Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning?

This is an excerpt from my memoir “Raised on the Radio.” While the book’s completion is on hiatus, this story will definitely be in it.  At the time of 9/11 I was working at WUSN FM as morning show producer.  When the attacks happened I’d been at US*99 for over 8 years.

September 11th 2001 added to what was already a strange year for me. In January of that year, Ramblin’ Ray Stevens got fired from the morning show in a surprisingly stupid  move by management. Big John Howell joined us on mornings and then a few months later Ramblin’ Ray rose from the ashes to be rehired do afternoons at US*99. We had crazy times at the radio ranch but things were about to get insane for the whole world.

I attended a family wedding on Sunday September 9th and had Monday September 10th off from work. The fall radio ratings period would start in a few days and we were discouraged from taking time off the show once the fall listener numbers started getting measured.  It was later learned those hijacking terrorists chose a Tuesday and not a Monday for their attack because they were aware of how many Americans took three day weekends during the summer months. These killers knew most people would be back to work and in their offices by Tuesday.

On Tuesday morning, 9/11 we were having a regular show when Trish Biondo came into my studio about ten minutes before eight a.m. to tell me to tune my TV to the Today Show. I switched channels to see that first plane stuck in the side of the north tower of the World Trade Center.  I wasn’t even sure if it was an airliner or a private plane.  There’d been times when private planes crashed into office buildings or outdoor sports stadiums. Heck, the previous year WGN radio legend Bob Collins died when the plane he piloted had a mid-air collision with another small plane and crashed into the roof of a local hospital. Big John Howell told listeners about what was on TV but nobody knew what was happening. I stayed in my studio to screen phone calls and monitor my TV.

Less than twenty minutes later, while on the phone with a listener, I kept one eye on my TV screen and saw another plane hitting the World Trade Center’s south tower. I was frozen with shock! John Howell went on to announce what just happened and that we were under attack.  I wondered to myself if there was some computer hacking that took over the airliners’ controls and steered them into the towers.  Our phones were lit up, pulsing fast like my heart rate as I answered every call.  So many questions and updates from listeners kept coming in. The best words to describe those desperate minutes would be frantic, bizarre, terrifying and off the charts.

To the left you can see a hijacked airliner about to hit the south tower of the World Trade Center.  The world had gone nuts.

About half an hour after the south tower was hit came word that a jet crashed into the Pentagon building in D.C.  A caller told me this and I switched TV channels to get confirmation.  With the Pentagon attacked the first words that came to my mind were what Governor Connelly’s wife said when JFK’s motorcade was being fired upon in Dallas in 1963, “My God they’re going to kill us all!” I truly remember thinking this!

My rationale was if the Pentagon is our country’s base for military operations/defense and it’s under siege, who the hell makes calls on how our country defends us?  We were in a world of shit. I was never ever more scared in my life than when the Pentagon got crashed into.  Was this the end?  Was this OUR end?

Once the Pentagon had been hit by a hijacked plane, I was truly never more scared in my life.  Was this the end?  Was this our end?

Next, was a local news report that a threat had been phoned into Chicago’s Sears Tower and they were evacuating the entire building.  I picked up a hotline call from our GM Steve Ennen.  Steve, who heard about the Sears Tower evacuation, said if the Hancock received the same ‘get out’ order we were to switch our transmission to simulcast sister station WBBM AM, Newsradio 78, then get out of the building ASAP.  I relayed this information to Big John on the air and noted that since the Hancock was considered to be the most recognized building in the world, I wouldn’t be surprised if we got a similar threat.

After giving this update to John I walked out of the studio and stopped in my tracks as an announcement blared out of a hall speaker from the Hancock Security people. They were ordering everyone out of the building immediately.  I told Big John this news and quick as a flash Trish left the room, grabbed her purse and was out the door.  John and I were talking on the air about the Hancock evacuation and he wanted to stay. I said, “John, we HAVE to go!”  He grudgingly agreed, signed off then switched our broadcast transmission to Newsradio 780.

