Running Toward Disaster: ‘It’s What We Do’

WMAQ Chicago's Carol Marin describes what Sept. 11, 2001, was like for her as a CBS reporter at Ground Zero in New York. When she saw the World Trade Center attack on television, she bolted from CBS News headquarters, hopped a taxi to get to the scene, figuring she could find a crew later. She was lucky she got out alive.

Today, long-time Chicago reporter/anchor Carol Marin is the political editor of WMAQ, NBC’s Chicago O&O, and the political columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. But at the time of the attack on the World Trade Center, she had moved away from her local broadcasting roots to become a correspondent for 60 Minutes and 60 Minutes II at CBS, dividing time between Chicago and New York .

On that bright Tuesday morning, she arrived at work on West 57th Street in Manhattan early — “like a classic Midwesterner,” she says — to start viewing video on a piece she was shooting.

A few hours later, she was lucky she wasn’t among the 2,753 fatalities at that site that horrible day.

When she saw the World Trade Center attack on television, she bolted from CBS News headquarters, hopped a taxi to get to the scene, figuring she could find a crew later.

In this interview with TVNewsCheck Contributing Editor P.J. Bednarski, she recounts what happened to her that day and touches on how it affected her.

An edited transcript:


 What happened when you finally got closer to the towers?   

I got down toward West Street. And I’m hitting my cellphone, like a thousand times, and it’s not going through and all of a sudden it goes through to our offices in Chicago where my producer picks up the phone. And I say, “I’m going down there.” He says, “You know there’s a rumor there’s biological warfare. Think twice.” We talk a little bit and as we’re talking, the first tower, I can see from eight blocks away, it melts … into the ground. I remember everybody around me, and me, crying out.

By the time I got down to West Street, it was filled with cinders and dust from the first collapse and I’m the only reporter who I can see. The street is filled with firefighters and a lot of stretchers next to buildings, like in anticipation of the wounded.

A firefighter approaches me and I show him my credentials. He says, “Just walk down the center of the street because debris is still falling.” I go another quarter, maybe half a block and you begin to feel, like a tremor and he screams. We’re in the canyons so we see the base of the buildings, not the tops. There’s like a fiery explosion from the bottom, like maybe a combustion of that fuel from the jetliner, and the building begins to crash down. And he screams and I turn to run. I fall. He picks me up. He tells me to kick off my high heels and we run to another building where there’s a marble wall with a kind of an overhang and he holds me against it. He covers his body over mine. I can feel his heart banging on my backbone. I can feel how hard his heart is pounding. Mine is too.

I just thought, I’ll never see my kids again. And then we realize we’re not dead. We turn around  to utter darkness. We’ve gone from daylight to something you can’t see through and you can’t breathe through.  

I put my hand to my face to try to breathe and he hands me off to a New York City police officer. And the firefighter goes on, goes back in toward the building. And I realize I haven’t gotten his name. What kind of a reporter am I? And the policeman and I walk, hand in hand through all that black until slowly, slowly, slowly the charcoal turns to light grey and you can see. A New York City firefighter pulls off his oxygen mask and throws it on me. He tells me just to breathe slowly.

I keep walking, thinking I’m going to find a news truck, just looking  for a CBS crew. And some more New York City police officers scream, “Run!”  because they think a gas main is going to blow. So I run. I get down to … somewhere … and I do a live shot with some news crew, some local news crew. I keep thinking, I’ve got to get back to the [CBS] broadcast center.

A paramedic unit drives by, I hail it, they drive me to the point where they’re going. I get out. There’s a limping city bus that has a flat tire, going back to the bus barn. I bang on the door. I’m covered with soot. The guy opens the door and I ask, “Can you take me West 57th Street?” On that kind of chaotic day, he says, “Yeah, sure; why not?”

When you arrived back at CBS, was there by then some sort of coordination about how to cover this thing?

I don’t know. I walked in. Covered in soot. Navy blue suit, silver pin. I walk into the [newsroom] fishbowl where Dan Rather broadcasts, and I walk in, in my soot covered suit, sit down and tell my story.

By the time I leave the broadcast center, I’ve done a ton of live shots and other reporting. It’s 11 or 12 at night when I leave and they tell me they want me for the CBS Morning News. But, now New York is suddenly a different place. There is no cab to catch to take me to my hotel. So I walk down to my hotel. The doors are locked and you have to show an I.D. Every rule has suddenly changed.

I get to the room. It’s got to be after midnight. I get into the shower. I jump like a scalded cat.

I look down and there’s skin missing on my toes. When the firefighter told me to take off my shoes, I ran with the kind of run-or-die adrenalin rush, you know the kind of adrenalin rush you hear about, apocryphal or not, when a mother lifts a car to save her child underneath? I ran like I never ran before in my life in what turned out to be my bare stocking feet. I just tore up my toes and I worked all day long like that. But because of the adrenalin I was working with I never felt it.

After this happened, did CBS offer psychological help, or did you seek it, or did you think you needed it?

No, I didn’t seek it. I don’t remember them proposing it. Weeks or months later I heard a terrible crash and I got scared. It was a wrecking ball taking down a building. I ran a marathon [in Chicago] a little later and that was a terrible idea because my feet weren’t healed. There’s a part of the marathon where you run over a bridge — one of those mesh bridges where you can see through the street — but when there are thousands of runners it kind of vibrates and it makes a kind of low roar. I remember feeling panicked. For a long time any kind of rumbling sound … those things just scared me. But a lot less now.

There were a lot of freaky things. I remember getting dressed one morning, the second or third day after it happened, and I’m in the hotel and the Today show is on, and there was the wife of a freelance photographer. Her husband  died that day.  She said they were outside together. They saw the plane hit the building. He said, “Look honey; I got to go.”

He gets down to West Street and she says he called her and said, “I’m OK. I’m taking pictures.” That was it. I was on West Street, too. I’m watching this on TV and I’m remembering the only other person I remember seeing that morning [other than firefighters and police officers] was someone who walked past me on my left with cameras around his neck. That must have been him. He was a block ahead of me and I made it out and he didn’t. It boggles your mind. [Photographer Bill Biggart was the only journalist to die on 9/11.]

After 9/11 there was some acknowledgement, it seems, that television news would need to be more serious in all kinds of ways. Did you ever get the idea that happened?

That’s kind of hard to answer. I had been part of my own little experiment. [In 2000, Marin anchored a much-publicized and determinedly hard-edged local newscast at CBS’s WBBM Chicago. It was a big ratings failure.] I think if 9/11 had happened before that newscast had debuted, it might have been far more successful. But I don’t know.  

A couple years ago, I wrote this for a column: This is what I came to realize. When you run for your life, all of the things you don’t need to do shut down on behalf of the thing you do have to do, which is escape.

For however many seconds or minutes it was, I didn’t turn to look back [at the World Trade Center site] to figure out what had happened. If I looked back I would have lost a second and died. I did the one thing I could do. Run for my life. In those moments you don’t listen, you don’t talk. You run.

And you don’t get the name of the firefighter.

I wrote letters to the city, looking. I praised them [firefighters]. I can’t tell you how many times I went looking for the firefighter.        

I realized I spent a lot of time trying to remember everything that happened. So I quit. You evolve. And I’m kind of breaking my rule by talking about this again, to you. Because I decided I was spending too much time thinking about it.

In the days that followed I reported on all those people who lost loved ones. And I reported on all the people who loved the priest [New York Fire Department chaplain Mychal Judge] who was carried from the rubble. So I know this. This wasn’t my story anyway.

People ask, what would you do if, God forbid, something like this happens again? I would do it again. It’s what we do. It’s not bravery. It’s what we do.

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