If you grew up in the 1970s in New York, Rolland Smith needs no introduction. After all, he was co-anchor of Channel 2 News for 16 years. But for the next generation, he co-anchored with Brenda Blackmon at WWOR/Channel 9.
That’s where you would find Smith on the horrific morning ten years ago.
Our special series 9/11: New York Remembers looks at how the veteran, Smith, covered the horrible events.
At that time, Smith and his wife rented a house in West New York, New Jersey. The evening anchor saw a problem across the Hudson River.
“I was standing on the balcony talking to her… and I watched the first [plane] go into the World Trade Center,” Smith tells FishbowlNY.
Smith was anticipating the severity, even before the second plane confirmed suspicions.
“If this is what I think it is, I won’t be home for quite a while,” Smith alerted his wife.
By the time Smith got into his car to make the 10-minute trek to the WWOR studios in Secaucus, New Jersey, the notion of a terrorist attack had sadly crystallized.
Meantime, Smith was at the mercy of the traffic, taking him almost an hour to arrive. His on-camera partner had also been stuck in traffic. WWOR (not owned by Fox at the time) did not have an on-air presence at the start of 9/11.
“As soon as I got there, Brenda [just] got in, and we were on the air around 10ish,” Smith recalls.
Smith points out that even though WWOR had its tower atop the World Trade Center, it was a cable superstation, and therefore cable subscribers never lost reception.
Smith says his on-camera comfort could only help during such a devastating event. He recalls dealing with a “so-called” expert, and that it failed to get the best result.
“He was an absolute kook,” Smith remembers. “I did one question with him and cut it off.”
He says experience of covering various disasters throughout his long career was beneficial.
“You know what you have to repeat,” Smith says. “You know you’ve got to be very cautious in what you say, and how you say it.”
Despite the experience he brought to the 9/11 coverage, nothing prepared Smith for the towers crashing to the ground.
“Yes, you are the disseminator of information, but no information was possible at that moment in time,” Smith admits. “All you could do was watch.”
Even though appalling images littered the screen throughout 9/11, Smith said losing composure was never in his makeup.
“That’s what your job is. You’re trained to do that,” Smith tells FishbowlNY. “What you try to do is to make some sense out it, but in a simple way not in an analytical way.”
Smith looked back to the 1937 Hindenburg crash when radio reporter Herbert Morrison gave his famous “Oh, the humanity” account.
Smith and Blackmon remained at the anchor desk for the next 12 to 14 hours.
“I didn’t want to leave the chair, and neither did Brenda,” Smith remembers. “Will Wright was the news director at the time, and he agreed. We stayed as long as we could.”
They were relieved by Dick Brennan (now WNYW/Channel 5 chief political correspondent) and Cathleen Trigg (current Channel 5 and Channel 9 reporter).
The cycle stayed in effect throughout that week for the veteran anchors. Smith and Blackmon were back on the air very early each morning.
To be close to “base,” and because of the terrible traffic conditions, Smith got a hotel room across from Channel 9 on the night of 9/11.
Smith applauds the staff for remaining professional during the most difficult of situations. He recognizes their dedication and diligence.
“But not just our reporters, every reporter that I happened to see from all the competition and the networks …did an outstanding job.”
More than the media personnel, Smith is proud of how the tri-state area rallied in times of crisis.
“Everybody pitched in,” Smith recalls. “They knew this was serious and as the towers collapsed there was a pall, you could feel it from everybody.”
In the business for nearly a half-century, Smith, who remains active in the industry doing freelance documentaries, says that a late summer day in 2001 is a flashpoint for his career.
“I would say it was the most profound, live story event that I have ever participated in—and there’s been a lot of them,” Smith says.
Our 9/11: New York Remembers series wraps up tomorrow as we find out how one of the city’s most visible anchors learned about the terrorist attacks.