My longest day: September 11, 2001 | 60 Years DW | DW | 29.04.2013
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60 Years DW

My longest day: September 11, 2001

A DW correspondent in Washington at the time, Bernd Riegert remembers hearing the news of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. It was the only time he ever was so overcome he couldn't talk while on the air.

Riegert, Bernd Deutschland/Chefredaktion REGIONEN, Hintergrund Deutschland. Bernd Riegert war am 11. September 2001 DW-Korrespondent in Washington, D.C., USA. DW3_8233. Foto DW/Per Henriksen 19.04.2013

Deutsche Welle Bernd Riegert

It was just before 9 o'clock in the morning and I was eating breakfast in my apartment in Alexandria, a suburb of Washington, DC, flipping though the newspaper. Like millions of others in America, my television was on in the background with CNN spouting out the morning's news.

Looking up from breakfast I saw the Twin Towers in New York - one of them burning - and wondered what new action movie would be showing soon at the theaters. Then I realized the pictures were real images from Manhattan. Was it some kind of accident? At any rate, I knew it wasn't going to be the quiet day I had expected when I woke up.

Archive picture of Sept. 11, 2001 file photo, United Airlines Flight 175 approaches the south tower of the World Trade Center in New York moments before collision, seen from the Brooklyn borough of New York. Photo: William Kratzke/AP/dapd

Broadcasts looked like previews for a Hollywood action film

I grabbed the phone and called the news desk in Cologne. Yes, a plane crashed into the World Trade Center, I told the editor. News agencies had not yet sent any reports so a quick write-up was put together for the 3 p.m. radio news bulletin. At 3:03 p.m. I waited on the phone for the first live report of the day on the German "Funkjournal" program. Just before the broadcast began I watched in disbelief as a second plane crashed into the other tower. A huge passenger plane.

A flood of reports

After a second live report, I had a minute to think about how I was gong to get more information than what the world was watching on TV. Telephones at police stations and government offices were ringing off the hook. In addition to CNN, I read and listened to NPR, the US public radio broadcaster. There was a flood of reports - some true, some false: smoke over the White House, a car bomb in front of the State Department.

President Bush's Chief of Staff Andy Card whispers into the ear of the President to give him word of the plane crashes into the World Trade Center, during a visit to the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla., Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. Photo: AP Photo/Doug Mills

Bush got word of the attack while at a school in Flordia

Then a visibly shaken President George W. Bush appeared in front of cameras from a school in Florida and said America had been attacked by terrorists. DW's German news department threw out the programming schedule and went to a live, running broadcast. I was called on to report on details of the attacks as they emerged. By then the mobile phone network and Internet had collapsed. To get to any kind of information or work done, I had to travel to the studio downtown - just a few blocks from the White House.

The highway from Alexandria to the city passes the Pentagon and was completely jammed with cars. And for good reason. Drivers had stopped to see the black smoke and flames coming out of the fortress-like building.

A pocket of change in the supermarket

Stunned, we stood next to our cars and watched. The attack had spread to the US capital. We knew there were still planes in the air and that the White House or the Capitol, which houses the US Congress, could be the next target. I did a u-turn on the highway and drove to a supermarket at the next exit. Mobile phone service was still down so with a pocket full of change I sat near the checkout aisles and filed my next report as cashiers and customers stared at the TV news, their shopping lists long forgotten.

Downtown Washington would be evacuated later in the day. There was hardly any traffic on the roads. The city was like a ghost town even after it was confirmed that no more planes were in the air and that a fourth plane with terrorists on board crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

The Tribute in Light shines above the World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty, left of center, Monday, Sept. 10, 2012 as seen from Bayonne, N.J. Photo: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Ground Zero in New York honors all the victims of the 2001 terrorist attacks

Late in the afternoon, I left the studio for the White House, which had been completely sealed off. Somewhere, deep underground Vice President Dick Cheney sat in a bunker and waited for the president to return later that evening. Standing at the fence to the White House I met a German couple on vacation in the US capital. They asked me what was going on and where all the people were. They really hadn't heard what happened and thought it was some kind of holiday.

For me, September 11 and the days and weeks that followed were like a never-ending day at work. My American colleagues, neighbors and friends initially had no idea how to respond, but were resolute in their decision to catch the perpetrators. The attack on America was a massive slap in the face.

When I had to report that people had jumped from the Twin Towers to escape the flames and landed on others, killing them as well, my voice broke and tears streamed down my face. By far the biggest story in my life as a reporter, September 11 remains the only time I have been on the air and absolutely unable to speak.

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