After the World
Trade Center fell, some journalism students launched their careers.
But that was little consolation.
Plastic smells acrid when it burns. The smoke that day was laden with
burnt carpet fiber and steel and reams and reams of paper. People wore
masks around the city to protect themselves from the benzene and asbestos
floating in the air, but really they were trying to shield their senses
from the tangible reminder the smellprovidedthat vapor was all
that was left of two airplanes, two buildings and three thousand people.
While sensible people covered the noses and mouths against the smoke,
my friends and I at the Columbia Journalism School were running around
trying to breathe it in as much as possible. That, we thought, is what
reporters do. It didn't matter that we had no experience. It didn't
cross our minds, as Columbia Professor June Cross pointed out to me
recently, that in September we hadn't even covered a police story
yet. "What are you doing down at Ground Zero?" she asked.
But news organizations everywhere were desperate to get anyone who had
journalistic credentials and we wanted to jump start our careers.
Mariana Van Zeller, a Columbia Journalism student, was in bed when
her editor called from SIC, the 24 hour news channel in Portugal where
she had worked doing travel segments, and told her she was going live
to air from the CBS building in three hours. She went on the air that
day, unshowered, wearing the black sleeveless turtleneck sweater she
had worn the night before. After the broadcast the station's assistant
news director said, "great job, you're hired." Mariana,
who had come to journalism school wanting to be like CNN's Christiane
Amanpour, was ecstatic. She called friends to tell them about her prime-time
debut. And then, she says, "I felt completely empty. I felt vain
I suppose you can never be ready to report on something as disastrous
as September 11, but even less so if you've never reported on anyone
else. I went down to the disaster, like many other journalism students,
not even having a media outlet to report for. All I thought about was
how cool I was as I followed two doctors past the porous police line
on Canal Street. A few days ago, my friend Terence told me that the
whole time he was down there, he was thinking, "I am such a great
reporter." Ditto for me.
Luckily I didn't see anything too jarring. By the time I got there
the towers had already collapsed and it there was a ghost town calm
- replete with little tornados of dust and ash - as the emergency
response people tried to figure out what the hell they were going to
I called the Toronto Star and just started reporting. They told me
I was doing important work and I believed it.
Not far beneath the surface that day, I was terrified, and I think
my friends were too. "The Class of 9/11," as Terence called
us, was not qualified to go to Ground Zero. Very few reporters were.
But we had press badges and this silly notion that these stories needed
to be told, and providence had chosen us to tell them. I didn't
get really scared until the wind, which had been blowing south, changed
direction on Sept. 12 and wafted the smell ten miles uptown to Columbia.
After a day of reporting my friends and I walked out of the school and
were confronted by the odor. This time I wasn't wearing my press
badge. When the time came to just breathe the odor, and not report on
it, I realized what a flimsy talisman the press badge had been in the
- Matt Van Dusen
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