Texas Tech University

Scott Pelley: A Witness to 9/11

Glenys Young

September 9, 2021

The “60 Minutes” correspondent will premier an hourlong special this weekend to mark the 20th anniversary of the attacks.

The Best of District IV Awards

Veteran journalist Scott Pelley has hunkered down beside American soldiers while enemy mortar shells exploded overhead. He's experienced the ferocity of Mother Nature, the wind lashing his body and rain stinging his eyes as he urged people to evacuate ahead of deadly hurricanes. He's had his face pressed into the asphalt by the muzzle of a loaded pistol.

But only once in his nearly 40-year career has this Texas Tech University alumnus thought, “I'm not going to make it out of this alive.”

It was Sept. 11, 2001, and he was at the World Trade Center in New York City.

Plans interrupted

It was the most beautiful morning, he remembers. It was sunny and cloudless; a light breeze cooled his skin as he settled into his usual run. Early autumn colors were just beginning to appear in the trees of Central Park.

World Trade Center - Twin Towers
Credit: Library of Congress/Carol M. Highsmith

Pelley lived near Washington, D.C., but as a reporter for CBS' “60 Minutes II,” he was in New York to write and edit his upcoming story on Mad Cow Disease. His brain was already beginning to string together sentences as he returned to his hotel, showered and dressed. Just before he headed out the door for the CBS high-rise headquarters on West 57th Street, he paused for a quick check of the morning news.

What he saw rooted him to the spot.

Anchorman Bryant Gumbel was cutting in with a special report. An airplane had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center, but details were scarce. One eyewitness caller said it seemed like a small plane. Watching the smoke pour out of the building, Pelley thought that was unlikely – the day was too clear for an accident.

Suddenly a fireball erupted on the lower-left corner of the screen, and a woman Gumbel was interviewing exclaimed, “Oh, there's another one! Another plane just hit!”

Scott Pelley
Scott Pelley

Pelley watched in horror as the realization sunk in that the south tower had also been struck. As yet another eyewitness assessed, “It could hardly be a coincidence that two airplanes fly into the World Trade Center within minutes of each other on a clear day.”

He knew the caller was right. He also knew something the caller might not: On any given day, as many as 40,000 people were in those two towers.

Flicking the TV off, Pelley hurried down to the street and waved down a taxi. “World Trade Center,” he said, climbing in.

Already listening on the radio, the driver said shrewdly, “They ain't going to let you near it.”

“Well, get as far as you can,” Pelley said.

Running toward danger

His hotel was an eight-mile drive from the World Trade Center, and sure enough, the taxi never got that far. All eight lanes of the West Side Highway were blocked – not only by the blue sawhorse barricades put up by the New York Police Department, but also by thousands of people fleeing downtown on foot. On their faces were varying degrees of numbness and disbelief tinged with relief to be alive.

September 11, 2001
September 11, 2001

Pelley ducked out of the cab and began pushing his way through the crowd, apologizing again and again as he ran, knocking into people. Glancing up at the thick, gray smoke billowing out of the Twin Towers, he estimated he was still two miles away.

Stumbling on something under his feet, he looked down, but the crowd was so dense around him he couldn't see the road. He could only feel it under the soles of his dress shoes, as well as whatever obstacles he was now encountering with every footstep. As the crowd thinned a few blocks further on, he finally saw what they were: hundreds of pairs of high heels left behind by women running to safety.

Still a few blocks from the World Trade Center, Pelley pulled out his cell phone and dialed the CBS News National Desk. The assistant who answered his call informed Pelley the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., also had been hit. He was suddenly afraid for his wife, Jane, and their 9-year-old son, Reece, and 6-year-old daughter, Blair, back at home. It seemed all their fates were suddenly uncertain.

‘That can't be happening'

Scott Pelley

As he got closer and West Side Highway turned into West Street, Pelley's view of the towers was obstructed by other skyscrapers. The now-black smoke increasingly blocked out the clear blue sky and most of what he could see ahead. Soon, instead of businesspeople in skirts and suits, he found himself passing dazed, blood-streaked firefighters, their clothes gray with dust and ash.

As Pelley emerged within sight of the north tower, stopping at last, his immediate reaction was almost joyous. His vision, obscured by the smoke, and the sirens, shouts and chaos drowning out all other sounds, he assumed the north tower was blocking his view of its sibling. He imagined those 40,000 people had a chance to escape. This idea was supported by the sight of teams of firefighters in clean gear rushing past him toward the tower.

He didn't know that the south tower had already collapsed.

