‘The biggest story of my life’

Pittsburgh journalists recall covering 9/11 from the studio, Shanksville and beyond

Susan Koeppen remembers exactly what she was wearing on Sept. 11, 2001: a black sweater set, a black and pink flowered skirt, and black patent leather heels.

The 49-year-old anchor for WPXI-TV’s forthcoming 4 p.m. newscast was working as WTAE-TV’s consumer reporter in 2001. While she was getting ready for work that day, a report on the radio described a plane crashing into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City.

Turning on her television, she watched another plane hit the second World Trade Center tower. Ms. Koeppen’s anxiety spiked further en route to WTAE’s office in Wilkinsburg when news came over the radio that another plane had slammed into the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., just outside Washington, D.C.

Her plan was to head Downtown and cover the attacks from an economic perspective. Instead, the station told her to find out what was happening in Somerset County.

A fourth plane had gone down there — this one in Stonycreek, near Shanksville. Ms. Koeppen and her WTAE crew were the first Pittsburgh news squad to arrive at the crash site for what would later be identified as United Airlines Flight 93, just behind a team from WJAC-TV in Johnstown. Ms. Koeppen and the rest of the world would soon learn that 40 passengers and crew members had perished when Flight 93 careened into a field in that particularly rural part of southwestern Pennsylvania.

“When you go to cover a plane crash, you expect to see a plane,” she recalled. “You expect to see flames.

“There was nothing but a giant hole, and the hole was smoldering.”

A makeshift memorial overlooking the crash site. (Courtesy of Susan Koeppen)

Nobody expected the death and tragedy that would, as current WTAE news director Jim Parsons put it, be forever “seared into our consciousness.” The day would be one that most people who were alive then can still recall in great detail — where they were when they heard the news, how they responded, where they went.

That goes for journalists as well.

It’s a job that requires being prepared to spring into action at a moment’s notice. But, in this instance, there was more to consider than having the right equipment and reaching the right sources. It was a story so big that they also had to ponder what the terrorist attacks meant for the country and, more pressingly in some cases, their own loved ones.

Twenty years later, the Post-Gazette caught up with a few current and former local media members who covered the events of Sept. 11, 2001, from their Pittsburgh studios, Somerset County and even ground zero in New York City.

‘We don’t know what to tell them’

What stands out to Stacy Smith about how the morning began was its striking similarity to the day almost exactly seven years earlier when USAir Flight 427 crashed in Hopewell.

“It was just a beautiful, fallish, summerish September day in Pittsburgh for both incidents,” said the 72-year-old former KDKA-TV anchor who recently retired after a 50-year broadcasting career.

Mr. Smith recalled essentially being on the air all day — from the morning of Sept. 11 until around midnight. His KDKA-TV broadcast wound up getting national air time on CBS due to the proximity of the Flight 93 crash site to Pittsburgh.

“No one knew what was really happening,” Mr. Smith said. “I just went through in my mind and related the basics of journalism — the who, what, when, where and why. We knew the when and where and the how, but we didn’t know the who or necessarily the why.”

As a seasoned newsman, there was “a certain calmness” that washed over Mr. Smith that allowed him to keep his emotions in check as he did his best to parse the facts of the ever-evolving situation. In his estimation from the distance of two decades later, “Pittsburgh was served well by its journalists in print and broadcast media” on that terrible day.

It wasn’t just on-air talent disseminating information.

“You have to report terrible things, but you can’t let your emotions get in the way of that because as soon as your emotions are there, you can’t work.”

Christine McMahon Tumpson, 61, of Carmel, Calif., now produces One Whirl Magazine. She was a KDKA assignment editor at the time. That day happened to be her son Max’s fifth birthday, but after starting her 8 a.m. shift, she was forced to spend the next 36 hours in the newsroom answering calls “because the phones were just going insane.”

“I gave them the information I knew, which was nothing,” she said. “They’re calling the newsroom and desperate for information. … Here they are relying on us, so much so that they’re dialing in from New York. We don’t know what to tell them.”

Twenty years later, it still pains Ms. Tumpson that she has no photos of Max’s birthday that year. She thinks, “We all got a little messed up” from trying to report the news even as the prevailing feelings of the whole country were confusion and fear.

“Our job is to stay nose to the grindstone, stoic,” she said.

“You have to report terrible things, but you can’t let your emotions get in the way of that because as soon as your emotions are there, you can’t work. I think that’s probably one of the dangers of having to work in that kind of intense environment.”

Deafening silence

Ralph Bell, 60, of Hempfield, is a retired former WTAE-TV chief photographer. Like Ms. Koeppen, he wasn’t planning on leaving the city to report on Sept. 11. That changed when Ms. Koeppen came out to WTAE’s parking lot where Mr. Bell was waiting in his news truck and instructed him to “just drive” to Somerset County.

