9/11 – The Day We Want to Forget, Remembered by THIRTEEN Employees

September 8, 2018

Like so many companies in New York City, THIRTEEN was deeply affected by the tragic day of September 11, 2001, with both the death of a beloved staff member, and its very ability to broadcast when its core equipment within the North Tower of the Twin Towers was destroyed (the company headquarters was three miles north of the World Trade Center). THIRTEEN took action in the weeks that followed by creating new series in response to the tragedy, and turning over its office space and phone bank to the Red Cross and Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management. This was a time when WNET demonstrated its commitment to the community and lived our Media with Impact mission. THIRTEEN staff share their remembrances of September 11 and the days that followed.

Gloria Deucher, Former Director, Volunteer Resources

Gloria Deucher, Director, Volunteer Resources. Photo: Joe Sinnott/WNET

Gloria Deucher, former director, Volunteer Resources. Photo: Joe Sinnott/WNET

On September 11, 2001, I was working at Thirteen, in the same position I held until I retired in the summer of 2018. I arrived at the office on West 33rd Street just minutes after 9am. There were television monitors at regular intervals throughout the hallways. If you didn’t know what had happened before you arrived, you sure knew it as soon as you walked through the doors. I just remember people standing in groups, staring in horror. And then of course the mad scramble to get to a phone to try to get through to loved ones.

Fortunately, management allowed those of us already on site to shelter in place. As a MetroNorth commuter with no place to go (trains weren’t running) I stayed. I was grateful it was still too early for the volunteers to have arrived. I found out later that a few had been in mid-commute but managed to turn around and get home safely. Other than learning the unimaginable news that we’d lost our engineer Rod Coppola, the rest of the day is kind of a blank. When the trains started running again late in the afternoon I headed back to Grand Central. The city was deathly quiet, there was no traffic, only and occasional siren in the distance. Ash was falling on West 34th Street, like gentle snow flurries.

Over the next couple of weeks I busied myself helping support the Red Cross crew that was using our space since our own Thirteen volunteer activities were on hold. The Red Cross was a pretty self-contained effort and didn’t really need any help. So the best I could do was fetch them paper and pencils and keep the food supplies tidy. It wasn’t much but it was so much better than being home.

Thirteen hosted the wedding of two Red Cross volunteers. They had planned a simple City Hall ceremony but that was completely derailed. I think WNET President & CEO Bill Baker was instrumental in convincing them to go ahead with it there at our offices. I remember the wedding so well. I ordered the cake. Work stopped for maybe 45 minutes or so and we all gathered in the hallway near the stairwell on the 6th floor. Two wonderful young people; I hope they are enjoying a happy and successful life together.

Allison McDonald, Director, Institutional Giving

Allison McDonald, Director, Institutional Giving. Photo: Joe Sinnott/WNET

Allison McDonald, Director, Institutional Giving. Photo: Joe Sinnott/WNET

I worked in the Department of Foundation Relations in September of 2001. Like many at WNET, I worked with volunteers from the Red Cross who had moved into the station in the days after 9/11. Specifically we were working on administrative tasks to help out with calls to the Missing Person’s Hotline. Working with lists provided by several hospitals (naming people who had been admitted for treatment as a result of the attacks) our job was to compare the names of individuals who had been reported as missing and compare them to the hospital lists. Of course, the hope was that we could find some of the “missing” and provide information on their whereabouts. There were heartbreakingly few matches between the “missing” and “found in the hospital” lists.

It was sobering work and I remember the shock I felt when one of the first “missing” reports that I turned over was that for Rod Coppola, WNET’s engineer. Sadly, of course, his name wasn’t included on the hospital lists. For me, it brought home for me the full brunt of the events that were taking place. Each name on those reports was a living, breathing person who was in the midst of a full life that day. And, that morning, Mr. Coppola did the exact same thing as I did——got up and went to work for WNET. Tragically, he never had the opportunity to go home.

Meg O’Hara, Director, Media & Broadcast Operations

Meg O'Hara keeps a copy program from Rod’s Coppola's Memorial Service on her work cubby wall, alongside a photograph of herself and her son, taken during a visit to the Twin Towers in 1998. Photo courtesy Meg O'Hara.

Meg O’Hara keeps a copy program from Rod’s Coppola’s Memorial Service on her work cubby wall, alongside a photograph of herself and her son, taken during a visit to the Twin Towers in 1998. Photo courtesy Meg O’Hara.

I was already a longtime employee at WNET when the Towers fell on 9/11/2001. At that time I was the Associate Director of Broadcast Applications working in the IT department. Like most people I remember that tragic day as if it were yesterday. These are some of my memories.

September 11, 2001 was a picture perfect Tuesday with a cloudless blue sky and a brisk coolness to the air. Just a spectacular day. I telecommuted on Tuesdays back then. So unlike many of my colleagues at Thirteen, I was working, but not in Manhattan. I remember driving home after dropping my 10-year-old son at school and Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” was playing on the car radio. Indeed, it was a wonderful world.

And then it wasn’t. I received an email from a colleague at the office around 8:50 am, asking if I was watching TV. Here we go, I thought. Another email about “wearing bunny slippers and watching tv while (wink, wink) working from home.“ When I replied that I was WORKING, not watching TV, he simply replied, ‘just turn on the TV.’ And that’s the moment the “wonderful world” of less than an hour before began to crumble.

