NY1 VIDEO: As part of NY1's coverage of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, NY1 Executive Producer Matt Besterman discusses his memories of the attacks of September 11, 2001.
It was my day off that day. We'd been upstate the night before – even remarked on the skyline as we drove home over the George Washington Bridge. My kids – just two of them at that time, ages 3 and 1 -- were watching Sesame Street. I stepped out of the room for a moment. Then my wife called to me, I came back in – and Sesame Street was gone, replaced by a BBC image of smoke rising from one of the Twin Towers. A plane had hit.
My first thought was that it was an accident – a small plane that had lost its way. Still, I called into work, asking if they needed help. “I think we'll need all the help we can get,” said the morning producer. So I jumped in the shower.
While I was in there, my wife yelled that a second plane had hit. “This isn't an accident,” I said. “This is an attack.”
I walked from our house in Gramercy to NY1, which at that time was on West 42nd Street. The towers were both standing when I left the house (and someone was talking about a plane hitting the Pentagon, which I dismissed as a crazy rumor at the time). Somewhere around 23rd and 5th, I looked downtown and thought, "That looks wrong. Is one tower behind the other? Is that why I can only see one?"
Around 6th Avenue, I thought I should get my hands on a radio. Things were happening too fast. I bought a cheap radio – at first I tried a credit card, but it wouldn't go through -- all the phone lines were jammed. So I paid for it with the last 20 bucks in my pocket.
At 34th and 8th, I was listening to WINS. The station's news director was talking to the anchors by phone, from a vantage point on the Brooklyn Bridge, and all of a sudden he said: "IS THAT THE SECOND TOWER? IS THAT THE SECOND TOWER FALLING?"
I had to stop and take the headphones off. I stood there on the corner for a minute, leaning against a building, listening to my own breath. I was wearing a baseball cap. I took it off. Then I started walking again.
I worked 14 hours that day, watching the same video over and over and over again, seeing people leaning out of windows in the Towers, and thinking, "Those people are all dead now." I watched others who didn't wait, and jumped.
There is one moment I remember very vividly. I ran across a reporter who was just back from Ground Zero -- who was there when the towers collapsed. He was caked head to foot in dust. His eyes were bloodshot. I said, "You look like hell." He didn't say a word. He just looked at me like, "Are you kidding me?”
After that I kept my mouth shut and worked some more. At some point I found out that a member of my family was killed: a distant cousin who lived in my hometown, whose daughter went to my high school a couple of years after I did. He was on the Pentagon plane.
I also found out that my father, who'd been in his office in the Woolworth Building when the planes hit, had managed to walk uptown to my apartment, rested for awhile, then found his way to Grand Central and caught a train back home to Westchester. I was relieved he hadn't been hurt.
At 1 in the morning, I was told to go home, but to come to come back in 8 hours or so. That was how we did it for the first few days, improvising a work schedule as we went along.
I walked home through a city I never want to see again. There was not a car on the streets, not a soul, not a sound. I saw Times Square utterly deserted. Only the occasional police car broke the silence.
The next two weeks were the worst I've ever experienced. I'd work for 12 hours at a stretch, go home, come back the next day, repeat. We had a couple of refugees from the frozen zone in Lower Manhattan staying in the house. They were strangers – the owner of the house we lived in had found them and offered them space. My little basement apartment seemed more crowded than usual -- or maybe it was me. I'd come home and not want to talk, or hug my kids, or do anything except sit there and stare into space. I'd get a few hours of sleep in the middle of the day or whenever I could. Then I'd go back to work.
The hardest times were the liveshots from the family centers. We'd go live to a reporter, and the reporter would just interview 5 family members -- they'd step up to the microphone and say, "Has anyone seen ___? He worked on the 101st floor of Tower 2 ..." Over and over and over again, their voices trying to hold on to hope where none was possible.
Two weeks in, I was walking home – I remember this very clearly – and I felt myself come back. At that point I decided not to surrender to hopelessness. It never got that bad again.
So I kept working. I became the producer of New York Tonight, the only live nightly news program devoted entirely to the attacks and their aftermath. I immersed myself in the story for two years, helping to cover the 3-month, 6-month, and 1-year anniversaries. I was privileged to meet many of the victims' family members, whose strength and courage both humbles and inspires me to this day.
One of them gave me a bolt from the World Trade Center – an unglamorous-looking hunk of metal about three inches long, sheared off at one end. It is one of my most cherished possessions.
I feel grateful that I didn't die – and at the same time, for years, I felt a little guilty that I experienced 9/11 from inside a nice safe newsroom when so many others suffered so much. It took a long time to let go of that guilt.
I was a freshman in college in 1993, when the World Trade Center was hit the first time. A week after the attack, I walked down there from my apartment in Greenwich Village, just to see the place. The lights were back on -- after one week. I felt so proud of that. As I walked to work on the morning of September 11, 2001, one of the first things I thought was that the lights would not come back on, this time.
The last clear memory I have of the World Trade Center happened in about May of 2001. I went downtown with my wife and kids to buy a suit at Syms. We got off the subway and came up to street level, into the plaza, and I lifted my three-year-old daughter up and tilted her head back to show her how tall the towers were.
I think I will always miss the Twin Towers. But in the past year I've been glad to see the new towers rising in Lower Manhattan – helping the skyline, and the city, heal.