After parking next to a cornfield, Mr. Bell couldn’t believe how quiet it was.

“We got out of the vehicle, and there is this eerie silence,” he said. “There are no planes in the air. You could hear some birds chirping. It was almost like being in church. You didn’t want to speak loudly, out of respect. I had never heard such deafening silence.”

That didn’t last long.

Left:Top: A field of satellite trucks and news vans camp out at the Shanksville crash site in 2001. | Right:Bottom: A gaggle of reporters crowd around a news conference at the crash site. (Photos courtesy of Susan Koeppen)

Art Carr, 67, of Dillsburg, and a retired WTAE satellite truck operator, also made a beeline for Somerset County shortly after 10:03 a.m., the official time that Flight 93 hit the ground. He was “probably going at least 100 miles per hour” and, like everyone else, only had a vague idea of where he was going. But once he got on the turnpike and saw police vehicles heading out in that direction, he followed them to the scene of the crash.

“When I pulled in, there was nothing there, absolutely nothing,” Mr. Carr said. “By 2 o’clock that afternoon, there was a small town. It was amazing to see what transpired.”

He and about 30 media trucks showed up that first day. He didn’t head for home until nine days later.

The land directly around the crash site became nearly impossible to gain access to once local and federal authorities showed up and began setting up a makeshift base of operation.

Ms. Koeppen stayed in Somerset County until Saturday, five days after the plane fell on Tuesday.

She and other WTAE reporters and crew members wound up staying at The Lodge at Indian Lake in Central City. Ms. Koeppen, Mr. Bell and Mr. Carr all recalled a now-legendary 1 a.m. shopping trip at the Walmart Supercenter in Somerset to stock up on food, clothes and other supplies.

Mr. Carr said they racked up a $3,000 bill purchasing everything from water to curling irons. Ms. Koeppen said it wasn’t easy finding clothes fit for television at a Walmart, but she made do with too-short jeans, khakis, sneakers that were the wrong size and “some solid sweater sets.”

Mr. Bell and Mr. Carr both remembered reporters having to relieve themselves in the cornfields before portable toilets eventually arrived on Sept. 12. News purveyors were aided by locals with kind hearts as well as both the Salvation Army and the Red Cross, who showed up on the second day with food for the famished media members, first responders and authorities in the restricted zone.

Retired WTAE satellite truck operator, photographer and editor Art Carr, now 67, Dillsburg, at the Shanksville crash site on Sept., 11, 2001. (Courtesy of Susan Koeppen)

WTAE viewers owe Mr. Carr their thanks for fixing technical issues that threatened to derail the station’s coverage plans. When the equipment in his truck refused to work properly, he had to fix it with little more than his wits and a penknife.

“We came really close to not having anything on the air that day,” he said.

Organized chaos

The journalists in Somerset County were constantly on their toes. The story evolved, and authorities on site continued to release new information at a rapid pace that was sometimes difficult to keep up with.

“It was chaos,” Mr. Bell said. “Maybe organized chaos. We were constantly flying by the seat of our pants.

“We would say, this will be the game plan for our newscast, and then someone would be doing a real quick press conference, and it would change in a heartbeat. It was too much going on and you could’ve used 10 more people to cover it.”

WTAE’s Mike Clark and Michelle Wright served as “field anchors” while Ms. Koeppen and Marcie Cipriani, now 49, gathered information. Ms. Koeppen said that on day two of coverage an assistant news director told her to come home. She refused. She still considers persuading her superiors to let her stay there to be a “big, defining moment for me in my career.”

“9/11 was the biggest story in the world,” Ms. Koeppen said. “It was the biggest story of my life and continues to be.”

WTAE’s Michelle Wright and Mike Clark. (Courtesy of Susan Koeppen)

Ms. Cipriani, who has been with Channel 4 since 2000, has her own set of memories. Taking a bus ride organized by authorities to see the crash site up close. Receiving reporting help from colleagues back in the studio, as well as assists from residents in the area and the law enforcement agencies providing the media with constant updates.

“Sometimes people don’t talk to you and give you information, but they really did, as if they wanted to make sure we knew the magnitude of it,” Ms. Cipriani said.

Mr. Parsons, then a WTAE investigative reporter, took a slightly different angle for his Flight 93 coverage. He and a cameraman wound up trudging more than a mile through nearby woods to get as close to the epicenter of the action as they could.

As they approached, they saw small pieces of debris no larger than a pencil or a postage stamp and began to smell air thick with the scent of jet fuel.

Since the area was swarming with state troopers and federal agents directing the media on where they could and couldn’t be, they decided not to risk walking somewhere that was off-limits and did their live report right there in the woods.

