Already with NBC News since 2008, Jeff Rossen’s popularity ballooned earlier this year by landing an exclusive interview with Charlie Sheen.
But his star was on the rise just months after returning to New York City in May 2001 at WABC/Channel 7.
Rossen, a Hauppauge, New York native, was one of the Eyewitness News reporters covering the tragedy of September 11, 2001.
Rossen spoke to FishbowlNY for our special series–9/11: New York Remembers.
“When we finally got downtown, we saw a jet engine on the sidewalk,” Rossen says.
Rossen (25 years old at the time) and his photographer Danny Lamothe kept moving south toward the World Trade Center.
“We were in place for when the second building came down,” Rossen remembers. “We felt that coming down on top of us.”Fortunately, Rossen didn’t suffer any long term ill-effects from being in the crosshairs of the collapse. But there was the matter of dealing with mental anguish.
“The dust cloud, as you’ve seen in all the video, was awful, scary,” Rossen admits. “I told my photographer Danny, ‘Hold my hand. Let’s just not get separated here.’”
Lamothe somehow kept the camera rolling, as the duo did lock hands—but it wasn’t enough against the angry debris swarming closer.
“I ended up hiding out in the corner of an OTB for five minutes as the dust cloud came by,” Rossen recalls.
When the ash settled and the sun shined through again, Rossen and his photographer would reunite, as Mayor Giuliani arrived with surgical mask covering his mouth.
“It was such chaos, no one even was paying attention,” Rossen says. “So he [photographer] and I ran over—it’s that now famous shot of Giuliani walking down the street—We have this exclusive interview with the mayor.”
Rossen remained on the scene of death and destruction into September 12 (Watch a clip of Rossen’s reporting below at the 8:31 mark).
“I think I was on the air for like 35 hours,” Rossen remembers. “I would sleep for a half hour in the truck.”
Not that he was seeking it, but Rossen’s yeoman work would payoff personally.
“The then-news director of Channel 7, Dan Forman, called me up and said, ‘You know what, consider yourself full-time as of right now,’” Rossen recalls.
Despite his stellar reporting, management would have preferred that he relinquished his on-air duties —even for a few hours.
“They were trying to get different shifts in. They wanted fresh reporters on the ground,” Rossen remembers. “I kept saying, ‘I don’t want to go home yet.’”
He wasn’t able to put himself in a mindset of being anywhere else.
“I couldn’t think about walking away from there and sitting at home, because all I would do was sit at home and watch it on TV,” Rossen admits. “I wanted to be a part of it.”
With so many viewers affected by the attacks, Rossen says he’s never seen such an appreciation and hunger by people.
“It was really an honor to be there to be delivering it,” Rossen says.
As the hours went by for Rossen, the reporting process became more complicated. The Trade Center had the cell phone mobile towers, meaning communication was down. Not only was cell phone service non-existent, IFB (direct line from remote to station) was hit or miss. So the next choice was the two-way Nextel phones.
Beyond what difficulties Rossen faced covering the story professionally, the attacks took their toll on him personally.
“We saw people jumping out of windows,” Rossen admits “This is scary stuff that I’ve tried my best to suppress—not always successfully.”
Rossen took a moment to pause as the horrific scene played out before his eyes.
“How awful must it be inside that building right now, where jumping 50, 60, 70 stories is the better option?” Rossen reflects.
However, that wasn’t the only standout image for Rossen. He spoke with a woman who left a lasting memory.
“She was covered in debris and blood,” Rossen reflects. “She looked so confused, and I walked up to her and I said, ‘Are you ok? How can I help you?’”
“I don’t know where my husband is,” The frightened woman said.
Rossen brought her to his mobile unit to catch her breathe and sit down for a few minutes.
“Hearing what she had gone through really stuck out with me,” Rossen says.
Those images did lead Rossen to having nightmares in the initial weeks and months after 9/11.
“I think about it a lot, though,” Rossen says. “Even still working in the city, whenever I’m downtown, I pass delis, ‘I remember having a candy bar here at two in the morning. That’s where I talked to that woman who was bleeding who didn’t know where her husband was.’ Memories like that—more fleeting thoughts now.”
Rossen, although inexperienced in his TV work when the 9/11 attacks took place, says this was an event no broadcast journalist could be equipped for.
“You could be in the business for 40 years and not have experience with this,” Rossen says. “I was 25 and I was just as shocked and appalled as my colleagues who were 55.”
Regardless of the age, after the wall-to-wall 9/11 coverage concluded, Rossen says WABC brought in grief counselors to help everyone deal with their own pain.
“It was just one of the most awful experiences one could ever go through,” Rossen admits. “Everyone was bleeding. Everyone was covered in dust.”
Join us tomorrow as a veteran WINS reporter shares his harrowing tale from ground zero.