For the 87th episode of the Journalism History podcast, hosted by Nick Hirshon, former television reporter Vince DeMentri recalls reporting live from the wreckage of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.
After 30 years as a broadcast journalists in markets that include New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit, Vince DeMentri is President and CEO of Deadline Media Consulting in Tampa, Florida.
Featured image courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. For information see “Unattributed 9/11 Photographs“
Vince DeMentri: I can tell you I’ve just been a place that I have been to that frankly no firefighters want to go to. Behind me you see burning 7 World Trade Center.
Nick Hirshon: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman: I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports media.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Nick Hirshon: And together we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History. Transcripts of the show are available online at –
Twenty years ago, I was a high school student in New York City when the World Trade Center was attacked. I have many memories from that day: My dad rushing home from work just before the subways shut down, my mom fishing out an American flag from our basement to hang on our front door, my neighbors congregating on the street to watch the thick plumes of smoke billowing from lower Manhattan.
I wanted to be a reporter someday, and so as soon as I got home I was glued to the television. My family didn’t have cable, and since almost all of the city’s major stations housed their transmitters and antennas at the World Trade Center, they were knocked off the air. That left just one network affiliate for me to watch, WCBS, Channel 2, which happened to have a backup transmitter and antenna at the Empire State Building.
What I remember most is watching one reporter, Vince DeMentri,
walk through the wreckage to deliver the only live reports I could see of the most significant story of my lifetime, happening just ten miles from my house. As my family sat huddled in our living room, we witnessed the surreal scenes of DeMentri venturing in and out of burning buildings at Ground Zero, debris falling around him. He choked up at times, but somehow he managed to keep delivering the news, a man on a mission who was taking his place in journalism history.
A few years later, I too became a reporter in New York, part of a generation that was compelled to enter the news business because of the critical role that journalists served on Sept. 11. Earlier this year, the hosts of the Journalism History podcast began brainstorming ideas for episodes to mark the twentieth anniversary of that jarring day. My mind immediately went to Vince DeMentri.
So, after a lot of online detective work, I tracked him down to Florida,
where after nearly thirty years as an investigative reporter and news anchor, DeMentri is now a media consultant. The interview was really personal for me, and it was also emotional for him. We had exchanged some emails and called a few times before recording this conversation to get to know each other and go over some ground rules.
I thought he had an important perspective to share, but I knew it couldn’t be told without wading into very sensitive topics, and I was concerned about triggering trauma. But DeMentri replied without hesitation. No question was off the table. He wanted to share his experience to ensure the memory of Sept. 11 lives on.
And Vince, I want to start out by thanking you for joining me today. I know this is a very difficult topic to discuss, and you’ve agreed to get into some sensitive areas potentially so thank you for joining us.
Vince DeMentri: Well it’s, it’s my pleasure, Nick. Ah, hard to believe that
twenty years just went by. Um, for me in a lot of ways, I relive it every day in some form or fashion. And it is a situation obviously that — that I’ll never forget it, like you, millions of other people in New York and around the world watching at home. They’ll never forget it as well. But being there much, much different than, than watching it.
And no matter how good the pictures were, the reporting might have been, nothing takes the place of actually being there.
Nick Hirshon: Definitely. So I’d like to start with some background on your career leading up to 9/11 to give our listeners a sense of what brought you to covering this momentous story. Ah, you were born and raised in Philadelphia. You studied broadcast journalism at Temple University in the 1980s and then began your career as a sports producer and a weekend anchor at a few local stations in Philly.
You hopped around a few stations working as an anchor and investigative reporter in Detroit. You covered the pathologist Jack Kevorkian there –
Doctor Death, who championed a terminal patient’s right to die. You went to Providence, Rhode Island, Springfield, Illinois, and then in 1994 you head to New York to join WCBS-TV, Channel 2. Became the anchor of the weekend evening newscast and led the news team from a perennial third-place newscast to the top spot within only two years, and then received the New York Emmy Award in 1998 for general assignment reporting.
So can you just describe where you were at this point in your career in September of 2001?
Vince DeMentri: Well, by 2001 in New York I had been somewhat of a seasoned reporter. I mean clearly there were other people in the market and even at the station who had more tenure. But it may sound a bit braggadocious, and I hope it doesn’t come off that way, but yeah, I’ve always been a very, very A-type personality.
And so it was very important to me that I knew job security was
bringing stories to the table, not just accepting what the assignment desk was giving you. So I spent those years from ’93 to ’01 eventually, when the World Trade Center happened, building quite a network of contacts and sources.
You know, my days were fourteen to sixteen-hour days. It wasn’t just working a night shift. After 11:30, then I would meet guys, go out, and foster those contacts. So at 2001, I was – I was pretty well vested in New York City and, and the Metro and the Metro area.