September 11, 2001

After his long run, Pelley found himself at a standstill, with nothing to do but wait and watch the action unfold. Around him, West Street was strewn with debris. A collapsed pedestrian bridge appeared to have sliced a firetruck in half. He looked up 110 stories, past the gaping hole in the side of the tower, from which flames were still blazing, to the 362-foot telecommunications mast atop its roof.

“It started to tick back and forth like a metronome,” Pelley recalls. “And my first thought was, ‘Well, that can't be happening.' I thought what I was seeing was just the heat torturing the light and causing an optical illusion. But as soon as I thought that, the tower started to implode.”

Pelley remembers it in slow motion – the top third of the building, above the gash, fell one floor and paused, then another floor and paused, then another. Surely it will stop, he thought. Just one more floor and it'll stop. But in truth, there was no halting such a descent. Once the collapse had begun, each successive floor succumbed more rapidly than the last. Television viewers saw one of the tallest buildings in the nation, the pinnacle of American achievement, freefall in a cloud of smoke and dust.

Scott Pelley

From Pelley's position near the base of the tower, it felt like the end of the world. In that moment, with his wife and children's situation unknown, and his own life in peril, Pelley wasn't thinking of any of them. He was thinking about all the lives in the towers.

“I dropped to my knees and called out to God,” Pelley remembers. “I assumed I was witnessing the deaths of 20,000 people, so I called out to God and said, ‘God, take them all with no pain!'”

Expecting to be overwhelmed by the building and its the debris, the last thing Pelley remembers is closing his eyes as the tower rained down.

Running for his life

But that wasn't the end.

“There are these two little structures in your brain called the amygdalae,” Pelley explains. “There's one on each side, and they are responsible for saving you from danger. They're the reason you jump back on the curb before you can consciously think, ‘That bus almost hit me!' They literally operate faster than conscious thought.

Scott Pelley

“And so, I don't have a conscious memory of getting off my knees – my next memory at that point is running with the sound of steel crashing in the street behind me.”

He ran, quite literally, for his life. Pursuing him was a wall of dust and ash 10 stories high. Behind that wall, an unseen barrage – 500,000 tons of metal and glass and wood and sheetrock and concrete, some of it still burning, along with everything that had been inside the tower: elevators and florescent lights and sections of stairwells; plumbing and air conditioning and fire suppression systems; computers and filing cabinets and desks – and the framed family photos atop them.

Pelley doesn't know how far he ran – he kept going until it seemed like the crashing had stopped. For the first time, he looked back and could see the dust beginning to settle. Sheets of paper floated in the air like macabre confetti.

He felt a mix of horror and disbelief, combined with a sense of fragility and overwhelming loss he'd never before experienced. He uses the word “hollow.”

Scott Pelley

But with the realization he survived came a second realization: he had a job to do. He turned around and walked back into the destruction zone that would soon be known to the world as Ground Zero.

The first report

As he reached Vesey Street, a vast pile of rubble and wreckage stretched before him – 16 acres worth. The smoke still rising from it was now white, as if the building had finally signaled its surrender. But all the things Pelley expected to see – all those mementos of people and their work and their very lives – were absent. All was dust and ash.

Pelley flipped open his cell phone only to find that the communications system had collapsed with the towers. But there, on the street corner, was a miraculous throwback to pre-cell phone days – a pay phone. Of course, like most of us today, Pelley didn't have any change in his pockets. But he chanced it, and found to his sweet relief that the phone company had switched into emergency mode, activating all pay phones for coin-free calls.

Scott Pelley

Within seconds, the editor at the CBS News National Desk answered. Shouting in the background of the call told Pelley the newsroom was in full swing, determined to get accurate information out to the public as quickly as possible.

“I'm at the World Trade Center,” Pelley said. “Do you need me to file a report?”

He imagined there were other journalists nearby, reporting in, perhaps already live on the air. He was wrong – he was the only CBS News employee anywhere close. The editor immediately transferred the call to CBS' television and radio networks, and moments later, Pelley's voice was being broadcast across the country and around the world. He described the building's collapse, the scene of destruction and the tenacity of the New York City firefighters already climbing into the wreckage to search for survivors.

Another near-miss

That afternoon, he was interviewing some of those same firefighters, by then exhausted and heartbroken, across Vesey Street in front of 7 World Trade Center, another building in the complex. The 47-story building had been badly damaged in the collapse of its siblings and had been burning for hours, panes of glass popping out of windows only to shatter in the street.

A police officer ran up to them, interrupting the interview to shout, “This one's coming down. Get out of here, now!” before bolting away.