I felt an immense sense of isolation and helplessness that day as I sat in NJ while my friends and colleagues were at the office in Manhattan. Telecommunication became less and less stable as the day passed. I was already logged into terminal server so I offered to do whatever was necessary to download broadcast playlists to Master Control for upcoming days so folks at the office could head out of Manhattan whatever way they could.

I remember being devastated to learn that our broadcast engineer Rod Coppola perished that day in the WNET Transmitter facility. It was just incomprehensible and too much to bear. I remember talking with Rod’s father at the Memorial Service held in THIRTEEN’s Kellen Board Room. Witnessing the pain of their loss was overwhelming. To this day, I keep the program from Rod’s Memorial Service tacked to my cubby wall alongside a photograph of my son and me when we visited the Towers in 1998.

I remember watching Bill Moyers’ programs in the very sad days after 9/11. His conversations were a salve to the wounded soul and City.

Meg O'Hara, Director, Media & Broadcast Operations at WNET/Thirteen. Photo: Joe Sinnott/WNET

Meg O’Hara, Director, Media & Broadcast Operations at WNET/Thirteen. Photo: Joe Sinnott/WNET

I remember the pride I felt working at WNET in the days after 9/11 when Senior Management made our facility available to the Red Cross so they could use our telephone banks to field calls from people looking for information about their loved ones who were at the Towers that fateful day. To walk among the volunteers doing such good work was inspiring.

I remember those first weeks commuting into NYC in the days immediately following 9/11. The NJTransit conductors who welcomed their “regulars” back to the train with big bear hugs; and oh, how they cried when they found out about those who did not survive.

I remember the unclaimed cars in the train parking lot left behind by those who would never come to pick them up.

I remember how quiet it was on the train and on the city streets for weeks to follow.

I remember witnessing the extra kindness and humanity people extended to everyone, friend and stranger alike.

And then there were the pictures of missing loved ones hung on buildings and lampposts along the sidewalks on the walk from Penn Station to the office, then on West 33rd Street. So many pictures of the missing posted by those looking for any information about their missing mother, father, sister, brother, grandparent, spouse, friend.

Colleen Martin-O’Donnell, Associate Director, Member & Viewer Relations

View from the rooftop of Thirteen headquarters on September 11, 2001

View from the rooftop of Thirteen headquarters on September 11, 2001. Photo: WNET/Thirteen.

Colleen Martin-O'Donnell, photographed at work in August 2001. Photo by Jim Yanke.

Colleen Martin-O’Donnell, photographed at work in August 2001. Photo by Jim Yanke.

Most of Member & Viewer Relations team would arrive to the office before 8:45am to be ready for calls to start coming in at 9am. On September 11, 2001, we were all at the office at the time the first tower was attacked and were watching the television together when the second plane hit. Several of us stayed in the building while events unfolded. Mark Cataldo, Kevin O’Donnell and I went up to the roof of our building at 450 West 33rd Street, which, had been selected because of its unobstructed view of our transmitter on the North Tower. The skies were clear blue all around us – and there were no aircraft except for fighter jets roaring overhead. We saw the antenna begin to wobble and the tower pancake down before our eyes. A cloud enveloped Lower Manhattan, and from our vantage point, it looked like everything in its path was being destroyed.

Several of us stayed together in the office throughout the day, fortunate to have TV’s at our disposal to watch news reports. It was in our office that we watched Mayor Giuliani’s first press conference where he announced that “the number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear.” It is a moment I will never forget. Slowly, transit began moving again, and each us made our way home. I rode a packed F train back to Brooklyn. Going over the Smith Street bridge – the entire car of people stared at the smoldering skyline in complete silence.

Most of us were back in the office the day after – and phones were ringing. So many of our viewers at that time still did not have cable and Thirteen was their lifeline – which had suddenly been cut off. Many called just to ask if we were OK. The other strong response we received was from parents thanking us over and over again for making the choice to continue our children’s programming block that fateful morning. They thanked us for being a safe haven for their small children when every other channel was showing horrifying images. It is something I am very proud of to this day and understand even better now that I have a young child at home.

Colleen Martin-O'Donnell in a recent photo taken outside Thirteen's current location at 825 Eighth Avenue. Photo: Joe Sinnot for WNET/Thirteen

Colleen Martin-O’Donnell in a recent photo taken outside Thirteen’s current location at 825 Eighth Avenue. Photo: Joe Sinnot for WNET/Thirteen

Our staff worked every day that week, answering calls, email and letters, reassuring our members and viewers. We also volunteered to help with the Office of Emergency Management’s phone bank that was set up downstairs. We would compare descriptions of people who were missing, given over the phone by loved ones, to a list of casualties admitted to hospitals. As we went through name after name, it began to sink in that most of these people had not survived.

On the one year anniversary of the attacks, and for a few years after that, members of our staff were invited to serve as part of the honor guard at the annual Ground Zero memorial services.

Being at Thirteen on September 11th, and in the days and years to follow, strengthened my commitment and passion for public television. It helped me see the connection we had with our viewers in a different light and I have been very proud of the many fine documentaries Thirteen has presented over the years to continue to help our community remember and honor those lost and better understand the events of day none of us will ever forget.

Thirteen Viewer Responses to Broadcast after 9/11