Just before United Flight 93 went down near rural Shanksville, Pa., news staffers at stations in the Johnstown-Altoona market were like those at stations across the country. They were watching the images of the World Trade Center crash and trying to figure the local angle. Little did they know their local angle would consume their lives and coverage for days, and still resound 10 years later. This is the third in a TVNewsCheck series this week on how broadcasters responded to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
For Pa. Crews, Biggest Story Of Their Lives
No television station was truly prepared to cover the horrors unleashed on Sept. 11, 2001, but big news could not happened in a more unlikely place than Shanksville, Pa., a rural coal mining speck on the map. The 73,000 people who live in Somerset County equals about how many people live in one square mile of Manhattan.
Just before United Flight 93 went down nose first into an area that once was a strip mine at about 10:07 that morning, news staffers at stations in the Johnstown-Altoona market (then DMA 95, now DMA 102) were like those at stations across the country. They were watching the images from the World Trade Center and trying to figure the local angles, as insignificant as that they may appear against the backdrop of New York.
“My initial reaction was to gather folks and have some shortened morning meeting,” said Jim Frank, then the news director at WTAJ. “I said, ‘Look, nobody knows how this will shake out. We might have no local newscast at all today.’ You got the feeling this was the kind of thing that the networks would take over.”
Within minutes at WTAJ, Frank’s day changed dramatically. “I was walking through the office with one of the videographers [Jim Sherkel], and we hear, ‘Plane down, Somerset County.’ That was something I had never heard before in my career come over on a scanner. I turned to Jim and said, ‘Did I hear what I just think I heard?’ ” It was just around 10:30.
WTAJ, the CBS affiliate, was one of three news stations in the market that suddenly found themselves thrust forward into one of the biggest stories in American history. WWCP-WATM, the local Fox-ABC duopoly, and WJAC, the Cox NBC affiliate headquartered in Johnstown, just a half hour or so from the crash scene, also responded quickly.
These were small stations that, by most accounts, performed big time. Throughout the day, even when the bigger Pittsburgh stations got there, the networks often still used their footage and reporting. For hometown viewers, they were also delivering messages from civil authorities and chasing down and dispelling wild rumors.
Reporters and others news staffer remember the exhaustion, the fear and the excitement. Although they are sometimes reticent to say it, some also acknowledge a kind of newsroom “luck” that they were the ones in a position to report a big part of the story that riveted the nation.
“I don’t think if we were a bigger station or had more equipment that anyone could have done better than what we did,” said WTAJ reporter Patrick Schurr, one of the first on the scene. “I’m proud of what we did. I guess you get kind of frustrated when the bigger stations start saying ‘This is near Pittsburgh’ and then all the networks start going to Pittsburgh reporters [on air]. I’m thinking, ‘Well, it happened in the Altoona area and we were there long before Pittsburgh stations were.’ ”
At the Johnstown-Altoona stations, news directors and producers had to figure out how to cover the crash and keep an eye on events elsewhere while giving necessary information to viewers locally.
“We were told not to use the highways so we had to inform the public about that,” said WTAJ anchor Carolyn Donaldson. “Schools were in lockdown so we had to tell parents they couldn’t come home. We were doing the kind of real-life things that were impacting people in Somerset County.”
Just as they were hearing about the Shanksville crash, reporters at all the stations chased a story at a local post office about a “suspicious” package arriving from the Middle East. It turned out to be a false lead.
At the crash scene, Schurr said there were rumors that someone had seen a missile shoot the jetliner out of the sky. Also a dead end.
Joe Little, then a reporter at WWCP-WATM, knew about the events in New York and Washington but when he heard an unusual number of fire sirens calling township volunteer fire departments into action, he knew something bad was happening at home. About then, Little heard from the desk that a plane was down around Shanksville. He was less than four miles away and he and cameraman Mike Reed were there in minutes.
Little, who now works at KGTV San Diego, was amazed to discover how little there was to see. “I can’t see a fire, let alone a plane,” Little wrote in a journal he kept.
Little’s journal details the early excitement of covering the story, but also his frustration and anxiety. His parents were scheduled to leave on a plane from Dulles Airport outside Washington at about the same time that the flight that was slammed into the Pentagon took off. He hadn’t heard from them; he was worried and at least once went back to the station car to say a prayer for their safety.
