For more than 40 years, Rafael Pineda has been the popular evening anchor on Univision’s Channel 41/WXTV.
Pineda (pronounced Pin-yay-da) says he started at Spanish station WXTV in 1968, the year that the station signed on. He is the longest tenured anchor in New York City history (Chuck Scarborough is second, with WNBC since 1974).
Just like his fellow evening cohorts at other stations (discussed in our opening installment), Pineda woke up to the dramatic first reports of a crisis at the World Trade Center.
“I was still asleep, but my wife was [up early] to take the kids to school,” Pineda says. “She was watching TV and all of a sudden she woke me up and said, ‘The plane crashed into one of the [twin] towers.’”
Pineda leapt out of bed and watched the news coverage, as the north tower smoldered.
The legendary TV news personality was in the majority believing that it was a freak accident. That is until 9:03 a.m.
“All of a sudden I witness when the second plane hit the other tower,” Pineda says. “I said to myself, ‘This is not a coincidence, we are under attack.’”
Realizing the severity of the situation, the veteran anchor was proactive about getting to the station. He didn’t wait for a call from management and rushed to Channel 41 in Paterson, New Jersey (the studios are now located in Teaneck).
But even a 16-mile trip from his Northern New Jersey home to Channel 41 would prove difficult for Pineda.
“I was minutes away from the studio, and police stopped me and all drivers,” Pineda says. “I identified myself, I told [the officer], ‘You see that building there, that’s where my studio is. I’m an anchor, I have to be there.’”
“I don’t care, Sir,” the cop told Pineda. “I have my orders and you can not get through.”
So using back roads, Pineda found his way into the WXTV studio where he immediately joined the morning crew on the air.
“That was the moment that I was under the impression that I was still sleeping, [and] this was probably a dream,” Pineda admits. “This can not happen here—impossible.”
Pineda’s impossible dream didn’t end, becoming more of nightmare as the minutes elapsed. He was on the air as the towers imploded.
“That was a moment never to be forgotten,” Pineda reflects. “Without the towers I realized that something was missing.”
But he forged on.
“All of a sudden there was no teleprompter anymore,” Pineda admits. “You just looked at the image and you talk.”
The scary times became much too personal for the award-winning anchor. Reporter Sophia La Chapel was trapped in one of the towers prior to the collapse, leaving the staff to assume the worst.
La Chapel and her cameraman kept moving, closer to the carnage.
“Every time they run, they had to stop because they hit a dead end,” Pineda recalls.
The ever-positive Pineda had a chilling premonition.
“I was looking at her and said [to myself], ‘This is last time that I’ll see this lady,” Pineda admits. “I don’t remember, ever, telling her how good she is when covering a story, and now I’m probably going to be a witness to the way she’s going to die.”
Fortunately, he was wrong. Somehow, La Chapel (no longer with Channel 41) and her cameraman found a way to survive and get out of the building.
“When she walked into the studio covered [in] that white dust and ashes, I stopped doing what I was doing and I just wanted to embrace her,” Pineda remembers. “That’s a moment that I will never forget.”
But nearly 3,000 people did not have luck on their side that morning. Many of them had no recourse but to jump from the burning buildings.
“We knew that was happening…it was very hard to continue working,” Pineda says.
In the end, Pineda recalls being at the station “through the night,” as Tuesday became Wednesday.
“To me New York is the capital of the world,” Pineda says. “When something hits New York everyone reacts—and they’re still reacting.”
Looking back on that horrific day, Pineda says his thirty years (at the time) on the air didn’t offer much salvation.
“At that point you realize you have to grow up.” Pineda says. “I don’t recall in all my years covering an event with such an impact to me as a person.”
On Labor Day, a longtime sports anchor remembers being flooded with emotions after 9/11, and becoming a symbol for first responders.