A Journalist Recalls The Transformational Experience Of Covering 9/11
Tuesday is the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed close to 3,000 people. Tragedies often make us think of first responders – firefighters, paramedics, police officers – but we rarely consider how emergencies affect the journalists who cover them.
Terry Sheridan, now WSHU’s news director, reported on the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Eric Schmid spoke with Terry about his experience 17 years later.
One of the things Terry remembers most about reporting the tragedy was the smell. He says the stench started almost a week after the attack. Terry reported at night and slept during the day.
“Not to be too graphic, but it’s the smell of decay. I get home at 6:00 in the morning, and the first thing I do is take off my clothes and put them in the washer and take a shower because I have the smell on me. I go to bed…and I still smell The Smell…I took a shower I scrubbed, I washed my hair. What could it be?”
He says it kept him from sleeping.
He realized that the smell was on his shoes.
“I had to take the shoes and put them outside so that I could get some sleep.”
Terry still has that pair of brown leather shoes. He retired them after 9/11 and they look as though he walked right through the soles.
The shoes are part of a few items Terry kept from the two weeks he covered 9/11 for 1010 WINS Radio in New York and an NPR affiliate in New Jersey.
Another item is a washcloth the Red Cross gave him to breathe through on the first day.
Other things he kept were an old model cellphone and the small recorder he used.
And his notebook.
“I haven’t actually looked at this in a long time…”
The notebook is filled with notes that Terry wrote to himself. He finds random details and facts as he flips through it.
Every so often a motorcycle cop will drive up to pick up a doctor…
And then just two words are written…Black smoke.
The first place Terry went to report was St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village. It was one of the closest trauma centers to Ground Zero.
“The block was full of thousands of people and they were all lined behind signs from hospital personnel. Blood types. A. B. O…They had just showed up to donate blood because no one knew what to do.”
The reporters were also expecting to see lots of the injured taken to the hospital. But he says that wasn’t the case. In his notes he sees a shocking revelation. No one imagined there would be so few coming to the hospital the first day compared to the thousands that worked in the World Trade Center.
Terry says the media had to be sensitive in its reporting because emotions were so raw.
"One of the things I remember…there was a press briefing from Mayor Giuliani. He said, ‘Listen this is still a rescue operation…we’re still looking for people…’”
Terry says the mayor then asked families in search of loved ones to collect any item that might have DNA on it.
“Comb or a brush or anything. And we all look at each other and go, 'They're not even finding bodies. They're finding body parts.' But we didn't say that.”
The story that sticks with Terry the most though is the day he received a sandwich from the Red Cross.
People around the country mailed in food for the recovery effort and the Red Cross fed journalists as part of that effort.
“I was a vegetarian at the time and the sandwich I got from the Red Cross was a bologna sandwich. It was from a second grader in Ohio. And there was just a note in the sandwich that said ‘I’m so sorry.’ That’s all it said.” Even 17 years later...it gets me.
Terry says 9/11 transformed his identity as a journalist.
“9/11 and that whole experience, yes it was an attack on American democracy, but it was an attack on New York. The thousands of people who lost their lives were New Yorkers. It was a New York story, it made me a New York reporter.”
Terry says for about a year after the attack, he preferred to be around people who had also covered 9/11.
He says there was an unspoken bond.
“We understood each other.”