“The day wears on. It’s hot and dusty at this staging area,” he wrote. “Anytime anyone who looks somewhat important shows his or her face, we descend on them like hundreds of starving vultures on a poor field mouse. I hate my job right now.”
By late afternoon, Little learned from his brother that his parents were safe — their plane had left minutes before or after the one the hijackers chose to commandeer. He was relieved, but this early introduction to pack journalism left him cold.
“It’s funny how one reporter may be intelligent, but a group like this is completely stupid,” Little wrote. “After someone says, ‘I cannot comment on that’ several times, he’s pretty much made up his mind…. I love this job. It has its rewards. It has its drawbacks. After today, the drawbacks outweigh the rewards.”
For a while, WTAJ’s Schurr thought he might have been going to cover the crash of a small plane, like a Cessna. But as he and his photographer got nearer and saw the panicked look on the faces of rural residents huddled on the side of the road, he knew for sure it was something much, much bigger.
Schurr had to reconcile what happened — a Boeing 757 had burrowed its way into the earth — and the evidence was just a large smoking gash in a field. “I remember when I phoned in a live report the anchor asked if there was a chance of survivors because she hadn’t seen any video yet…. And I was looking at this crater, and no wreckage, and no debris, and I said, ‘I can’t imagine them finding anything.’ It was like it vaporized.”
Jon Meyer, then a reporter for WJAC in his first job, was also among the first reporters on the scene. At first he dismissed the idea that a place crash in “the middle of Nowhere, Pennsylvania” was directly connected to the terrorist events in New York and at the Pentagon. But suddenly he was at the scene, racing ahead of his photographer who was gathering up his gear.
“I ran up to this ridge and looked out over the field and I could see where some fire trucks had gathered, but there was no plane at all. I had pictured a fuselage or wreckage, and there was none of that.
“The next thing I knew I was standing a foot away from the crater. I was asking, ‘What happened? Where’s the plane?’ And the firefighters, they had dumbfounded looks on their faces and they kind of just pointed at the hole, more or less .… It was hard to imagine a jet plane could just bury itself in the ground.
“I got out my notebook to write down what I was seeing and when I went to read those notes on the air about 15 or 20 minutes later, it was scribbles. I think there was so much adrenalin and I was so overwhelmed I couldn’t even read what I had written. It wasn’t like it was bad handwriting — I didn’t write down any words.”
A decade later, many of the reporters who covered the Shanksville tragedy have moved on.
Jon Meyer is now an anchorman at WNEP Wilkes-Barre-Scranton, Pa. In the weeks and months following the crash, Meyer reported regularly from the scene. And his devotion to the story kept him at WJAC for years afterward.
“I felt I couldn’t leave it,” he said. “The tragedy became a part of me. I remember, my photographer, J.D. Kirkpatrick — he’d been around for 35 years or so — told me at the end of that first night, ‘Kid, you may not know it now but you will not cover a bigger story for the rest of your life.’ He was right, and I hope I never have to cover a story like that again.'”
Meyer thinks being so close to the tragedy changed his life. “I just realized at a young age what can happen when you decide you have to act, like we found out those passengers on that plane had done. And I realized my importance as a journalist. I got a lot of letters afterward from viewers telling me they appreciated my tone that day. I guess I sounded calm and that helped them. I never realized how what I did could affect people that way.”
Meyer also remembers the first day he was to report to work, not to the crash site. The idea of once again chasing after the small, everyday stories in Johnstown-Altoona depressed him. He called his news director who told him to take the day off.
This year, he plans to attend the memorial service with his wife, as a citizen and mourner, not, he stressed, as a reporter.
Frank, now an aide to area Republican Congressman Bill Shuster, thinks he made the right decision to leave TV journalism, not because it can sometimes be grim, but because cutbacks in the industry have made running a TV newsroom so much harder.
“Our baby daughter was about 10 months old then, and I remember going home that night, well past midnight and sitting on the bed wondering, as a new father, what is her future going to be like,” he recalled.
Today, he said, she knows something significant happened in Shanksville, and even something of the mood that day. “She knows it was a very dark time.”
Read the other stories in this Special Report here.