PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Walt Hunter has been reporting for over four decades, but nothing compares to what he experienced on September 11, 2001.
Hunter, a 31-year veteran reporter at CBS 3 Eyewitness News, remembers watching American Airlines Flight 11 hit the north tower and, moments later, United Airlines Flight 175 strike the south tower of the World Trade Center. He was watching it on a television screen with several other stunned reporters, producers and assignment editors in the Center City newsroom. Everyone dropped what they were doing and stayed glued to the television screen, completely transfixed.
“An Attack On America” was what many stations were labeling it and Hunter, much like many others in our generation, had never seen anything like it.
He stood there in front of the television screen with his colleagues, experiencing the same disbelief and concern for all of the people in New York City. It took a while before the events within that hour processed. Instead of continuing to be overwhelmed with emotion, Hunter took some time to collect his thoughts and think professionally. He asked himself, “What does this mean for Philadelphia?”
Right after the second plane hit, Hunter heard rumors that there were other potential targets in the country. Those rumors turned out to be true.
Hunter snapped out of his state of mind. What some might call rather brave or even absurd, Hunter got a camera crew and headed straight for the high-rise buildings in Philadelphia – pen, paper, and press pass in hand.
“My thought was, and my concern was, that we potentially could be targets first of all, and secondly, if we weren’t targets, that the people in these buildings would be aware fairly quickly of what was going on,” said Hunter, who spent much of his morning relying on real-time television to get the latest information – just like the rest of the terrified city.
No one wanted to be in the city and people started to pour out of the buildings, trying to get home to their loved ones, Hunter recalled. The people that did stay behind went to the nearest television screens, whether it was at a convenience store or a gas station, to watch the developments unfold.
Hunter spent most of the day talking to people in Center City. One woman, a model from New York City, was in Philadelphia at the time of the attack and could only watch in horror as a piece of her home was destroyed.
Hunter interviewed several of these people, getting their reactions, trying to hold back his own fear. In the back of his mind, he wondered about the safety of his own family and friends. “Were they okay, were they in any danger,” he thought to himself.
Two days later, Hunter and a cameraman drove up to New York to cover the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Hunter didn’t spend the ride trying to determine the right angle for the story or what questions he would ask like some reporters might’ve done. Instead, he worried about getting as close to Ground Zero as possible. Knowing that transportation was going to be minimal, Hunter wanted to make sure he got to his destination safely so that he could do his job – relay what was going on around him.
His four-day course of live reporting from New York would be one the most “heart-wrenching moments” in his life.
“There were hundreds, probably thousands, of people who genuinely believed that their loved ones were in there. They also still had hope, 48, 72 , 96 hours after that they were still alive,” said Hunter.
Family members of the 9/11 victims approached Hunter constantly, the moment he arrived in New York. Each one had a story to tell.
“They would plead, ‘If you know anything, please put their picture up,’” said Hunter.
It was in these moments that Hunter realized that this was not going to be a story just about hard facts and the terrorism behind the attacks. It was about relaying what everyone was feeling.
While getting in front of the camera, Hunter expressed the sense of shock, the sense of horror – the same reactions of those who were around him. He had a job to do, but at the end of the day, he was still a human. He felt the same pain, and most importantly, he understood the suffering that surrounded him. Hunter thought back to the day.
“There were wives looking for husbands, husbands looking for wives, grandparents looking for grandchildren.
“It was one thing to see the towers come down, the catastrophic crash, but it was another thing to see day to day, minute to minute, hour to hour, the light of hope, faith from all those people for their loved ones,” Hunter said. “We couldn’t broadcast all their stories, but we could listen to them and I’d listen to as many as I possibly could.”
Hunter recalled even an officer had given him and his cameraman a picture of his niece and asked them to please keep an eye out for her. The idea that the officer, who probably hadn’t slept in 48 hours, and who was consumed with directing traffic and patrolling the area took the time out to talk to the media, shocked Hunter.
“It just went to show that everyone was affected by this,” Hunter said.
“Everybody in the country felt very helpless to do anything about the horror of what had happened, and for those families, if they thought talking to someone in the media would help, it gave them the feeling, however tiny the consolation, that they were doing something. They were doing something,” said Hunter.
It almost wasn’t journalistic and more of a ministering to their sadness, Hunter recalled. “That was the most enduring horror for me.”
Hunter was not able to get within one or two blocks of Ground Zero the day he arrived to New York because at that point it was highly secured, but being able to provide that support for all of the hundreds of people who approached him brought him satisfaction.
“It’s one of the saddest things in all my forty years of reporting. It doesn’t fade after ten years. It’s just as fresh as if it happened yesterday,” said Hunter.
Ten years later, Hunter hopes this country continues to hold on to hope. “That unity that we felt after taking this death blow from terrorists, my hope would be that we could hold that and make that unity even stronger, that we can not just fight terrorism, but we can use that unity as a model to cross any barriers that keeps us apart.”
Reported by Crystal Cranmore, CBSPhilly.com