Beth Fertig slept in on the morning of September 11, 2001. A WNYC reporter covering politics, she expected to be up late that night. “I was supposed to be covering the biggest story of the day, which was the mayoral primary,” she says. When her boss reassigned her that morning, she ended up reporting from one of the biggest stories of the 21st century. She saw the Twin Towers fall and filed dispatches amid the chaos and confusion. Years later, she discovered that a brief description she offered on-air of the South Tower’s collapse had been subsequently picked up by conspiracy theorists. Below, she shares her memories of reporting on 9/11 and what it was like to find her work used to propagate conspiracies.
My news director called me at home just before 9 a.m., and he sounded very, very urgent. He was saying, “I need you to get to City Hall. I need you to find the mayor or the police commissioner. The World Trade Center has been hit by a plane.” I really didn’t take in what he was saying and the importance of it. A few weeks before, a paraglider crashed into the Statue of Liberty, so I had it in my head that this was going to be another one of those freaky things that was just a small incident. I said, “Come on, can somebody else do this?”
I lived exactly one mile north of the towers. When I got downstairs after showering, both of them were burning. It was this very surreal image with the blue sky, the silver towers, black holes, and orange flames jumping out. I started running to catch the 6 train and likely caught the last one that morning. I realized the other people on the train probably had no idea what was happening. I got out at City Hall and there was all this stuff in the air — paper, dust, almost like confetti. Everyone on the street was just standing, watching the buildings burn.
I was trying to find Mayor Giuliani and heard he’d gone to the Office of Emergency Management at 7 World Trade. I just kept thinking, I have to get there. I have to get there. I was about to cross Broadway and a police officer stopped me and told me I couldn’t go, it was too dangerous. I had my microphone out and my press pass and I said, “But I have to go. This is my job.” She said, “Look, I’m doing this to protect your life.” Just as she said that, the South Tower began to fall.
As soon as I saw that the building was coming down, I thought, This is the moment that the news is happening, and started recording. I started narrating what I was seeing, even though it felt uncomfortable to be doing so. I didn’t even know what was happening. People were running and screaming, there was this big cloud of debris. After a few seconds, I realized that if they were running, I should run too. I was bumping into things and there were tons of sirens. I asked this one man to tell me what he was seeing. He couldn’t even talk. It was like he lost the capacity to speak.
Outside our office building, which was about a half mile from the World Trade Center, I found Marianne McCune, a reporter and colleague. I was yelling to her, “Don’t go down there. Don’t go down there. It’s not safe.” She started recording me. Our building had been evacuated, and we couldn’t get back in, but we were able to call in to the studio from her cell phone, and we started describing what we were seeing. We were on the radio when the North Tower collapsed. The host was asking, “Can you see it? Can you see it?” And I remember saying, “It’s gone.”
It was really difficult to know what you’re supposed to say at a moment like that when it’s still so chaotic. When I was on-air, I described the collapse of the South Tower as “resembling a controlled demolition” because the floors were pancaking on top of one another. That was just a metaphor.
Years later, in 2009, I had a book coming out about education and searched my name. I saw the books on journalists and 9/11, but all these other books started popping up that I had not known about. Conspiracy theorists who called themselves truthers were including the quote of mine about the collapse resembling a “controlled demolition” to bolster their claim that 9/11 was carried out by the U.S. government. I was shocked.
As a journalist, I have a pretty thick skin, but this struck me in a much different way because it was personal. I had been there. I was almost a victim. It also felt really weird to have these conspiracy theorists using a quote from me because I had actively explored the collapses from the beginning. At the first press conference, I was the reporter who asked Giuliani what caused the buildings to come down. Over the next few years, I reported on the investigations into the cause of the collapse. People can choose to distort my quotes, but they can also choose to look into all the reporting that’s been done on what really happened. I can’t worry about it too much or I would stay up all night. I just focus on doing the best job I can to be a trusted source of information.
9/11 really solidified my desire to stay in local news and tell the story of the city. That morning, I could have been one of those people running home to be safe, but I knew I wanted to do my job. I really felt an obligation to our listeners; we had to stay on the air no matter what.
This interview has been edited and condensed.