“It hit me when we were standing amid the wreckage,” Mr. Parsons said. “I knew as soon as we walked into that part of the woods, this sense of great loss just came over me. … I tried to describe that on camera as best I could, but words failed me in terms of trying to describe the depth of what I was feeling just standing there.”

Hell on Earth

As Pittsburgh media raced to the Shanksville area, one of their former colleagues, Nina Pineda, was running for her life in New York City.

Ms. Pineda, now 52, is a Uniontown native and consumer reporter for WABC-TV in New York City. On Sept. 11, she had been with the Big Apple’s ABC affiliate for only 10 months after spending three years at WTAE. She was no more than a block or two away from the World Trade Center reporting at the scene when the first tower fell.

“It was really like being in hell,” she said. “There was no other way to describe it.

“It became night in the middle of the morning. It was like a monster when the buildings fell, because the cloud just enveloped you, and you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.”

She ducked behind a car for what could have been seconds or minutes as the smoke storm consumed everything in its path. Ms. Pineda was coughing and sneezing, the earth was shaking, and “we ran like hell” away from the towers and back to the news truck on Canal Street.

Her feet were bleeding from running across broken concrete and twisted metal, but she and the WABC crew members with her managed to upload footage that was used around the country.

It was the only reason her parents back in the Pittsburgh area knew she was OK.

Ms. Pineda’s mom later told her that when WTAE ran her footage, anchor Scott Baker made a point to let everyone know that the video came from a familiar source and that she had survived that ordeal. The outfit and shoes Ms. Pineda wore that day are in the possession of the Sen. John Heinz History Center in the Strip District.

Although the trauma has subsided a bit over the past 20 years, Ms. Pineda still has vivid memories of watching objects she couldn’t quite make out flapping as they fell from the second tower before it collapsed and, when her cameraman zoomed in, realizing in horror that those were neckties from people plummeting to their deaths.

“It’s been 20 years, but God, it really feels like this could’ve been a week ago,” she said. “Time is supposed to heal stuff, but it really doesn’t. You carry it with you, always.”

‘Do you know where Alan is?!’

Some journalists had to bear the extra burden of worrying about loved ones who might have been lost in the terrorist attacks.

Cindi Lash, 62, of Collier, is now executive editor of Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp., which includes radio stations WESA and WYEP. In 2001, she was a local Post-Gazette reporter who rushed out to Somerset County to report on the tragedy.

Even before she left on assignment, her family had been anxiously awaiting word from her husband’s older brother, who was based in Boston and working in a position that required frequent international travel. She said her mother-in-law called early that morning and screamed, “Do you know where Alan is?!” They would later determine that he was fine, though Ms. Lash wasn’t certain of that as she headed out to the Shanksville area.

Back then, Post-Gazette reporters had to write copy for both the website and multiple print editions, including a special afternoon edition that day. Ms. Lash recalled there being very little internet connection near the crash site at first, so she had to use her “dumb flip phone” to dictate chunks of information to the Post-Gazette’s news desk. Eventually, authorities provided a cellphone bank and a stronger internet connection for everyone there.

Left:Top: The Sept. 12, 2001 front page of the Post-Gazette. | Right:Bottom: The Post-Gazette's coverage of the scene in Shanksville, including Cindi Lash's reporting from the field, in the Sept. 12, 2001 edition.

It was early into the next morning before Ms. Lash filed her print and web stories and was able to leave the scene. She ended up staying in the area at a friend’s vacation home near Stonycreek for the “better part of two weeks.” When it became clear she wouldn’t be home for a while, her husband drove over to Somerset County with supplies — and their young kids, who wanted to make sure mom was safe.

“At that point, we didn’t know if we were at war, or if we were going to war,” she said. “You didn’t know what was going on. I think it was the hardest moment of my life, to see my husband drive away with my kids that night.”

Longtime KDKA-TV investigative reporter Andy Sheehan, 65, of Squirrel Hill, had an even greater concern once he learned the World Trade Center had been hit: Two of his brothers worked there, one in each tower.

Tim, who worked in the first tower that was struck, happened to be stuck in traffic that day and never made it to work. Michael, who worked more than 50 floors up in the second tower, managed to escape before the second plane made contact.

Although his immediate family members were fine, the New York-area native had friends who died on Sept. 11.

He kept reporting from the Western Pennsylvania site and chasing down leads about how Flight 93 met its tragic fate.

But 20 years later, sometimes he’ll see the time “9:11” pop up on his digital clock and be transported back to what was “a massive tragedy unlike any I had ever seen, felt or experienced.”

“It’s a very humbling event that [reminds you] about the transitory nature of life,” he said. “You know not the day or the hour, and how important it is that you reconcile with your family and friends. They may not be here tomorrow.”

Joshua Axelrod: jaxelrod@post-gazette.com and Twitter @jaxelburgh.

Web design: Tyler Pecyna (tpecyna@post-gazette.com)