WTC towers fell on ASU professor's first day as CNN anchor - East Valley Tribune: Arizona

WTC towers fell on ASU professor's first day as CNN anchor

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Posted: Thursday, September 8, 2011 3:29 pm | Updated: 4:50 pm, Thu Sep 8, 2011.

"Good Lord ... there are no words."

Those were the simple words spoken by CNN anchor Aaron Brown on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, as the North Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. He reported live from the rooftop of CNN's New York studios, about five miles away.

Reflecting on that day now, Brown, who teaches at ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said, "On the one hand, if you're my students, 10 years is half your life. It's a long time. If you're 62, 10 years isn't so long.

"There is a part of me that goes, ‘It doesn't seem that long ago.' Then there's another part that goes, ‘Man, a lot has happened in 10 years.' "

Whether it seems like an age ago or just the other day, Americans are reflecting back a decade ago when the actions of a few killed thousands and terrorized millions.

On that fateful September Tuesday, Brown rushed to work. It was his first day on-air as CNN's anchor. His first appearance was earlier than either he or CNN anticipated, prompted by the events of 9/11.

Stopping in the middle of 8th Avenue, Brown remembers he had to compose himself before making his way to work.

"Calm down, just calm down," Brown remembers telling himself. "Whatever is going to happen today, everything you know, everything you've been taught and everything you've prepared for, none of it will matter if you're not calm. And I felt a wave of calm come over myself as if I had said just the right words."

That day was the culmination of a lifetime of work for Brown.

"It was everything I prepared to do my whole life," Brown said. "I'm humbled, honored, that I got to do it. I wished to hell that I hadn't had to do it. That's the reporter's life. You don't want a tsunami to hit Indonesia, but if a tsunami hits Indonesia, you want to be there. It was a heartbreaking moment in my country's history and a heartbreaking moment in my city's history; and on the other hand, there was something exhilarating about being one of the people who had a chance to do it."

But he insists that it's not his story that matters, but the heroic stories of everyday people: the first responders, the firefighters, the people who chose to stay behind to help others get out.

"Those people exemplify the very best in human nature," Brown said. "The thing about firefighters is how many of them ran into that building knowing (they were probably going to die). After the first tower fell, it was only a matter of time."

As the nation pays tribute to the victims of 9/11, Brown says we should "think about those who define the best of what we produce as a country."

"They're the people who matter," he said. "Their children, in many cases, are the ones who will grow up without dads. Their families' lives were forever altered. Most of us have moved on with our lives. We think about it, but it's not like it owns us. They're different. They're not the only people who matter, but they matter. We need to make sure that we honor their loss in an appropriate way."

One of his most striking memories was what followed for a year after the attacks in New York. Tradition dictates that bagpipes be played at firefighters' funerals. But with a limited number of bagpipers, the approximate 300 funerals had to be spaced out.

"There was a funeral or more for firefighters every week for a year," Brown remembers.

Then-mayor Rudy Giuliani said of the 9/11 attacks, "The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear ultimately." These words still resonate with Brown.

"It's not that 3,000 people died, and that might seem small," Brown said. "But every single one of those people was a person. Every single soul mattered."

While Americans were grieving for family and friends, hoping for the rescue of others, there became a sense of heightened fear in the country.

"It was the first time we seemed to be attacked by foreigners," Brown said. "We saw that the oceans don't act as a moat and we can be attacked. Once we realized that notion of vulnerability, then we began to see what any open country is open to: an act of terror.

"But the whole point of terrorism is to make you afraid. It's not to just kill people, but to make the 300 million other people in the country afraid."

While many Americans worried that another attack could happen at any time, Brown said he refused to let the threat of terrorism scare him.

"I'm too stubborn," he said. "I'm going to bang that drum really loudly: Every time you change your behavior, they win a little something. They are horrible, evil, despicable people who have no problem killing innocent people without any reason other than they happen to be there."

Throughout Sept. 11, 2001, Brown did his job. He gave information to the millions of Americans who crowded around TVs. He made ethical decisions about what pictures and video to show and which to not. He worried the video of the plane hitting the tower would become "wallpaper" to the developing story. But mostly he tired to be a calming presence to a terrorized nation.

"What I tried to convey to viewers was: As bad as today was, there is going to be a tomorrow, and it's going to be better than today."

And it was.

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