That day in September

On the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, we republish a Walkley Magazine piece from Summer 2002 by Mark Riley, then New York correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Riley was in a playground with his son when planes struck the World Trade Center, but he was soon on the streets reporting. Here he explored the difficulty of providing accurate information in a world that had changed forever. Cartoon courtesy of Mark Knight, Herald Sun Cartoonist.

My 22-month-old son noticed the plane first. “Dadda,” James said, as I placed him on top of the slippery dip at the Hippo Playground in Manhattan’s Riverside Park. “Up-up-up!”
We both stared into the endless blue of an early autumnal sky as the up-up-up (his word for plane) went zooming in a low arc over the corner of New Jersey, across the river to our south, and quickly out of sight.

I still don’t know whether that plane was United Flight 175 in the moments before it slammed into the south tower of the World Trade Center. But within seconds, the chorus of sirens that had begun minutes earlier as just the usual New York City birdsong burst into a frantically discordant symphony that indicated something was terribly wrong.

A nanny came into the playground and breathlessly informed the parents, now huddled by the sandbox as fighter jets buzzed overhead, that a passenger plane had flown into one of the Trade Center towers.

A mother I’d been chatting with just minutes earlier suddenly turned white as a sheet.
“My husband’s on a flight to Michigan for business!” she said, scooping up her daughter and hurtling towards the gate.

James and I followed. By the time we reached our apartment and turned on the television, both towers of the Trade Center were on fire and all three of our telephones had messages from incredulous night editors muttering in utter disbelief at what had happened.

For those first few hours, teams of reporters hit the streets covering what was essentially the biggest police rounds story imaginable.

I had the great benefit as a young cadet of working under the tutelage of Tom Barrass, an exceptional police roundsman of the old school, one of journalism’s most gifted and lyrical yarn-spinners, and a legend in the colourful annals of the Australian Journalists Association’s unwritten history.

The most difficult aspect of filing that morning, apart from the practical battle to get a phone line out of the city, was in determining what was established fact amid the sea of credible hearsay that filled the void left by the absence of reason.

Tom’s simple advice as we belted out of the office of The Newcastle Herald a dozen times to cover pile-ups, shootings, fires or some other calamity on deadline was always: “Look, listen, find a phone and file fast!”

Tom passed away in May after 70 hard-bitten years, but he would have been proud of the Australian newspaper contingent in New York on September 11. Most of us filed instantaneous pieces of observational journalism that attempted to describe what we saw and heard in a way that related the extraordinary feelings of fear, disbelief and sudden vulnerability filling the city streets.

The most difficult aspect of filing that morning, apart from the practical battle to get a phone line out of the city, was in determining what was established fact amid the sea of credible hearsay that filled the void left by the absence of reason. Indeed, anything appeared credible amid a backdrop of such human horror.

No one had any idea how many people were stuck inside the World Trade Center towers when they came down. An estimated 50,000 people worked in the buildings at peak times, but the first strike had come at 8.48am while most people were still wending their way towards work in the subways or on the buses. The stock markets don’t open until 9.30am, so there is no need for most traders to be at their desks before about 9.00 or 9.15am.

It was also known that hundreds of firefighters and police officers had rushed to the buildings to help those inside, performing the inconceivably brave task of running up the stairs while everyone else was running down for their lives.

Most journalists, myself included, opted to avoid any specific numbers, reporting only that the death toll was likely to be in the thousands. There was nothing more verifiably precise than that, and this was no time to start guessing about numbers.

Those among the international press corps who had run with the reckless estimates of up to 20,000 dead that were spurted by the fast-and-loose cable TV news channels would now read their copy in abject embarrassment.

That brings to mind another thing Tom Barrass would say when asked for advice on uncertain elements of a story: “M-m-mate,” he’d stutter, beneath a cloud of cigarette smoke. “If in doubt, leave it out.”

It’s an axiom that would serve all journalists well.

It was a morning for stream-of-consciousness narrative that wove in the voices on the street in a way that conveyed the astonishing and terrifying events unfolding before our eyes.

Those of us on the ground in Lower Manhattan that morning quoted witness accounts of people hurling themselves from the buildings in the moments before they collapsed. They remain the most chilling images of that day, alongside the thankfully shelved footage of Flight UA175 spearing into the south tower.

We interviewed firefighters and police officers, paramedics and doctors, and added the utter incredulity of office workers, who all seemed to be frozen in the street, staring at the dark pall of smoke rising from where their city’s most recognisable twin landmarks had stood.

It was a morning for stream-of-consciousness narrative that wove in the voices on the street in a way that conveyed the astonishing and terrifying events unfolding before our eyes.

In the weeks since the attacks, the challenge of sifting the truth from rumour and supposition has only become tougher for the legion of foreign correspondents operating out of New York and Washington.

Without the sort of access to the bureaucracy enjoyed by the leading US newspapers, it is always difficult, and often impossible, to get confirmation of anything other than the most pedestrian facts.

There is the problem, too, of dealing with a government that is attempting to control information on three fronts: its war against terrorism in Afghanistan, its battle against the anthrax outbreaks domestically, and its continuing investigations into who was behind the hijacked plane attacks on the World Trade Center, Pentagon and the crash of a fourth passenger jet in Pennsylvania.

The American media has been forced into a position of virtual self-censorship, acceding to sweeping agreements that preclude the broadcast or publication of statements from Osama bin Laden or his Al-Qaeda operatives on “security” grounds.

News organisations have accepted without a whimper a slew of profound changes to the flow of information in this country that, in more moderate times, would surely have set a herd of First Amendment lawyers stampeding towards the US Supreme Court.

But probably the greatest challenge in covering a story like this is in maintaining that protective professional barrier that somehow allows us to view fierce reality through the security of abstraction.

It is enormously difficult to affect that distance as a foreign correspondent at the best of times. The line between life and work is continually blurred to the point where the parallel existences merge into one.

My family’s life has been changed profoundly by the events of September 11. We’ve lost a neighbour, a touch footy partner, a golf buddy’s best friend. We keep bumping into funeral processions as we wander down Broadway to the local diner. The faces of the many neighbourhood locals who died are plastered in store windows and on the big red doors at the entrance to our precinct fire station. We know children who have only a helmet by which to remember their firefighting fathers.

We fly a Stars and Stripes out our son’s bedroom window. He was born here in New York and is a dual US-Australian citizen. It has become clear to me now that it is his world I write about each day as I file my dispatches via email to Australia.

It is a new and uncertain world that lost a cherished element of innocence the moment the “Up, up, up” flew overhead.

Mark Riley is the Seven News Political editor.