Nick Hirshon: No, I’m sure. Um, and most folks already know what happened on 9/11, but I will go over it in a little bit of detail especially for younger listeners, to refresh memories. Hijackers took control of four commercial airliners en route to California. We know they flew one to the Pentagon. Another was apparently heading to the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., but passengers overtook the hijackers and crashed the plane into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
And then there are the two flights: American Airlines Flight 11 with a crew of eleven people and seventy-six passengers that flew into the north façade of the North Tower at 8:46 a.m., and then United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the southern façade of the South Tower at 9:03 a.m. So, Vince, can you just take us to that day, the morning of Sept. 11, 2001? How did you come to be at the World Trade Center?
Vince DeMentri: I actually — by accident, actually. I was a night-shift employee, which meant I came in at 2:30 to report. I’d usually do something for the 11 newscast, and my main focus was on the 11 o’clock broadcast. Ah, but on that day, I had switched with a reporter because my daughter had a recital that night, and I wanted to be able to get out early so I could make her 7 p.m. dance recital. So I actually worked a day shift, which was uncommon for me.
And at the time I was wrapping up some stuff in Wall Street. And you have to remember back in the day, you know, we had cellphones, but they weren’t of the technology and they were still in their infancy. We certainly didn’t have smart phones. We had those old flip phones and we had digital pagers where somebody could type a message in the pager. And that was usually how things were communicated to a reporter in the field.
Of course we had a hard-line cellphone in the – in the live van that worked much better than the mobile because mobile was very spotty because there just weren’t that many towers at the time. Um, so anyhow, I remember getting, you know, in my one line on my pager, head to the World Trade Center, news that a – that a – some sort of plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.
And, you know, my crew got in and next thing we know I’m hearing –
sirens, lights, and there’s a lot of New York City crews, too. New York, New York news operates in a different way than any other news city I’ve ever lived in. Um, we’ve had – sometimes it’s a little bit like the Wild West, and so what news crews often did was, especially in spot news, was that if there was a line of emergency personnel headed towards wherever they were going, of course people would clear the way for them and they’d go through lights.
We would get up right on their tail and we’d follow ’em in because, you know, we were covering spot news, and it was kind of a practice that was accepted. And that’s what happened. We followed them in and, you know, at that point we saw a tower, the first tower on fire and we just started shooting it. And saw the fire department setting up for the command center in the lobby of I believe it was the North Tower.
And you know, by that time there were –
Port Authority Police and the New York City Police and they were trying to get control. There was a lot of chaos, people running out of the building. Ah, police and whatnot trying to push us back and, you know, we’re trying to say, “Hey, we’re doing our job. We’ve got press passes and this and that.”
So there was some jostling going on. But it didn’t last long because the next thing you know, and this is the famous shot that, you know, they must have shown hundreds of times over the first couple of days, was that second plane that flew really – you know, came around almost as if it was lining up its, its descent into the second tower, the south tower.
And you know, boom, right into it. And when that happened, we all looked at each other and said – you know, obviously there was there was some cursing going on. And, ah –
but everybody just stopped and froze, and we were in shock. And, you know, what’s happened? That could not have been an accident, you know? Anybody who’d seen it clearly knew this was not an accident that the commercial, you know, pilot losing his balance somehow, especially the way this plane clearly went around and lined up its, its suicide mission.
And so then at that time, then the cops and whatnot, they were not concerned with us. They were concerned with getting in the buildings and trying to get people out. So now you have two buildings on fire, engulfed. And, you know, there are the news crews all over the place. There were still photographers all over the place.
And I just remember that day, that Tuesday morning. Um, you know, it was in the 60s, there was a nice breeze. I remember the sky was just blue. Barely a cloud in the sky. It was a –
gorgeous morning. Ah, it promised to be a great day in New York City. And, you know, all this time later, I try to reconcile what, what a beautiful picture, what a beautiful day it was, and then this horror was starting to unfold. There was this slow, rolling cloud of debris that was just pushing down away from the World Trade Center, and it was probably twelve, thirteen feet high and just engulfing everything.
It was like if you’ve ever seen a sandstorm, intensify the sandstorm by a hundred and then make it this grayish, whitish cloud moving slowly. It’s like a fog just coming down the street and you’re trying to outrun it and you –
realize you can’t. And you take, you know, me and my photographer took cover in the vestibule, cubbyhole of one of the – of a restaurant just on the outside in hoping that that space, that little nook would protect us.
And, you know, we went down and, you know, put our hands over our mouths as this rolling cloud of, of debris from the World Trade Center, the concrete dust and whatnot is just overtaking you. And then all of a sudden, you’d see people emerge from this cloud, just covered head to toe in this white soot. And you could see the look on their face of just total shock.
And then I don’t think some of those people knew where they were, who they were, what had happened, what was going to happen. They were walking. Nobody – they weren’t running. They were just walking like they were on their way to wherever,
and yet they were in the middle of this covered with this white soot.
