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WCBS-AM Traffic Reporter Tom Kaminski Recalls the Chaos of 9/11 From the Air

In our continuing series, 9/11: New York Remembers, FishbowlNY speaks to WCBS-AM traffic reporter Tom Kaminski who had a perspective on September 11, 2001 that few had, and presumably, that few could have wanted.  

He was wrapping up his morning shift, hovering above New York City in a chopper. Because of an unfounded report on the Major Deegan Expressway, Kaminski was in the air later than a normal morning.

But, of course, we would soon discover that there would be nothing normal about this day.

“We were over the GWB and we started to turn south on the Hudson and we just saw a flash,” Kaminski remembers.

Kaminski’s pilot Arthur Anderson (now pilot for WABC-TV’s Newscopter 7) went on the intercom saying he believed there was a plane in front of tower one.

The pilot investigated by contacting LaGuardia Airport to see if they lost an aircraft. First, he heard silence. Then, Anderson called back and got nothing but “stand by.”

As you undoubtedly know, the air space, not just around lower Manhattan but the entire country, would be frozen.

But for now, Kaminski and his pilot still had work to do.

At 8:46 a.m. when the first plane’s kamikaze mission ended with it hitting the World Trade Center, WCBS was in commercials having just concluded sports. 

“I’m screaming on the two-way radio trying to get a hold of somebody, because we had no idea what the hell was going on,” Kaminski admits.

No response came to Kaminski. As it turned out, the staff was busy in the one office where a window faced south (then-news director Frank Raphael’s office).

Meanwhile, with his next traffic report set for 8:48, Kaminski was scrambling.

“I’m about to go on the air, and I have zero information as to what’s going on,” Kaminski recalls.

The Hudson River air space remained uncontrolled, allowing Kaminski and his pilot to get closer to the burning building. 

“So Pat [Carroll, anchor] threw it to me and I started just by saying, ‘Something has happened at the World Trade Center.’”  (Here’s the link to the riveting audio—scroll down to the WCBS Anniversary Audio section)

It was a very fluid situation as the horrific nature of the morning was yet to be learned. Initially, reports indicated a small plane slammed into the tower. But Kaminski’s birds-eye view gave him a differing opinion.  

“Our first thought was, what ever hit the building had gone through… As soon as we got close, we knew that there was way too much damage for a small plane,” Kaminski tells FishbowlNY.

Unsure if the plane had exited the other side of the tower, Kaminski and his pilot got another angle.

“We went down to the Battery. We hovered over Battery Park and we saw that windows on all four sides had been blown out,” Kaminski recalls. “But what ever had hit the building was still inside.”

While not close enough to see if anyone ran to the roof, Kaminski did notice smoke pouring out on several floors below the point of impact.

As the smoke began to drift toward their helicopter, and obstructing their vision, Kaminski and Anderson decided to move to the north side of the towers.

“We were about halfway between Chambers [Street] and Canal [Street], and all of sudden I saw a flash out the right window,” Kaminski reflects.

That would be the attack on the south tower at 9:03 a.m. Kaminski, who remained on the air with reports from the sky, heard Carroll say, “It’s exploding now.”

Upon moving the aircraft in the opposite direction, Kaminski and Anderson were greeted by a new fireball.

“It had entered the building right at the point where we had been about a minute or so prior to that, maybe even less,” Kaminski recalls.

The chopper captured definite video of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center, seen around the world by the next day.

But even with a second plane slamming into the World Trade Center towers, Kaminski seemingly didn’t realize what was unfolding. It was only after his pilot brought attention to it that Kaminski began to give it any credence.  

Kaminski was faced with the gravity of what was in front of him.

“I looked down at the clipboard and that’s when I noticed my hands were shaking, and the clipboard’s moving back and forth,” Kaminski says. “And I remember blinking, not from smoke or fumes, just from total disbelief.”

Kaminski’s day in flight was about to end in the next five minutes.

In those first minutes of 9/11, rumors and inaccuracies grew exponentially. The LaGuardia air traffic controller urging all pilots to leave the scene immediately as another plane was targeting the area.

Therefore, Kaminski, with Anderson, heeded the advice, heading north for an airport in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey.

“My last vision of the twin towers that morning was them side-by-side like two burning cigarettes,” Kaminski recalls.

This was merely a pit stop for Kaminski, who planned a return to lower Manhattan. During the downtime at the airport, Kaminski called his wife who screamed when she heard his “hello.”

A short time later, Kaminski got clearance to head back out.

“We were not 50 feet off the ground and the air traffic controller at Teterboro said, ‘We need you to return to ground immediately. The air space has been sterilized.’”

Not ready to call it a day, Kaminski stayed with the grounded chopper, providing commentary from the airport. Complicating his work, though, the nose of the aircraft pointed to the north—away from the towers.

At 9:59 a.m., an already unthinkable morning got more unfathomable. Kaminski recalls one of the WCBS-AM anchors, either Pat Carroll or Jeff Caplan telling listeners that one of the towers collapsed.

“I jumped out of the helicopter with my headphones on, and I just saw smoke billowing from downtown,” Kaminski admits. “I yelled to my pilot and one other guy who was there, ‘The tower’s collapsed!’”

With emotions running wild, Kaminski kept WCBS listeners informed as best as possible from a runway 5 miles away across the Hudson and Hackensack Rivers.

He would remain positioned there for on-air reports until around 11 a.m. Kaminski also did live reports from the airport for his afternoon shift, when he was unable to make his way to his Shadow Traffic studios in Rutherford, New Jersey.

However, Kaminski faced another problem—getting his car, which was at Linden Airport where he started his day several hours earlier.

With his car sitting 30 miles to the south, Kaminski’s wife was called to give him a ride to Linden.

“She made it as far as Teterboro Airport. Because of everything being closed, the GWB was closed, she couldn’t get any further than that,” Kaminski recalls.

“If you can get to that traffic light in front of Teterboro Airport, make a U-turn, sit on the westbound side of [Route] 46, and wait for me,” Kaminski told his wife.

Kaminski finished his difficult day at 7:30 p.m. with one final adventure waiting.

“I packed up my maps, I packed up everything that I had, I locked up the helicopter and I walked two miles over to her… It was going to take a lot less time for me to walk to her than it was for her to get to me,” Kaminski says.

But, perhaps even more overwhelming for Kaminski than dealing with the events on 9/11 was the feedback he received later.

“I’ve gotten very close with a lot of guys over at the Port Authority Police Department…They got the first word about 9/11, not from their own command, but from me,” Kaminski reflects.   

(Website audio courtesy of DonSwaim.com)

Tomorrow, a legendary DJ recalls being a calming influence for his legions of listeners in the aftermath of 9/11.

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