By Lou Young, CBS 2 News
NEW YORK (CBS 2) — The news comes in hinted fragments. First there’s a Twitter feed inadvertently live from the scene of the top-secret mission. Then there’s digital chatter about something happening in the Islamabad suburb of Abbottabad in far-off Pakistan: helicopters and gunfire, shouts and explosions. Then in my own New York living room the TV network is suddenly on standby as White House correspondents receive messages from their sources to “get to work.”
The president is expected to make a statement according to the words suddenly appearing on the bottom of the screen. The show I’m watching becomes instantly irrelevant. Something is happening.
Changing channels briefly, I see the 24 cable news outfits are in full speculation mode. The coverage, though, is uneven, the delivery tentative. That somehow underlines the urgency of the moment. Finally this is the feel of REAL breaking news, authentically conveying the intensity that news graphics and dramatic music try to achieve artificially.
You can read between the lines: Osama bin Laden has been captured or killed.
That’s what they’re implying. Ten years this coming September 11 since the towers fell and they have him? They have him? Is it possible?
My phone rings before official confirmation is broadcast to the world. It’s true. He’s dead and I need to be at work by 3 a.m. on a Sunday night, just enough time for a nap before a drive in the dark down to Manhattan. It doesn’t seem real. I sleep uneasily and wake minutes before the alarm goes off. I call to verify it is still happening, half expecting a false alarm, but it’s true. No dream. I drive in.
The details of the story are piled into files on the computer when I arrive. The statements from the president’s address, the various interviews with security experts, a map, file pictures of bin Laden, snippets of images from a burning building in Pakistan. I link them together in a narrative for a video editor to assemble while watching the clock, and then head down to ground zero to “front” the report live. We are on at 4:30, otherwise known as the middle of the night. Anyone watching the news at this hour will likely be getting it for the first time. This is important. I am returning to the scene of the horrendous crime to report the mass murderer has been found and killed 10 years after the fact. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the place has always seem strange and haunted. In the wee hours of Monday morning the feeling is more acute.
We’re on the air.
Hours earlier when it was still Sunday night, the street here had been filled with revelers chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A!” and singing “God Bless America.” The street now is littered with debris and those people left standing unevenly, some literally wrapped in American flags, are too drunk to sing. Police usher them into a penned off area where the incoherent profanities cannot be picked up by the microphones. The celebration has run its course. I look up into the darkness at the place where the towers once dominated the sky. Remembering the impossibly deep rumble and explosion of dust that day almost tens years ago, I struggle to keep it all connected.
We are on at 4:30, again at 5 a.m., 5:30, 6 and then again a half hour later. In between the live shots elements of the taped “insert” are changed. Interviews are removed and others are added. The words are altered to fit new pictures that have come in. A photograph of bin Laden briefly circulates but never makes air. It shows him with a bullet wound in his head, his eyes swollen shut by swelling. It’s a fake. We couldn’t have used it anyway, but too bad because in the picture he looks like he died suffering. That reaction surprises me because it comes without heat or passion — a cold wish for him to have died in terror and pain, an un-Christian thought I am ashamed of.
Still editing, we add details in the live portion of the report in repeated calls to the managing editor back at the office.
When we get to 7 a.m., the network takes over coverage and I collapse in the news van, passed out cold in the front passenger’s seat. An hour passes in an instant. The crew says I was snoring loudly, but they are more good-natured about it than my wife usually is.
We’re doing it again at noon. We go back to work. We’re portable now, roaming the sidewalks around ground zero getting shots of the workday crowds surging along Church and Vesey streets. Many people are taking pictures of the construction activity at Ground Zero but only a few are here specifically because of bin Laden’s death. This is now like a 9/11 memorial ceremony. It’s different. No one is certain how we’re supposed to act here at hallowed ground.
Of course, there’s a guy with a sign and an American flag. He’s a Vietnam vet with a broad smile on his face. “We finally got him,” he says. “I’m not a violent man,” he assures me (curious statement from a former soldier) “but the world has to know that justice is certain. It’s been too long.”
Then there’s the ironworker who says he toiled at ground zero in “the pit” in the weeks after the attack. He is in no mood to celebrate. “I keep putting on a smiley face,” he tells me. But he clearly isn’t feeling it. Bin Laden is dead, but nothing has been undone.
A tourist from Pittsburgh was crying. I asked, “Why?”
“It’s big. It’s big,” she blubbers. “I don’t know.” She and her friends were supposed to be on their way home, but couldn’t leave when they heard the news. Looking at her I figure she must have been a child when the attack happened. A child. Now I can almost touch what’s been bothering me. I file the noon report, tired, spent and remembering.
On Sunday at church I saw one of the victims: a neighbor with one of her children. Her husband died when the first plane hit. I marveled that she is grown now, almost a woman, so small that bright September day. Could that much time have passed already? The killer is dead, but his deed lives on.
Now I remember the piece of child’s artwork in the basement I cannot bear to throw away. My son, barely 5 at the time, built a dream city out of cardboard. A series of gigantic twin towers, some linking up to become groups of four in a city protected by rivers and ringed by roadways and a series of encirclements identified as … army bases. It is a simple expression of a child’s anxiety seeping into his young mind through snatches of conversation from a father returning every night in dust-covered clothes, then leaving on long trips to strange places and returning with pictures of camels, soldiers, tanks, and men in flowing robes.
No, I’m not in a mood to celebrate. But I’m glad he’s dead. And I hope it hurt.
CBS 2’s Lou Young has seen it all during his time as one of New York City’s most respected television journalists. Please offer your thoughts below on his first-hand account of a day that won’t be soon be forgotten.
CBS 2 HD News Reporter Lou Young
A native New Yorker, Lou Young joined CBS 2 in June 1994. He has served as a broadcast journalist in the New York market since 1981, working at both WABC-TV (1981-1990) and WNBC-TV (1990-1994). His blog, “Through A New York Eye,” is the longest-running blog on CBSNewYork.com. To send a message to Lou, click here. You can also follow Lou on Twitter.com by clicking here.