I remember businessmen holding briefcases and just had this blank stare on their face. Yeah, emergency personnel grabbing them up. And then as the day goes by and the hours go by, of course now we’re doing live shots and we’re trying to figure out what’s happening, who is responsible for this.
And then we start to hear, “Well, the Pentagon has been hit.” And we say, “Oh my God. This is a coordinated attack.” And then we hear that a plane has gone down in western Pennsylvania in a field. And then it became total panic amongst the – well, chaos and panic with cops, because I’d never seen – and obviously they’ve never seen anything like this before, but the general citizens, the people of New York, there was just extreme panic.
I remember people, if they could drive, driving – I hate to use the phrase, but it’s like a bat out of hell, because the streets were empty. They had closed the city off. And there were some people who were able to get into their vehicles and drove like a bat out of hell to get away from that. And God forbid if you got in their way. I know for a fact. I had to dodge a couple of cars, and they would have run me over. That’s what the kind of panic was, like this was some alien invasion.
And then, you know, we’re hearing all this, reporting this. I’m trying to get a hold of sources, and I had friends at the Port Authority. I had four friends I worked with in the Port Authority and I’m trying to page them to see if they’re okay, and I’m not getting any responses. I’m calling their cellphones, and by that time the cellphones were dead.
And so I didn’t have – I didn’t have any facial protection.
And really I didn’t get any until later in, in the afternoon. All it was was a carpenter’s dust mask, but I was glad to have something. Um, but my, my instinct was just: I’ve got to get to where the story is, and the story is there. And when I mean there is like in front of me, and I’ve got to find a way to get there.
Um, and that meant sometimes trying to go around officers, sneak around them and hope they didn’t see you because they’re going to stop you and forbid you from going into that area. And I understand what they were doing, but, as I said, you know, something like this had never happened before. And at this point I realized in my head that what was happening is history.
And being the A type of personality that I was I thought it was my job and my obligation and my adrenaline was running to try to get as –
close as I could to see what was left. What were the firefighters doing? What were the police doing? Were there rescues? You know, could we get photos of them getting people out? Where were people trapped? Just what did it look like? You know, did the whole building fall? Did only half the building fall?
And when I came out the backside, I thought I had gone onto the set of a disaster movie. Um, that’s when I saw dozens of cars just charred down to the base metal, MTA buses charred to the base metal, Fire Department and Port Authority cars just crushed with, you know, giant boulders of concrete through the roof or the hood or whatever.
And just flaming debris on the streets. Just piles of, of flames just on the street. And just –
six inches, eight inches of just, just this thick, thick, dirty, dank, dark dust, with whatever that mixture was, that concoction just on the street and you couldn’t help but walk through it. And I remember getting it up to my, you know, above my ankles. And I look up and, you know, at the time I didn’t know it was the World Trade Center because I was on the back side of it.
Now on any other day, a normal day, I would have known the layout, but everything was so, so cockeyed and so crazy. The post office building was to the left and I saw a giant crack in the building. It almost was like the crack in the Liberty Bell in its façade.
And then straight ahead I saw this orange glow and I knew that that had to be, you know, smoldering embers of one of the towers and I wanted to –
get there, but I couldn’t because that was right across the street from the – you know, the post office was the back – the side wall of, of World Trade Seven, and that was fully engulfed in the upper floors. And the closer you got to it, the heat just hit you like a broiler.
I mean, if you’ve ever opened a hot oven at five hundred degrees and you opened it, and you stick your face you get hit with that, that, just that plume of heat, you’ll have some semblance of what I’m talking about, and that heat kept us back. And so we were probably maybe fifteen yards away from the back side of it, but you could still see the side of the building, World Trade Seven, and just that glow of the embers of, you know, I think of what I learned later to be the South Tower.
As we were going in – I forgot this. As we were going in and we were in one of the buildings –
we heard this voice, “Who’s there? Who’s there? Stop! Who’s there?” So we stopped and we – and I said it’s, you know, “Channel 2. Channel 2 reporter, photographer.” And a sergeant for the Port Authority came in, and I happened to know him. And he said, “Vince, what are you doing?” And I said, “We’re just, you know, we’re just doing our job and I’m photographing and reporting on what we see.” And he said, “You know, we’ve got this all cordoned off. You know, the building is on fire outside.” And at that time I hadn’t been outside.
And I said, “Yeah.” I said, “But, you know, I mean, you know what’s going on.” I said, “Now I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do unless you, you know, you want to throw me out, that’s your prerogative.” And he looked at me and he said, “No.” He says, “I just want you to know what you’re getting yourself into.” He said, “There’s nobody out there. We are purposely away from this building because we don’t know if it’s gonna collapse. But you do what you think you’ve got to do.”
And I said to the sergeant his first name, I said, “Okay. I appreciate it. Thank you.” And he looked at me and he said, “Godspeed, brother.” Now that’s when we went out and we saw the building on fire, World Trade Seven.
