June 4, 2002

 






 

 

 

 

 

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 smellprovided—that 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 and egocentric."

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 do now.

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 first place.

- Matt Van Dusen



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