Cat McKenzie reflects on 9/11

September 11, 2009 9:34:37 AM PDT
Memories are a funny thing. My father died four years ago, and there are things from that time that I just don't remember.In contrast, 9/11 was eight years ago, and there's not a moment of my life from that day that I can forget. I guess catastrophes are like that. They stick to you in a different way.

That day started out normal, if a little sleepy. My good friend, our assignment editor, Christine Velez and I were both assigned to work the early morning shift, so we were in the station at 3 a.m. Normally, that's an early call, but it felt even earlier because we had been at the Michael Jackson concert at Madison Square Garden the night before.

All morning, to keep ourselves awake, we would walk by each other singing tunes from the Jackson Five and giggling.

"ABC, easy as 123."

This was before the YouTube-iTunes invasion, otherwise we probably would have been playing the songs at our desk.

It was supposed to be routine day; the Republican primary. Those kinds of days in news usually work like clockwork - important when you're tired from the night before.

It turned out to be anything but clockwork. When we got the first report of the a plane hitting the World Trade Center, I looked at Christine's face and I knew this wasn't any normal breaking news situation. She was getting crews out the door faster then I've ever seen. I went to my boss, Kenny, and asked, "Where do you want me?" I remember him looking me in the eye and saying we need to get this on the air as soon as possible. Off I went running, tripped and fell and skinned my knee and arm on the carpet. I rushed into TV-14, our control room. The scars from that fall have almost faded.

You all know the rest. I can still hear our morning anchor calmly talking about what was going on. As a producer, in the control room during breaking news, you get into a rhythm of act-react-what's next. And usually these things last an hour at most - but this kept going.

Act-react-what's next?

Another plane.

Act-react-what's next?

More people kept coming into the control room to help us. It was a strange mix of people who worked the early mornings and people who worked the evening shift suddenly working together. Names were missed, but the seriousness of what was happening was on everyone's face. I remember our director, Frank, turning to me and saying, "This is our Pear Harbor." I remember a chill going up my spine, tears coming to my eyes. Act-react-what's time for that.

We were faced with strange challenges. In many ways, we had to do news "old school." Phones didn't work, so reporters were calling in from PAY PHONES. IFB worked in spots, but not always. The brand new Nextel system that everyone loved - NOT WORKING - how would we cue reporters? How would we know if they were ready? Still, somehow we managed, and by TV standards did well - but doing a good job at work somehow felt uneasy - I felt guilty about being good at my job when my job was covering the loss of so many lives. I still do feel guilty. The Peabody Award that we won that day isn't up on my wall - I gave it to my mother, but told her never to put it up. It seems crazy to get an award for doing a good job covering such a devastating tragedy.

One of the things that always sticks in my mind and brings a little smile to my face is me and Chad Matthews - then our 11 p.m. producer - now one of our executive producers, taking bites off the same sandwich. Now if you know Chad, you know how peculiar this is. He's one of those guys who looks great because he watches what he eats and not to mention is very, very neat.

We had a phone report early on from Joe Torres. He was great on the air, and when he signed off, he said he was going to talk to a police officer who was in the area and he would call back soon. It was hours before we would see or hear from him again, and during that time, his wife Fran called the control room asking where her husband was - was he OK? That was one of the few things that broke me out of my rhythm. I remember thinking, was he OK? Was everyone OK? Would everything ever be the same again? I need to get word to my Mom in Minnesota that I'm OK. OK, back to the rhythm, act-react-what's next.

Hours later, when Joe Torres did a live report, I remember calling the desk to make sure his wife was watching. Could we get a message to her? Of course, she was watching.

Strange enough, I remember hearing about the plane in Pennsylvania and telling our anchor to voice-over video about it, not believing it was connected to what we were doing at the time. Act-react-what's next.

As video poured in from our reporters, as I watched Jeff Rossen walk with the mayor, covering his mouth from the dust, as I watched Nina Pineda and Lauren Glassberg and Jim Hoffer crouch behind a car for safety, I stayed in my rhythm - act-react-what's next. How do we cover this? How do we tell people what is going on when we don't really know ourselves? When will this nightmare be over? How can we help keep people safe?

I didn't realize what a rhythm I was in until Sandra Bookman came into the control room with band-aids, because my arm and my leg had blood all over them from my spill eight hours earlier. Didn't I notice, she asked? I said no.

I stepped outside for the first time since 3 a.m. when I left work at 8 p.m. In my mind, the concert that was so important that I had saved up for months for a ticket was now a faint memory. The opposite of a "happy ending movie." The concert was in black and white. Christine and I joking around that morning, in black and white. The planes crashing into the buildings, the buildings coming down, in technicolor. Christine finding out that her brother, an NYPD Officer, was alive, in technicolor. Us hugging each other tight as we said goodbye, knowing we would see each other in just a few hours back at the office, in technicolor. They are burned images and feelings from a day that changed the world, a day that I will never forget.

Catherine McKenzie