Nick Hirshon: I’m also just wondering, all of this overwhelming visual that you’re describing as you’re trying to just understand your own safety, what’s happening around you, you’re hearing reports of what’s happening in Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., trying to wrap your mind around it. But I mentioned at the outset that at this time nearly eighty percent of New York market’s 7.3 million TV homes were getting TV from cable and satellite.
Vince DeMentri: Mm-hmm.
Nick Hirshon: And Time Warner and Cablevision were able to continue carrying the broadcast signals because they receive them via fiber links rather than off the air, but I was among that other twenty percent of families that didn’t have cable. And when those transmitters and antennas went down atop the World Trade Center, all that was left was WCBS, Channel 2, and you were a big, prominent part of that –
broadcast because you had that backup transmitter and antenna at the Empire State Building.
So I’m wondering at what point in all of this do you realize that you’re the only TV reporter on any of these local stations for this segment of the population like myself?
Vince DeMentri: Oh, I didn’t know for, probably till the next day. I had no clue. Um, nor did I – did I – you know, my wife at the time, you know, beat me. I mean, literally punched me. Ah, you know, it was two days before I went home, and she didn’t know if I was dead or alive.
Um, and I’ll get back to what happened at World Trade Seven and can conclude that. She didn’t know if I was dead or alive because I couldn’t contact her. Because like I said, the cellphones were down, and cellphone service at the time was pretty spotty to begin with because it was still in its, kind of its infancy.
So she had to watch Channel 2 like you. And I was also, when I found I came out of World Trade Seven, I would do, in –
between hits for local, I would be doing hits for national, so she would have to wait to see me on television to know that I was okay. But, yeah, she’d see me once and then maybe she didn’t see me again for an hour, or another half hour.
And but then the phone was ringing incessantly from friends and family around the country who had been – you know, who would call the house on the landline and say, “Hey, I just saw Vince on CBS. He’s – I don’t know if you know, but he’s okay.” Ah, you know, “All this crazy stuff is happening and he’s in the middle of it but he’s okay.” Um, and my daughter was five and a half, and I’ll – and I’ll get to that story, which was pretty poignant, a little bit later.
But to take you back because we’re about to leave, what really made me leave was, I didn’t have fear for my safety. You know, as stupid as I was. Um, I guess I was just too amped up on adrenaline and too focused on, on getting the story –
and I don’t want to sound callous because I don’t mean it to be callous. I certainly knew what was going on, and I was certainly affected by – by the carnage that I had seen. But, you know, kind of like first-responders, I’d seen a lot already, too.
And, you know, you’ve got to – you’ve got to compartmentalize, I learned as a reporter. And you know, a lot of times you’re in dangerous situations. It wasn’t the first time. Nothing like this, but it wasn’t the first time, and so I wasn’t really thinking about my safety until – I like to think maybe this was divine intervention, but I told you those windows would pop. This was about the sixth window that popped out. And when it hit the ground, well, the next thing I know a chunk about a little larger than a silver dollar whacked me in the thigh. It didn’t break my – you know,
the pants. It didn’t break through to the skin but it stung.
And I looked down and I picked it up and the glass was hot and I dropped it. I still have the glass. And then all of a sudden butterflies start going off. You know, that feeling in your stomach. Hey, something’s not right here. You know, maybe it’s time to go. And so the stomach is connecting to the brain and, you know, my senses are starting to kick in. And I’m looking at, at, you know, the building like I said – you know, later turned out, I would find out on my way out that it was World Trade Seven.
Um, my brain starts saying, “Maybe it’s time to go.” And I looked at Terence Nelson, who was – who was the photographer, and I said, “Hey, Terence, I think we’ve got enough. We’ve been here like thirty-five minutes.” I said, “How are we doing?” He says, “Yeah, man.” He says, “I’m just about out of juice, battery power, and we’re just about out of tape. You know, we’ve got to go.” And I said, “Okay, I think we’ve got enough. Let’s go.”
So we started to weave our way out. As we’re weaving our way out, I see a –
battalion chief and he starts cursing. I mean, he’s throwing the F bomb at me and Terence left and right, “What the F are you guys doing? Do you have any idea what is going on there?” And we’re like, “Whoa, chief, calm down. You know, we’re just doing our job.” “You could’ve died, you idiots. You were the only ones there. Did you see anybody else?” And we said, “No.” He said, “There’s a reason for that! We’ve got a two-block area cordoned off. That thing’s ready to collapse. We don’t know if it’s going to collapse.” And I said, “Well, what building is it?” He goes, “It’s World Trade Seven.” And I said, “Fuck.” I said, “I didn’t know.” And he said, “Get the mmm out of here now.”
