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Covering Catastrophe

It was 8:45 AM on Sept. 11, and New York-based broadcast journalist Robyn Walensky, BA ’88, was preparing to leave her apartment for Wall Street to cover the 9:30 opening of the stock market. Suddenly, her TV set flickered. “They must be having trouble with the signal down at the World Trade Center,” she thought. Changing channels to NBC, she was astonished to see a huge hole in the side of the north tower. “I picked up the phone, called my assignment desk editor in D.C., and asked, ‘Do you guys see this?’ ‘Go live and get down there!’ they replied. “I bolted out the door with my cell phone and tape recorder, and as everyone else was heading away from lower Manhattan, I headed directly for it. I didn’t think for one minute about my own safety.”

Walensky and more than 130 other TV and radio professionals who reported the story to the world present dramatic, eyewitness accounts of the terrifying day in Covering Catastrophe (Bonus Books, Chicago, 2002). One of five editors of the riveting book, Walensky says that the book chronicles the events of Sept. 11 in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania through the eyes and ears of broadcast professionals who were reacting to the unfolding tragedy at the same time they were trying to report on it. In Covering Catastrophe, the editors relate their own experiences as well as vignettes culled from hundreds of interviews with other broadcast professionals, including Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, and Larry King.

At the time of the disaster, Walenksy was working as a New York correspondent for Associated Press radio network and as a TV reporter for WFSB-TV, the CBS affiliate in Hartford, Conn. A broadcast journalist since graduating from GW with a double major in journalism and political science, she had covered more than her fair share of death and destruction over the years, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the crash of Flight 800, the shooting at the top of the Empire State Building, and the death of John F. Kennedy Jr. On Sept. 11, Walensky spent more than 12 hours reporting live throughout the day, carefully filtering out fact from fiction. “I can’t tell you what I ate or drank that day,” she says. “I don’t even know if I did. I only remember getting the story on the air.”

In the book, Walensky shares her own moving first-hand testimony of one dramatic moment that she was privileged to witness and record:'

“Imagine a baseball game or a big rock concert letting out, then multiply that scene by a hundred,” she writes. “That’s what Lafayette Street looked like. After the towers fell, there was this massive evacuation from Lower Manhattan. People walked in silence. There was no noise until I heard a woman wailing. It was eerie. I walked up to her and asked if she was okay. Tears were pouring down her face. ‘My husband works for the Port Authority,’ she managed to say between sobs. ‘He was in Tower One on the 67th floor, right near where the plane hit. But I just heard from someone that he’s alive and going to be coming up this street.’ And there he was, as if on cue, before I could even hand this woman a tissue. Her husband appeared, looking as if he had just stepped off the moon. He was covered from head to toe in white dust; his hair looked as if he had shampooed it with plaster. But he was alive and walking and talking. The woman started to cry even louder—her cries continuing to break the dead silence on the street. My tape recorder was rolling; it was my job. A crowd of people gathered around them. As the couple hugged, the people around us broke into applause and snapped pictures. It was the only good news I reported all day.”

Walensky says that now she considers the couple, Jeanne and Chuck Meara, an important part of her life. “A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think of them,” she says. “It was the emotional reunion that everyone wanted, but that thousands of people never got with their lost loved ones.”

Covering Catastrophe, she hopes, will serve as a history book for generations to come. “We want future generations to know how awful it really was,” she says. “I’m not a paramedic or a firefighter. I felt that this was the best way I could give something back to the people who lost so much.”

In that same spirit, Walensky and her co-editors will donate all royalties from the sale of the book to two Sept. 11 relief charities—The Citigroup Relief Fund, which provides college scholarships to the children of the victims, and The Society of Broadcast Engineers Relief Fund, which benefits the families of the six broadcast engineers killed in the World Trade Center.

When she finally arrived home at the end of the long and harrowing day, the Twin Towers were still standing on the walls of her apartment. “My walls are decorated with New York City scenes—black and whites, prints, a pen and ink drawing,” she notes in the book. “Many people talk about how beautiful the towers were, but it was people—brokers, lawyers, secretaries, sales clerks, elevator repairmen—who kept the buildings alive and vibrant. In defiance of the terrorists, I decided not to take those pictures down.”
—Jamie L. Freedman

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