Hustling into the morning show office I scooped up my briefcase and called my mother. I told her I was O.K. and was on my way out of here. And I loved her.  Mom was puzzled. “What are you talking about?”  Turns out she was in her garden tending to flowers and tomatoes and just got back in the house when I called.   She knew nothing about the planes and the unfolding chaos.  My mom told me to be careful getting out of the city and said she loved me too. In just about an hour’s time we went from a plane has struck one of the World Trade Center buildings to evacuating our building because the world went nuts.

Before leaving our 13th floor offices, I needed a quick bathroom break.  When I got to the men’s room, the paralyzing fear I had over the Pentagon getting hit suddenly lifted.  I thought, “If this is my last day on earth, I’m O.K. with it. I had a good life and if the worst happened, I’m ready for what’s next.”  Washing my hands I smiled thinking if the Hancock got slammed by a jet right at this very minute, I could die like Elvis did, in the bathroom.

John and I met up at the elevators and headed down to the Hancock lobby.  The doors opened and I pivoted toward the parking garage elevators so I could get my car.  John walked toward the street exit and saw I wasn’t with him.  He turned around to me, called out and asked if I was going to stay downtown and wait out the building’s evacuation.  I told John this might be the end of everything and I was going to be with those I love.  With that, my elevator door opened and I was on my way to fetch my car to get the hell out of Dodge.  It was damn spooky to see a practically abandoned parking garage and my car was one of the last around.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks resulted in some problems in Chicago including bomb threats.  One such threat was to the John Hancock Building and we were kicked off the air as the entire place was evacuated. 

Minutes later while driving across Michigan Avenue en route to the hopefully safe suburbs, I saw hundreds of people on the sidewalks on their cell-phones.  Nobody knew what to say or what to make of anything.  A couple months later Alan Jackson would come up with the best words to describe 9/11 with the song “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?” Alan nailed the tone and mood all of us had that day. That song covered it all.

Once the Hancock evacuation was lifted, John Howell did make it back on the US*99 airwaves and did a stellar job updating listeners on the insanity of the terrorist attacks.  He took calls and provided a smart, calm and measured voice of sanity during an insane day.  I admired what John did but at the same time was fine with getting the hell out of the city and taking everything in from the TV reports at home.

The day after the planes hit, concrete barricades surrounded the Hancock and every car coming into the parking garage needed to be searched at street level. I had to pop my trunk for inspection and there were long poles with mirrors on them for security to check for bombs under every vehicle about to drive up the ramps. This went on for a couple of weeks.  Within a month, all Hancock workers had picture ID badges that were to be worn at all times and everyone was on high alert. “Vigilant” was the new watchword.

Programming wise, matters turned to the fall-out of 9/11, the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and all things military.  Over the next three months, I did some of my best producing around this tragedy arranging interviews with politicians like then Congressman Mark Kirk, who was still in the Naval Reserve and tracking down journalist and terrorism expert Judith Miller. She gave us insight to Osama Bin Laden and much more. In recent times Ms. Miller had to come clean about being a White House shill who made a case for going to war in Iraq in 2003.  She wrote a book detailing how she got things all wrong and fell for George W Bush’s bullshit reasons for that war.  I was all for the U.S. military invading Afghanistan to chase down Bin Laden but was one of those few voices against the Iraq war. I supported Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks in 2003 when she said she backed our soldiers but not President Bush’s war in Iraq.  The Chicks caught unholy hell for Natalie telling a concert crowd they were embarrassed to be from the same state as George W. Bush.  In the end, the Dixie Chicks, I and some others with common sense were proven right.

Another ‘get’ was us interviewing longtime Chicago news anchor turned “60 minutes 2” reporter Carol Marin.  Carol shared a harrowing tale of chasing down the World Trade Center attack story on 9/11 and nearly being engulfed by a giant fireball as one of the towers collapsed.  Ms. Marin’s life was saved by a responding fire fighter who rushed her to take cover in a nearby store entrance.  With the country in shock and despair over 9/11, fun and wacky radio bits took a long break until well into the New Year.

We all knew 9/11 would change hundreds of millions of lives forever.  However the depth and scope of those changes was way beyond what anyone could have anticipated at the time.  To this day, it’s pretty scary to think nineteen hi-jacking assholes could have such an effect on the world.  Alan Jackson’s song was a profound moment to come out of 9/11 and while the world turns in a different way these days, I’m just relieved and happy we’re still here to live in it.