So our live truck was stationed on West Street, and when I got to the live shots, Steve Bikofsky was running the truck and the camera for the live shot. And I said to Steve, because you could see the upper floors from our vantage –
point on the ground on West Street, you could see the upper floors of, of WTC 7. And just because you could see smoke from where it was, it was probably a good, uh, maybe five, six blocks away. And I said to Steve, I said, “Keep the camera trained on that building.”
And I pointed to the building and I said, you know, “I’ve just been told – we were just there.” I said, you know, “We have another truck operator, you know, so you feed the tape.” I said “That thing’s in danger of collapse. Could collapse any minute now.” I said, “Whatever you do, you keep that camera on that building unless we’re going, you know, I’m going live.”
And sure enough, I’m going live, and the next thing I know, as I remember, we were about to take my tape and in the background boom.
Nick Hirshon: Well, and we actually have some clips of this. Um, so if I can, you know, play, I did cut a few clips of your reporting from Seven –
World Trade Center, and I’d like the listeners to hear this and you to react to it. Ah, this first clip that we can play, you’re standing several blocks away from Seven World Trade Center. This is a little bit earlier in the day. A forty-seven-story building that was above a power substation, and when the North Tower collapsed, as you mentioned, the debris damaged the building and sparked fires through it. Um, and then, you know, we’re, we’re gonna get into you being in the building. So if you just bear with me.
[0:28:27] [Audio from WCBS broadcast on Sept. 11, 2001]
“Anchor Ernie Anastos: We have our reporters out in the field. Vince DeMentri is joining us right now. He is live in lower Manhattan. Vince?
Vince DeMentri: I can tell you I’ve just been a place that I have been to that frankly no firefighters want to go to. Behind me you see burning Seven World Trade Center. I didn’t know it at the beginning, at the tape you’re about to see, I didn’t know it was the Seven World Trade Center, but I know it now coming back. A four-block radius has been cordoned off, because fire officials expect that building to collapse. I’ve been within ten feet of that building within the last fifteen minutes. I’ve been as close to where no one wants to be. Take a look.
DeMentri tape at Seven World Trade Center: We are in an abandoned skyscraper and quite frankly I don’t even know where I’m at. I see a sign outside that just gives me a reference of Barclays Street. As you can see all around here, the windows have been blown completely out. And as we take a walk towards the front, towards the front of the building here, you wanna take a look outside. If you have never been to war, like I have never been to war, then this is what it looks like. We don’t know what that building is. We don’t know what this building is. But they’re obviously on fire. Maybe there’s a chance that they could collapse. I’ve been on this Earth for thirty-seven years. I’ve never been to a war. But I can only imagine that this is as close as I’ve ever come.”
You know, I know –
you were the only TV correspondent to gain access to World Trade Center Building Seven while it was on fire and in danger of collapse. We’re going to be playing some other clips, but as I mentioned, you were clearly risking your own safety in this moment.
As I was just playing it back, we’re right now recording so that I can see your reaction. And I know you were closing your eyes and I’m sure this is difficult to relive. So do you remember what was going through your mind at that moment, and what’s going through your mind now as you relive it?
Vince DeMentri: Well, I closed my eyes because I – as I’m hearing myself, the reel – the picture, you know, is playing in my head and I can tell you exactly where I was. We went through an abandoned building. I think later I learned that it was the Verizon Building. And when I went in – and I think I had mentioned it earlier, the vestibule was just, you know,
just destroyed. There was debris, litter, everything everywhere. Windows all knocked out, and the door window was completely gone. And I believe I stepped through the window and talked about “I’ve never been to war,” which is true. And then going outside and then seeing, like I said, the – you know, all the cars incinerated and then this building on fire.
But, you know, I’m trying to think of what was going through my head and, and, and I’ve got to be – I’ll be very honest with you. I do remember what was going through my head. I was just – and please don’t, don’t – you know, some people think it’s, it’s callous and it wasn’t. It is – it is – trust me, I’ve been doing this a long, long time.
Um, but what I was thinking was what I was thinking on many stories, you know,
“Okay, let’s make sure we get this in frame.” Telling the photographer, “Hey, listen. I’m gonna do a standup here. Give ’em a three-two-one count and then just talk off the top of my head. Just talk about what I’m seeing. Just whatever comes to mind.”
Um, nothing was rehearsed, nothing was staged, nothing was written down. Ah, it was just “three, two, one.” That’s, let’s just ad lib. Um, this is what I see. This is what I feel. And that’s what I did. That’s what I talked about. Ah, there was no concern for safety. Ah, it was just – it was just reporter instinct. I guess that’s the only thing I can say. Reporter instinct took over at that point.
You know, and a lot of times we’re taught as reporters, “We’re not the story. The story is the story.” Ah, I couldn’t help but say, “Well, that rule’s gotta go out the window,” because I am part of the story now because I’m in a place nobody else is.
And I think it’s appropriate to share my emotions and what I’m feeling and what I’m seeing on this particular story.
