The Face of Sept. 11, 2001


There are events in our lives that will forever be entwined with the person who broke the news.

I doubt you can recall the passing of a loved one without remembering who first told you. Any mention of JFK's assassination reminds me of an emotional Walter Cronkite informing the nation of the passing of our 35th president. And few Philadelphians can think of the Broad Street Bullies without hearing Gene Hart repeating, "The Flyers win the Stanley Cup!"

Today, as I have for each of the last five anniversaries, I carry a mental image of Aaron Brown on 9/11. I see him standing on a New York rooftop in brilliant sunshine against a smoldering backdrop while providing an extemporaneous human dimension to the death and destruction whose extent was then unknown.

I just rewatched much of his work at YouTube. I wish all Americans would do likewise. It's the perfect, unifying antidote to the partisan division that fighting the "war on terror" has become.

Sobering. That's how I regard his reports. Brown was always an intelligent journalist. But that day he spoke with an added somber clarity. Typical was this observation after the collapse of the World Trade Center's South Tower:

"There has just been a huge explosion . . . we can see a billowing smoke rising . . . I'll tell you that I can't see that second tower . . . but there was a cascade of sparks and fire and now it looks almost like a mushroom cloud . . . about as frightening a scene as you will ever see.”

I've often wondered how Brown himself regards his work that day, and what thoughts he might have now that he is unbridled by the limitations of being a reporter. So I called him to ask.

He'd just started at CNN at the time of the attack, having been hired to create and manage a national newscast and breaking news. Brown was driving to work when he heard radio reports of an airplane hitting the North Tower. He said he assumed it was an accident, but knew he'd be reporting what happened, regardless of the cause.

"I dropped the car [off] . . . and was racing . . . to where the CNN building was and just thought, 'Calm down. Whatever is about to unfold here, you need to be calm,' " Brown said.

When I said I thought his work that day stood apart from that of his "competitors," he was quick to point out that on 9/11 no one was motivated by any thought of competing. On another day, sure, but on 9/11, Brown said, there was an unprecedented level of cooperation among those all trying to do the same thing.

But he recognized that his broadcast had the advantage of being live from a rooftop in sight of Ground Zero, instead of inside an antiseptic studio.

When I asked what he remembered about that perch, he repeated what he'd once said to Peter Jennings: "The thing that stays with me . . . is how I could smell it . . . We were outside and could rarely see the monitor because of the sunlight. We could smell the tragedy. I can still smell it in many ways.”

I suspect Brown will never fully shake 9/11. When I replayed audio of his words that day and asked for a comment, his voice quaked as he told me that it was only the second time he'd re-listened to his reporting. The first came in a class at Arizona State University, where his students in a TV course asked to analyze his work. Brown spent three classes reviewing an hour of his 9/11 coverage.

"And I thought I was over the emotional power of it, but I'm clearly not. I suspect that 20 years from now, if God is kind enough to keep me alive that long, I will hear that tape and still have trouble putting together a complete sentence.”

Brown recalls the events of 9/11 in three parts: the morning "all-hell-breaking-loose" phase, the middle when "all of us, reporters and citizens," tried to figure out exactly what had transpired that morning, and the end of the day, when the president finally addressed the nation.

That night, Brown stayed in a hotel. The following morning, he recalls the deathly silence that consumed New York City, "as if saying something would have been disrespectful to the 2,500 people or so who died.”

Today, just like the rest of us, Aaron Brown tries to make sense of what he reported, and we watched unfold. He thinks we continue to lack a "civil national conversation" about how to deal with this tragedy. "We have been angry, and we should have been, and there were things that needed to be done," he says.

"But we can't kill all of these people, we can't even come close. And so we need other strategies, smarter strategies, more thoughtful strategies, or my kid is going to have this conversation with your kid.”

Which makes sense to me. And if we don't follow that script, then no doubt a future Aaron Brown will be standing on another rooftop offering somber descriptions of another smoldering building.