"I guess you better start making some calls."
That's what Ted Morgan said to me after we watched a second plane hit the World Trade Center on live television in the studios of Saranac Lake Radio just after 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001.
"Who should I call?" I asked him.
Chris Knight sits at the microphone in the WNBZ radio studio in Saranac Lake, where he worked from 2001 to 2009.
(Photo — Mountain Communications)
"Try to find a local connection to the Trade Center," said Morgan, the station's owner and general manager.
"OK," I responded.
In truth, I had no clue where to start or what to do.
It was my third day as a reporter. I had been hired the week before as news director for Saranac Lake Radio (now Mountain Communications), the parent company of WNBZ AM 1240 and Y106.3 FM.
From the woods to the airwaves
A week earlier, I was about as far removed from the news business as you can get. I was working in the Adirondack High Peaks, finishing up a season as an assistant forest ranger for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. But that job was coming to an end, and I was looking for something - anything - full time to keep me in the Adirondacks.
In late August, I saw the WNBZ news director job posted in the Enterprise. I applied on a whim, thinking my English degree from the State University of New York at Geneseo and the two years I worked as a disc jockey at the on-campus radio station would count for something.
I could write, but I had no news gathering experience. I had taken one journalism class at Geneseo. I got a C.
Surprisingly, after an interview and a voice test, Ted offered me the job. I accepted and started work on Friday, Sept. 7. That day and the following Monday, I shadowed Jim Rogers, who was filling as host of what was then called "The All-Talk Two Hours," from 7 to 9 a.m. on WNBZ. Rogers and his wife Keela owned the station before selling it to Morgan in 1998.
Jim Rogers' last day hosting the morning show was Tuesday, the 11th. When the program ended at 9 a.m., ABC news took over and reported that one of the World Trade Center towers was on fire. American Airlines Flight 11 had actually hit the north tower at 8:46 a.m.
"Somebody, I don't know if it was you, ran into the studio and said, 'The World Trade Center is on fire!,'" John Gagnon told me in a conversation this week. Gagnon was the station's program director then and was the co-host of "John and Crystal in the Morning" with Crystal Tatro, which was airing that morning on Y106.3. "We had a little television in the studio. We flipped it on, and we all stood there and watched."
The TV reports changed to say that a plane had hit the building. At that point, like many people, we thought it was just a terrible accident.
A few minutes later, when a second plane crashed into the south tower, we all realized that something terrible was happening.
"I remember seeing the second plane hit the building live, and thinking immediately, 'Something's really gone wrong here,'" Gagnon recalled. "It struck me that there's no way that could have been an accident."
The next few hours were a blur.
We switched over to live ABC radio coverage on WNBZ, and John and Crystal were basically providing play-by-play of what was happening to Y106.3 listeners from what they were seeing on TV.
At Ted's direction, I set out to try and find a local connection to what was going on, and to get local reaction, and to do it fast.
That wasn't an easy task for someone who'd just starting out as a reporter and had few local contacts. The only public official I had met at that point was Howard Riley, who was Saranac Lake village manager at the time, so I called him. Ironically, he had just come from a disaster preparedness drill that was scheduled to take place that day in Saranac Lake, but was called off in light of the real disaster.
I don't remember everything Riley said, but I know he compared it to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. We recorded the interview and got ready to do a live, local report on Y106.3.
Keep in mind that I hadn't even been on the air yet. But things were happening so fast, I didn't have time to be nervous.
"We're going to get a little local reaction to what's going on right now," John Gagnon said as he introduced me. "Chris Knight is with us in the studio. Chris just joined us as news director, what, last week?"
"Three days ago, actually," I remember saying.
I stumbled through a hand-written introduction to the interview with Riley, which we played unedited. We then broke into ABC's coverage on WNBZ to deliver the same report, only this time I was flying solo. Ted worked the control board, as I still had no idea what buttons to push to get myself on the air.
"We were going back and forth between your reports and the network feeds," Morgan recalled. "It was a crazy time. We were covering it pretty much live for quite a while."
I followed that same pattern for several frenzied hours. I burned a path in the carpet running back and forth between the two broadcast studios and the production studio, where we could record telephone interviews and reports for both stations.
I may not have known the names of many local people and the area's public officials before that day, but I learned them quickly. I remember interviewing officials from the area's fire departments, Franklin and Essex County emergency services and state police, all of whom who were mobilizing resources to respond to the disaster. I checked in with the Saranac Lake Armory after Gov. George Pataki ordered all New York Army National Guard troops to their stations. When the Federal Aviation Administration grounded all domestic air flights, we confirmed it with officials at Adirondack Regional Airport.
Meanwhile, there was a constant flow of information coming into the station that had to get out on the airwaves: the statewide primary election scheduled that day was called off; schools were letting parents pick up their kids early; the Red Cross was urging people to give blood. It was a struggle to keep up with it all.
"That was obviously initiation by storm for you," Morgan said.
All that time I had been asking the people I interviewed if they knew anyone who worked in or near the World Trade Center. I hadn't had much luck until Ted suggested calling some of the local town and village clerks, since they have a lot of contact with people in their communities.
The first few I tried didn't get me anywhere. Eventually, however, I got the name of a woman who worked at Adirondack Medical Center and, I was told, may know someone who worked in the World Trade Center.
I called the hospital and, sure enough, found the woman. I don't recall her name, but she told me that her boyfriend worked in one of the Twin Towers. She had been trying to reach him over the phone but hadn't had been able to get through.
We recorded and broadcast this interview, then called her later and recorded a second interview. She still hadn't heard from her boyfriend at that point.
What happened to him? Unfortunately, I never found out. Amid the chaos of trying to report on the attacks, and maybe because I was a newbie reporter, following up on that story somehow got lost in the shuffle. It's something that's bothered me to this day. The stories and notes I had typed out that day never made it into the WNBZ news archives. The interviews have also been lost, and there were no recordings of our broadcasts on either station that day.
"I wish a lot of that had been recorded, that we had tapes of that we could go back and listen to, because it was pretty astounding," Gagnon told me this week.
By the end of the day, like millions of Americans, I felt numb. I don't think the emotional toll of the loss of life that day really hit me until I got back to my Lake Placid apartment that night and sat down. I'm pretty sure I cried.
It was a day that had changed America forever. It also changed me. The challenge of covering 9-11 could have easily made me regret taking the news director job. Instead, it drew me in.
The lessons I learned that day - being as accurate as possible, not being afraid to ask difficult questions and finding the local angle - stayed with me in the years that followed and will continue to guide my career as a journalist.