Nick Hirshon: This next clip is perfect suited to what you are just talking about. As you mentioned, journalists are often taught we’re supposed to be neutral, dispassionate, you are not the story, leave your emotions at the door, avoid favoring any side of it, but that concept has been challenged many, many times over the years, especially in coverage of disasters like you were doing. And this was a very personal story for you, very emotional. So I want to play this next clip because that gets into some of your emotion, and then have you react to it on the other end.
[Audio from WCBS broadcast on Sept. 11, 2001]
“Vince DeMentri: The firefighter that you heard in that piece, his name is Lieutenant John Ginta. He talked about wanting to cry at the sight of what he saw. I can now identify with what he’s talking about. He talked about bodies in the street. I didn’t see any. He talked about people being trapped in that rubble. But as many of you well know, and frankly I’m not sure who’s on the anchor desk, but I have many friends in the law enforcement community, and I’ve talked to friends of theirs today. And I found out that many of my friends are in that building, one and two, that have collapsed. And, uh, you try to distance yourself from this stuff but when it hits home, it’s a far different story. So my prayers right now go out to their families, and the families of everyone who’s been affected by this. I’ll throw it back to you in the studio.
Anchor Ernie Anastos: Vince, we join you in what you have just expressed, and we’re also very sorry about the personal involvement that you have in that story.”
So at the end of that clip we hear the anchor, Ernie Anastos. And I also find that clip interesting because it shows that you really weren’t able to keep communication with the studio the entire time. You admit on air, “I’m not even sure who’s on the anchor desk.” You later find out that it’s Ernie Anastos and Dana Tyler –
live on the air. Ah, but you know, you’re acknowledging in that moment your own emotion.
Ah, if you’re a good reporter you’re going to develop relationships with sources in law enforcement. And then we’re seeing right behind you the sirens and the – you know, the firefighters and the police, some of whom you’ve obviously established, you know, relationships with professionally over the years. So what was that like?
Vince DeMentri: That was that was – that was – that was tough, and it was difficult to, ah – if you see that clip, I think you’ll see me several times look away from the camera. Um, and that’s – that’s in an effort to try to keep my emotions in check, try to keep from, ah – so, you know, I look away to check my emotions. And as I was talking, I was thinking about, you know, the seven – seven friends I had, Port Authority, FDNY, NYPD.
Things were happening so rapidly you didn’t have time to think because you were – you were on the air nonstop. And at that point I was leading the coverage for, for Channel 2, and in between doing hits for CBS affiliates, the network. So I didn’t have a lot of time to stop and think. Um, it was just in go mode, you know? Find out what you can directing my photography, the photographer who was with me, try to get what you can, try to do whatever you can.
And then, you know, the minutes I would have in between trying to get a hold of contacts and see what was – what was happening and what was going on. And then you know, a lot of this stuff didn’t hit me for days. You know, you were just kind – I don’t want to say autopilot, but you just,
you know, my journalistic instincts took over and you were just running on pure adrenaline.
And as I said, you know, the ethical thing, you know, some of the things you might not have reported in another story. Um, I felt it was appropriate to report in this story. Um, emotions, you know, taught never to show, being part of the story, making yourself part of the story. To me that went out the window. This was something we had never seen. The likes of which we’ve never seen. God help us that we never see something like that again. So I said you can take Journalism 101, that book, and you can throw it out the window.
Nick Hirshon: Yeah, definitely.
Vince DeMentri: I’m going to go with my experience and what I feel is appropriate and right. And if I get criticized later, I get criticized for it, but this is – this is what I’m going to do, and that’s what I did.
Nick Hirshon: You know, you mention in one of the clips that you try to distance yourself from these sorts of things, but when it hits home it becomes a different story. And this is where I’d like to get into how your reporting on Sept. 11 affected you then and continues to perhaps affect you today.
Um, I want to just read this quote. There’s Columbia University’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma that put out a report. It says, “Journalists are professional first-responders to crisis and disasters, but they’re among the last of those groups to recognize the psychological implications of that responsibility.”
Um, so the Dart Center does focus on ethical and thorough reporting of trauma. So when you yourself are interviewing people who’ve just experienced something traumatic, like running out of those buildings, but again, we sometimes don’t reflect on ourselves and how that can influence us, you know, reporters who cover war.
Ah, have you dealt with any long-term effects of that reporting that day?
Vince DeMentri: Oh, sure. Absolutely. I’ll tell you something and you can believe it, you can’t believe it. That’s entirely up to you, but my wife will attest to it. Um, four or five days a week, this is God’s honest truth, I’ll be sitting in my office like I am now, or maybe I’m sitting and I’m watching television, and four or five days a week, whether it be morning or night, I’ll be typing in my office, let’s say, in the morning, and I’ll just glance at the clock, and it’ll say 9:11.
Sitting with my family at night watching a program. What time is it? [inaudible] I wonder what time it is. Glance at the clock: 9:11.
