that was going on and all the info to try and keep track of.

I didn’t sleep much; long days of live coverage followed by hours of reading every paper and watching every network.

Lack of sleep became a physical challenge. In 14 days, I slept maybe 20 hours total. An hour a night. Maybe. Adrenaline kept you going. It was all sensory overload. All that death and destruction concentrated in one area. It was nothing like we had ever seen before. It changed everything from how we live to how we travel. There was life before 9/11 and life after 9/11. It is the dividing line for my generation. Trying to take that all in and cover everything going on around you could be overwhelming at times.

It was the greatest teaching tool for being a reporter: When all else fails and you feel the panic rising inside because there’s so much information and you’re not sure what to say, just open your eyes and ears and describe what you see and hear and smell. Bring the listener there. Keep it simple. And breathe. You’ll be fine.

It was a lesson I carry with me today. Nothing rattles me anymore. What else could compare?

Kevin: The first challenge was that we couldn’t get over to Manhattan. The bridges and tunnels were closed. Finding a place to stay was tricky, with many other journalists and displaced New Yorkers flooding Jersey City.

We found a very low-end motel near the Lincoln Tunnel and did stories from Jersey City for two days before the city was opened up. We commuted each day using the Path Train and walked to ground zero. Access was also a challenge with closed streets and police lines. The heavy smoke and dust also made breathing very difficult; in fact, it would blot out the sun on a clear day in Lower Manhattan.

Kevin Misener (left) and Carl Hanstke (right) climb the Empire State Building the first day it reopened after the attack.

Over 11 days, we spoke to every day New Yorkers. Our colleagues back at 680 NEWS covered the big picture of what happened while we told the stories of people on the street and what they saw, how their lives were affected, and who they lost.

I spoke to a mom whose 10-year-old son saw one of the planes slam into the towers from the window of his math class. I met a teacher in an evacuation centre in Jersey City. She told me her harrowing experience of being forced to run from the Marriott Hotel at the foot of the towers just before the first tower collapsed and how she stepped over pieces of metal, briefcases and shoes.

She choked back tears as she explained how she saw firefighters carry out a woman burned. “Beyond anything I’ve ever seen before,” she told me.


Q: 20 years later, what is one moment that still sticks out to you?

Kevin: I heard many heartbreaking stories. I met Hans Gerhardt from Toronto at ground zero. He recognized my 680 NEWS jacket and said, “You’re from Toronto, so am I.”

We talked and he told me he had lost his son Ralph in the attack. He told me Ralph called him from his office on the 105th floor of tower one to say he loved him and would call once he got out. That call never came.

Hans’ grace and courage struck me amid such a horrible loss. He told me, “I know my son is gone, but I just had to come here, to be here in this place.”

A moment that haunts me to this day was when I spoke with a teenaged girl I met just days after we arrived. She was sitting alone on the steps of a church in Lower Manhattan, softly crying. She looked up as I said, “Did you know someone hurt in the attack?”

She replied, “I don’t know where my dad is…” Her dad went to work at his job in the World Trade Center the morning of September 11th and no one had heard from him since.

I was just so affected by the pain, loss and confusion in her expression. I chose not to do an interview; it just felt too intrusive. A minister from the church came out and sat with that girl to comfort her.

Kevin audio: 

Carl: Several memories stick out. One was the first time I saw “the pile” in person. It was my third day there, and I managed to sneak past police and wander down to Ground Zero.

You couldn’t see anything due to all the dust and smoke swirling around. I just followed the noise of responders working on the pile. I got close enough that I could see the floodlights through the thick wall of dust and smoke, and then suddenly, the winds shifted and carried all of the dust and smoke straight up. And there I was, standing about 60 feet from the pile. I could see it clearly and see all the responders climbing over it like ants on an anthill. This happened just as I was to go live.

To this day I have no idea what I said in that report. I just described what I was seeing, I guess.

Another vivid memory is a blonde woman wandering on the street, mumbling, “The red tie, the red tie.” This was the road being used to bring workers, supplies etc., to and from ground zero, so it was pretty busy. I saw this woman about to step into the street in front of an oncoming bus and grabbed her and pulled her back. It turns out the red tie was what a man was wearing when he fell past her office window. He had jumped rather than faced the flames. She saw him fall to his death, his red tie flapping as he plummeted to the concrete far below. I often wonder what happened to that woman. She was not OK.

It was awful. I spoke to one man and his young son who said to me, “Daddy says mommy is with the angels now.” His young, innocent face not quite grasping what had happened. It was the only time I broke down and cried during that two weeks.

I remember the flood of people leaving Manhattan. Some unlikely friendships were born that day – bankers and delivery drivers, financial wizards and factory workers who became lifelong pals. Some helped injured strangers make their escape. Others came together and worked as a team to get out and get home. They did not know each other before that day but were hugging like longtime best friends. I spoke to a few of these pairs, and it always reminds me that there is always some light that pierces through even in the darkest of times.

And finally, I will forever remember the bravery and courage of all the first responders who willfully ran into those burning towers when everyone else was running out. They died displaying the best of humanity. I remember the grim determination of their comrades who poured over that pile frantically searching for survivors, the exhausted and haunted expressions on their dust and soot-covered faces after they climbed down after 14-hour shifts. The bottom of their boots melted from the intense heat of fires still burning in the bowels of that mound of death and destruction.

I watched one fireman climb down and lean against a wall and instantly fall asleep. He was physically and emotionally spent. His buddies then came over and fell asleep all around him—one big pile of ash-coated, drained heroes.

680 NEWS digital lead Andrew Osmond contributed to this article

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