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Peter Jennings

9/11: A Year After / WHO WE ARE NOW

September 11, 2002

Peter Jennings, 64, anchor of ABC's "World News Tonight," was on the air for 17 hours the day of the attacks.

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"I was in the newsroom when it happened, when the first plane hit, so I was steps--five feet--from the anchor desk. And I did what you always do in a circumstance like that: You sit down, you plug in and you begin to try to make sense of what is happening.

I don't need to tell you how hugely difficult and important it was for us to make sense of something that it was almost impossible to make sense of.

I've never looked at much of our coverage, but [Comedy Central's] Jon Stewart and I did a thing together several months ago called 'Irreverence in the Age of Reverence.' They showed a little bit of Jon's return to his broadcast and me on the day, which I hadn't seen before. I realized how much at sea the whole country was, when I found myself looking at myself watching the first building begin to come down. And I had no idea what was happening.

The building was halfway down before [correspondent] Don Dahler, who was downtown, said, 'Peter, the whole building is going,' and I said, 'The whole building?' That, as much as anything, is a reminder to me of how difficult it was that day to get a real grasp of what was happening.

In some respects, I think that those of us who do what I do were in a more fortunate position than other people. I've talked to thousands of people since then and the overwhelming majority of people were in some respects more affected by it in the early stages than we were, because we were so focused on what was happening.

Only once in the course of the day did I think, 'Oh, my God, I'm going to lose it here.' My kids, one in California, one in Massachusetts, called in just to see if I was OK, and I turned around and there on the desk behind me was a message that Elizabeth and Christopher had called. And I turned to the audience and said, 'You must call your kids, get in touch with your children, we must all be in touch with our children.' Ironically, that was hard, because it was suddenly very, very personal.

When 9/11 occurred, in the first couple days, it was impossible to even get out of here. And then I couldn't get out to the rest of the country for many, many, many weeks, because I wasn't allowed to go anywhere for several months.

[Later], when I got to California, I had dinner one night with the two Browns, with [San Francisco Mayor] Willie and [Oakland Mayor] Jerry and several businesspeople, and all they wanted to talk about was the economy. And it was a real eye-opener and it helped me and helped us and helped those of us who are editors make these transitions back to covering other things."

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As told to Elizabeth Jensen

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