Scott Pelley

The firefighters stood up and made their way down the street. The interview ruined, Pelley had nothing to do but follow. A minute and a half later, he reached a CBS live truck, where a producer hurriedly told him 7 World Trade Center had collapsed and they were putting him on the air immediately. Pelley refused, saying he was just there and the building was still standing. Emotionlessly, the truck engineer showed him irrefutable proof – video of the building collapsing only seconds after Pelley and the firefighters left. Shaken by his second near-miss in hours, Pelley nevertheless went back on the air.

Pelley returned to Ground Zero every day for the next two weeks, sharing stories of the rescue teams digging through the rubble. But there were no rescues to report. The last survivor, a police sergeant, was found on Sept. 12.

“A producer came down with a wad of $100 bills,” Pelley recalls. “We would shoot a story about what was happening at Ground Zero, and then he would wave down a random passing car, hand the driver a $100 bill and our videotape and say, ‘Please take this to 524 West 57th St.,' which is where CBS is. That's how we operated for the next 72 hours or so.”

Telling the stories

In the weeks after 9/11, Pelley shared stories of the gallant firefighters who dutifully ran into the World Trade Center as everyone else was running out. In all, 343 members of the Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) were killed that day.

One of those was Lt. Bobby Regan. A full month after 9/11, with Regan still unaccounted for, Pelley sat down to interview the man's family. His son, 12-year-old Brendan, was openly dealing with the loss, so when Pelley asked the boy what he would say to his father, if he could, he immediately regretted the question.

Twenty years later, he still gets emotional thinking about it.

“When I asked Brendan that question, it was his face – he was just crestfallen, crushed by the idea of speaking to his father again,” Pelley said. “This was early on, when people were missing and not known to be dead, and of course, families were hanging on to any kind of hope that their loved one would be found miraculously in the debris.

“But somehow, he knew that probably wasn't the case. And so, when I asked that question…”

Pelley paused, huffing a sigh in which his remorse was palpable.

“It illuminated how people were feeling and what their hopes were, and that was important for reporting the story,” he said, his voice thick with tears, “but I had caused more stress for a little boy whose father was missing, and I did not feel that was the right thing to do in retrospect.”

‘A lasting effect'

From his youngest days growing up in Lubbock, majoring in journalism at Texas Tech, working at the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal newspaper and then KAMC-TV, Pelley recognized in himself an overpowering desire to be on the scene of momentous events. Being in those places and talking to the people enables him to experience them vicariously, which allows him to better communicate with the audience. But the experiences come with a cost.

“Empathy is the greatest tool a writer can have,” Pelley said. “With empathy, you can wear the clothes, if you will, of the people you're writing about and really understand and be able to communicate who they are, what their dreams and tragedies are. But that is a double-edged sword. If you have the kind of empathy that allows you to be a writer, then you're also taking on all of the emotions others face. In a reporter's life, that means many, many, many tragedies. And it's a hard lesson in life, to learn that you're not impervious to those things. They do bear a cost on your own soul.

“And so, when you're standing in front of the World Trade Center and the building is falling down in front of you, that has a lasting effect on your life.”

Pelley went to Iraq 26 times during the war there and to Afghanistan 10 times. He's covered hurricanes, forest fires, earthquakes and terror attacks alike. And yet, he was always optimistic about his own survival. Besides, as a reporter, he had a deadline to meet – so he had to make it out alive.

“The one time that seemed existential to me was the World Trade Center,” he admits. “That moment on West Street on 9/11, that is an event that changes your life, your perspective on life – everything about your life.”

Perhaps that's why 9/11 became the first chapter of Pelley's 2019 memoir, “Truth Worth Telling: A Reporter's Search for Meaning in the Stories of Our Times.”

Revisiting 9/11

To commemorate the attack's 20th anniversary this week, Pelley has compiled a special hourlong “60 Minutes” feature for the season premier. The episode will air at 6:30 p.m. Sunday (Sept. 12) on CBS.

“It's very rare,” he explains. “I've done three of them in my 22 years at ‘60 Minutes.'”

The episode focuses on the fire department – how the events unfolded, the decisions that were made and the lives lost. But the special's third section truly highlights the indomitable spirit of families like the Regans, whose lives were changed forever.

“Guess what Brendan Regan does for a living today?” Pelley challenged.

He is one of 60 children who lost their fathers that day, who are now firefighters in the FDNY. As Pelley notes, “It's a hell of a story, and quite a remarkable turn of events.”

And for a man who still feels blessed to have lived to tell the tale, it's a perfect ending.