And right away, as soon as I see 9:11, the highlight reel starts going. And that happens to me four or five times a week. And I swear to – I swear to you, that it’s [inaudible] that that happens to me. I don’t know why, obviously. Ah, almost sixth sense, seven sense. I have no idea, but it happens.
Um, there are certain smells, sounds that I’ll see or smell or sense or hear a song see something on television that’ll take me back.
Nick Hirshon: Yeah. Well, you know, again, thank you – thank you for your willingness to go into all of this because I know it’s such a challenge to discuss it, and all these vivid memories are coming back and I can understand the emotion.
Um, I, I know this is, you know, another part of this that you and I have talked about –
before we recorded the podcast, but now that we’re talking about 9/11 twenty years later in 2021, you know, at the time it seemed like the most cataclysmic event imaginable, and something that would never be forgotten. Nearly three thousand people were killed immediately in those attacks. About 2,600 at the World Trade Center plus four hundred others at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, and you mentioned how many others have died over the past twenty years from 9/11-related illnesses.
And in those months right after Sept. 11, I was living in New York. I remember seeing all of those banners and murals going up across the city, across the nation with the words “Never Forget.” But even though it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime event that would linger in the public consciousness for many, many years, historians often warn that we should wait to evaluate the impact of the event for at least twenty years, which is the milestone we’re coming up on now, to see if it does stand the test of time, how significant does society view it many years later.
And as you and I have discussed, in the years since we’ve seen a wave of tragedies: mass shootings, tornadoes, hurricanes, and of course now a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people in the United States. And it’s not to mitigate any one tragedy over another, but it’s just that as more recent events happen, I think that takes away from some of the you know, the, the memory unfortunately of 9/11.
So I’m wondering, how do you feel about this? How concerned are you that twenty years later, memories of Sept. 11 are starting to fade away?
Vince DeMentri: I’m, I’m very concerned, and I think if you’ll recall, when you first contacted me and asked me if I would be willing to talk about my experience for your podcast, I was very eager to do it because of that very reason. Too many people, I think,
in this country are either – I don’t know if they’re numb to it, or they don’t want to think about it, but what happened on 9/11 wasn’t just a tragedy.
It wasn’t just horrific. It changed the world. It changed the way we live as Americans. TSA didn’t exist. Homeland Security did not exist. All of the security measures that you see today, FISA Court, the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, the Patriot Act, video cameras everywhere, data mining – none of that existed prior to 9/11. All of that and more –
is the result of 9/11.
And I don’t believe people have really sat down and thought about not just the day, but the ripple effect of how it’s changed our lives. The world changed immeasurably in the days, the weeks, the months, the years following 9/11. This is something that, that needs, that has to be remembered. I don’t care if you live in Timbuktu or the northern reaches of Alaska, farthest sands of Hawaii. Everybody needs to remember and pray to God that it never ever happens again.
And also look at the fallout and what’s happened afterward, the thousands of Americans, men and women, who went to war –
patriotically to get the bad guys, who lost their lives. Thousands of others came home not whole, whether they lost limbs or had traumatic brain injuries. They’ll never be the same. So I think it’s a real shame if we just kind of sweep it under the rug and just say, “Oh, that was so horrible. We don’t want to think about it,” as we so often do.
Well, sometimes things are painful for a reason, so you don’t forget, so you don’t [inaudible] again, so you don’t make yourself lax and an easy target, and to make sure that another tragedy like this that your child and your grandchild doesn’t ever have to go through something like this.
Nick Hirshon: As we close out the episode, that really –
goes to the heart of the question that we often ask at the end is you’re talking about the importance of remembering this event. And also I think it’s important to remember the careers of the journalists like yourself who were brave enough to go into burning buildings and report there.
Um, as I mentioned, when I was watching that moment on live television, with no other television station to turn to, I just remember thinking, “Wow, this is exactly the reason why I’m an aspiring journalist. You can bring news of value to people who have no other means of getting it.”
And I was thinking, “I don’t think I could ever be as brave as Vince DeMentri going into these buildings at that moment,” but it’s important to recognize your kind of service there you know, that continues to linger in the public consciousness now that we have a record of something that otherwise would have gone unseen.
Vince DeMentri: Well, I appreciate the kind words, Nick.
But I don’t consider myself brave. I was just – I was doing my job. I was doing my job, and I realized, took me a little bit, but within hours I realized, you know, after learning the Pentagon and, you know, Shanksville, the plane going down outside of Pittsburgh. We were dealing with something where we didn’t know it was Osama bin Laden at the time. We didn’t know [inaudible] al Qaeda. But we certainly knew it was some sort of terrorist event, and that we were under attack.
