Anchors Ernie Anastos, Bill Ritter, and Chuck Scarborough Relive Their Most Difficult Professional Challenge–9/11
Despite working their famous calm exterior, some of New York’s veteran anchors endured emotional pain, tears, and a personal scare in covering that catastrophic Tuesday ten years ago.
The tragedy of 9/11, which of course started in the morning, was one of those rare breaking news stories when nighttime anchors were pressed into action.
One by one, the highest of high-profile anchors were on the air at the height of the disaster.
We begin our special Fishbowl series 9/11: New York Remembers by reexamining the 9/11 attacks with the Holy Trinity of New York anchors: Ernie Anastos, WNYW/Channel 5 (then with WCBS/Channel 2), Bill Ritter, WABC/Channel 7, and Chuck Scarborough, WNBC/Channel 4.
Bill Ritter, who lives in Manhattan, had the easiest trek to WABC’s Upper West Side studios. He got a call from his producer after the first plane struck the north tower at the World Trade Center. Even before knowing the full extent, Ritter was making his way to WABC.
Thanks to a short commute, Ritter (above, with Diana Williams during WABC’s 9/11 coverage) was on the air just after 10 a.m.—meaning he was describing to viewers as the second tower imploded.
“It felt so numb,” Ritter admits. “I can remember everything as though it were yesterday. And yet if I really think about it, it all sort of seems like one big fog.”
For Ernie Anastos, his typical morning routine pointed him to the unfolding tragedy.
“It was meant to be,” Anastos recalls. “I turned on that TV and—whoa!”
Once the second plane hit and it wasn’t just a horrible accident, Anastos called the WCBS news director who suggested that he hustle into work.
“I was really concerned, if I would be able to get to the studio,” Anastos says. “I was concerned because it was on the West Side.”
Not surprisingly, Anastos did find some road blocks getting into the city from his Westchester home. He still managed to get on the air before 11 a.m.
Chuck Scarborough, the legendary WNBC anchor, first got word of the crash from his sister-in-law. Her husband, and Chuck’s brother, Jeff was a veteran WNBC cameraman who headed to lower Manhattan with reporter Rob Morrison (now WCBS/Channel 2 morning anchor).
“It was perplexing,” Scarborough, a longtime commercial pilot, says.
But it would become much clearer after Scarborough (above, with WNBC co-anchors Sue Simmons and Jim Rosenfield on 9/11) showered. A second plane smacked into the second tower, and the magnitude of the sinister terrorist plot was growing by the moment.
Scarborough, like his anchor brethren, began his tenuous drive to 30 Rock from Connecticut. His marathon day began after 11 a.m.
The iconic Channel 4 anchorman, though, was not informed that his brother was missing following the collapse of the towers. After shooting video of each tower imploding, Jeff Scarborough, reached at his Colorado home, told FishbowlNY that he was found by NBC personnel in a state of shock, barely able to speak.
Jeff was driven to the WNBC studio, a short time later, where he was reunited with his brother, Chuck (see video clip below). He would receive a citation from WNBC several years later for his work under duress.
But while Jeff, with Channel 4 for 27 years, was overtaken by the disaster, back uptown the imagery of a tower collapse was most difficult for the anchormen.
“The biggest challenge as a reporter, as an anchor [was] to be on the air during that time—wow, not easy,” Anastos says. “But it wasn’t near as difficult for me as it was for all those people who’d lost life.”
Prior to the towers tumbling down, Ritter recognized that they were nothing more than a fiery deathtrap.
“What a public service we were doing by linking up people who were dying inside that building, or going to die, and knew they were going to die,” Ritter recalls. “[They were] talking to their families for the last time.”
For Scarborough, he brought more than his anchoring experience (27 years at WNBC at the time) to the desk. That day he “waved” his physics minor, piloting license, and knowledge of various aspects of the horrific events.
“When [the towers] did collapse, there was an awful lot of speculation going on that there were explosives placed inside…I was able to give an instant analysis on air about the issue of steel when heated,” Scarborough says.
Of course, having the background, and even being prepared for the collapse didn’t make it any easier.
“This certainly doesn’t compare with anything else I’ve ever been faced with. There’s no other story this big. I hope and pray there is never another one,” Scarborough tells FishbowlNY.
Ritter, with WABC since 1998, knew no breaking news story ever looked like this. But he also knew that amassing the years of service could prove beneficial to viewers in one specific area.
“The more experience you have, the better you’re able to portray it.”
Making matters worse, the story behind the scenes took on a personal nature for WCBS and WNBC. At Channel 2, Isaias Rivera, a broadcast maintenance engineer, who started in 1968, and transmitter supervisor Bob Pattison, who joined in 2000, were killed while working atop the World Trade Center.
There was a pall over Channel 4 as well, as transmitter engineer Bill Steckman was another fatality.
Through it all, they guided their viewers into the unimaginable depths of darkness.
“The pace in the studio [was] frantic,” Anastos (left, with Dana Tyler during WCBS 9/11 coverage) remembers. “People were trying to stay calm and I just kept thinking to myself when I was on the air, ‘I wish to God I could say something or do something to stop the horrible story.’”
Each face of their respective news operation was holding it together as best as possible.
“You feel like crying,” Anastos recalls. “You feel like being emotional, but you don’t have time for it.”
But Anastos, an award-winning anchor since 1978, did say he found time to check messages and make sure his family was alright.
However, once the mic was unclipped, the camera turned off, and the studio went black, it was another matter entirely.
“I remember …walking out of the station crying uncontrollably,” Ritter admits. “It just all came out. I had all the emotion that I was feeling, I was communicating to some degree, but not allowing myself to feel as personal, like I wanted to.”
As the stations all rotated the talent, when not carrying the network’s coverage, Ritter split time with other anchors until finally going home between 1 and 2 a.m. on 9/12.
Three weeks later, transplanted New Yorker Bill Ritter, still reeling from the mental anguish he witnessed on his studio monitors, attended his nephew’s Bar Mitzvah in California. Even though, the World Trade Center attack was an attack on the U.S., Ritter saw firsthand that 3,000 miles away from ground zero didn’t have the same impact.
“I was struck by how my family and friends were not numb like I was,” Ritter says.
Such an unforeseen tragedy, everyone, including veteran anchors, found their own ways to cope.
“I haven’t felt the compulsion to go back and look at the video,” Scarborough admits. “At some point, we ought to rebroadcast the whole day.”
“That was a major event, a major historical event that took place,” Anastos says. “But it became more than just covering the story. I wasn’t like ‘I want to win an award doing this.’”
While no station or anchor, to be sure, was shallow enough to have any thoughts of accolades and awards during such a crisis, Scarborough’s shop at 30 Rock, though, did earn a “victory.”
“Everybody just went into high gear, and as it turned out we’d win an Emmy for it, which is truly one of the saddest Emmys I ever got in my life,” Scarborough says.
“I think when you cover something like this collectively; it solidifies you as an organization,” Ritter says. “We became more of a family… it bonded us together in a way that nothing else has either.”
For Scarborough, along with his counterparts, he weathered the storm with aplomb.
“[It was] a terrible day and a challenging day, and the most memorable,” Scarborough reflects.
Join us Monday as a former WABC/Channel 7 reporter gets caught up in the story, and refuses to leave ground zero for more than 24 hours.
- The Atlantic Partners with PBS NewsHour
- Facebook is Your New Editor
- Keanu Reeves Makes Ghostly Headlines
- Ed Asner Explains How He Changed Up Lou Grant