And a lot of people don’t know this, but it was – there was tremendous pushback in the early days, in the early hours from – from – and I don’t want to criticize them, because I might have been the same way had I been in their shoes. But there was a lot of criticism against the media, that we were ghouls and we were vultures and we were sensationalists, and all we wanted to show were the dead bodies and the people jumping out of the buildings and –
what was left of the World Trade Center.
And I could tell you obviously it’s the biggest story in my career, and I’ve had a lot of – been involved in a lot of big stories, national and world [inaudible]. But I’d be happy to give that up any day of the week if I could say – wipe it away and say that never happened. Take it away.
So we had to fight. And if people go back and if they Google, you know, journalists, a lot of journalists who were arrested who were properly credentialed. Because they found, may have found themselves in a cordoned-off zone. Um, you know, twenty years later now it’s like, “Oh, wow, this guy was at World Trade Seven.”
You know, and I’ve gotten a ton of accolades and I remember the days following and weeks and months –
I got a lot of letters from people, and not a one of them was negative. Very complimentary. And people telling me that they – that I was their lifeline in a way. You know, they lived in Queens, or they lived in Brooklyn or Staten Island, or the upper reaches of Manhattan. And I was their lifeline as to what was happening, and I was a common voice, and they appreciated sharing the emotion that I had.
I’d meet people in the street and they would smile and people would come up and hug me and tell me they watched, and that was really gratifying. Um, but I’m not going to lie to you in those early days it was very hard to do the job. Very hard. And there were forces against us that did not – when I say us, I mean journalists in general – who did not want us to have access to the World Trade Center site.
Nick Hirshon: Mm-hmm. Well, and thank you –
for sharing the kind of challenges that you were facing. As I was watching some of the clips I could see police backing you away, and I’m sure you had a lot of just challenges physically getting from location to location. Of course the communication with sources, with the studio. We’ve gone over all of that.
Vince DeMentri: Yup.
Nick Hirshon: As we wrap up, since you are on the Journalism History podcast, I want to just ask you this closing question that we always have for guests. And usually they are scholars of journalism history, but I would like to ask you as a journalist who witnessed history: Why does journalism history matter?
Vince DeMentri: Oh my God. Why does journalism history matter? Because if it’s done right – you know, you’ve often heard the phrase that “history is written by the victors,” but if journalism is done right and there’s not,
as we so often see today, a biased angle or a biased network. If you’re a Republican, you watch this one; if you’re a Democrat you watch this thing. That didn’t exist in 2001 and prior to that.
So I will answer your question simply. If the journalist does his or her job properly and does their best to be as unbiased as they possibly can, and do their best to get all sides, because it’s not always two sides, to get all sides and tell the best possible story they can with what they have, that that’s our real history.
Not some biased history written by the victors, where the losers don’t have a chance to say, “Oh, but wait a minute. You guys are the – you want to make yourselves out to be good guys. You did some bad things, too.”
It’s the journalists who point out that the good guys might have done this, but they did some bad things, too. And it’s that reason that journalistic history in my mind is part of the fiber that often goes unappreciated, part of the fiber of this country and what it stands for. It’s under attack now. It’s changed since I’ve left the business.
Not going to get into that whole thing. That’s maybe another podcast if you want to do that with me. But if you want to talk about why journalism history is important, because as I said, if it’s done right, then you get to read the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Nick Hirshon: And for our listeners who would like to mark the twentieth anniversary of Sept. 11 by seeing some of those pictures and hearing some of those sounds, you should certainly go on YouTube and look up –
some of Vince’s reports from Sept. 11 on CBS. We thank CBS because they allowed us to play the audio from some of those clips as part of the podcast today, which was just a nice way of, I think, understanding you know, get the full, comprehensive picture of really what was going down.
Vince, I know we could talk for hours about this subject. You have a lot to say about it. Um, you know, as we wrap up I just want to thank you so much for spending the time, again, to tackle something that can be very difficult to kind of get into, but that we both agree is so important to maintain the memory of Sept. 11.
Um, and just to, for a younger generation who may never be exposed to this otherwise, this podcast is sometimes used as a teaching tool by a lot of journalism professors, so hopefully they get a better sense of what reporters really went through that day. Thank you for taking the time to do that.
Vince DeMentri: Nick, it’s my pleasure and hats off to you. Because without people like you –
teaching this, the new generation, they’re coming out of school, and the journalists that are now entering the field, and now in this podcast to mark history, and be gracious enough and kind enough to ask people like myself to recall their stories who wouldn’t get out there. So I want to thank you. I think you’re doing a yeoman’s job, and I hope there are many others around the country that are attempting to do this and are doing this.
Because you can’t forget. You can’t forget this. You can’t just put this in the rear-view mirror.
Nick Hirshon: It’s a great way to finish. Never forget. Thank you.
Vince DeMentri: My pleasure.
Nick Hirshon: Thanks for tuning in, and additional thanks to our sponsor, Taylor & Francis. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter at @JHistoryJournal. Until next time, I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow, “Good night, and good luck.”