During an 11-year span in the 1970s and 1980s, Ben Farnsworth (left) was known to millions as the afternoon co-anchor at WCBS NewsRadio 88.
But it was at Bloomberg Radio/WBBR where Farnsworth informed listeners about the tragedy of 9/11.
FishbowlNY continues our exploration of the tenth anniversary with 9/11: New York Remembers.
“It was just amazing,” Farnsworth says. “It just kind of came out of the blue.”
The day was even more bittersweet for the veteran Farnsworth.
“The irony is that 9/11 is my birthday,” Farnsworth tells FishbowlNY. “It certainly affects my life every year on my birthday.”
Farnsworth did morning drive with Peter Schacknow from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. The team was only in its second week together when the attacks shocked the city.
“It was kind of his baptism [under] fire,” Farnsworth says. “He did really well.”
Fittingly, when the first plane plowed into the twin towers at 8:46 a.m. WBBR was in a traffic report. Referring to the first whiffs of smoke bellowing, chopper reporter Brian McKinley needed to get closer than his Upper Manhattan vantage point.
At the time, Farnsworth didn’t have any idea how insidious it was.
“We just kind of speculated, ‘Sometimes these buildings release water vapor,” Farnsworth recalls. “It could be as simple as that.”
“At that point, not that a plane crash is a small thing, but we figured it was an accident, and that was the story we were going to be reporting on,” Schacknow tells FishbowlNY.
But moments later, television networks and local stations, usually set to check rival business cable channels, provided non-stop coverage.
“Virtually every monitor we had showed the shot of the World Trade Towers and underneath you could kind of read the scrawls, because we didn’t have the sound up,” Farnsworth recalls.
The incredibly fluid situation started with a plane crash, possibly as small as a private jet.
Farnsworth says parts of the sketchy information left people to wonder if the plane originated, or was headed for, one of the New York area airports.
“We just kind of sat watching it,” Farnsworth says.
By 9:03, with the second plane strike on the south tower, something much more dramatic had taken place.
“Everything had kind of mushroomed very quickly,” Farnsworth says.
The anchors, though, were reluctant to address a terrorist attack as the cause.
“The minute we looked at each other [we thought] it can’t be a coincidence,” Schacknow says. “Still, at that point you don’t fathom that somebody …will purposely crash [planes] into the Trade Center.”
Then, the second tower was struck, followed by an attack on the Pentagon and the field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
“Then we knew that obviously something was very, very wrong,” Farnsworth says.
“It became more and more surreal as the broadcast went on,” Schacknow (right) reflects.
By 10 a.m., one tower imploded. Less than 30 minutes later, the twin towers no longer existed.
Schacknow, a charter member of CNBC (and now back at the cable channel as a breaking news producer), recalls being stunned as opposed to his on-air partner.
“I remember thinking [it] was more and more unbelievable that anything like this was actually happening,” Schacknow says.
Because of their business news focus, Bloomberg was rarely covering disasters. This, though, was an event that superceded any other news.
WBBR sent veteran reporters Fred Fishkin and Don Mathisen to ground zero.
“Don was kind of old, I don’t mean old in age, but in his previous life he had been a news guy,” Farnsworth remembers. “Fred was pretty much a tech guy for most of his career.”
Fishkin and Farnsworth spent many years together at WCBS.
“As reporters got down there and started reporting back to us, it became more and more obvious that [this was] the most horrific event anyone had ever seen,” Schacknow recalls.
“Both of them were absolutely spectacular,” Farnsworth says. “They were down there in no time and they started sending reports back. It was impressive to me to see these guys who have been doing other things for so long jumping in to that kind of difficult situation.”
Another reporter on the scene was Farnsworth’s former WCBS colleague, the late Mary Gay Taylor. He remembers her telling the details of being swept up by the toxic cloud from the tower collapses. Running desperately, he says, Taylor dove under a car to build a layer between herself and potentially deadly ash.
“As I recall, she had so much dust under there that she was kind of unconscious,” Farnsworth recalls.
Some time after 9/11, the longtime friends discussed the overwhelming news story.
“I thought it was certain death,” Taylor told Farnsworth.
Despite the fact that Bloomberg Radio broke format with wall-to-wall coverage throughout that Tuesday, Business radio still was a top priority. Schacknow says they had to alert listeners that the New York Stock Exchange would close.
“We actually had to report on that, and I remember thinking that—this is life and death at Bloomberg—all of sudden it became very, very, very unimportant,” Schacknow reflects.
With a day that featured little interference from management, Schacknow was proud to be associated with Bloomberg during the attacks.
“That was some of the best radio you ever heard on Bloomberg,” Schacknow admits. “That was the day we became a real radio station.”
As for Farnsworth and Schacknow, their shift was extended until approximately 10:45 a.m.
With the terrorist attack now evident, and the towers as ash, rubble and compacted steel, they were told to stay in New York—although not much of a choice with a virtual lockdown in the city.
“I helped out around in the newsroom for a little bit after [leaving the air].” Farnsworth recalls. “I could tell them the people to call and the places to go.”
He also coordinated reports that Fishkin and others filed from the scene.
Eventually Farnsworth and Schacknow were put up in a hotel near Bloomberg to return at a moment’s notice. An eerie calm took over Farnsworth and Schacknow as they left for dinner.
“Manhattan was just empty,” Farnsworth says. “It was almost like a ghost town.”
Schacknow likened it to the movie Vanilla Sky, where Tom Cruise runs down a barren street.
“Everybody was inside a restaurant or bar watching the TV coverage,” Schacknow says.
Farnsworth says the many breaking news stories he’s reported on over the years put him in the right mindset on 9/11.
“Radio is an ad-lib medium, more so than television,” Farnsworth says. “Back 20 years ago, I got into television probably because of my ability to ad-lib.”
Farnsworth is also remembered for a 12-year run at WNBC/Channel 4, mostly as the station’s New Jersey correspondent.
As many anchors told FishbowlNY for this special series, there was no time to get caught up in emotions of the moment.
“You’re in a big, major disaster … there’s no time to think. There’s no time to plan,” Farnsworth says. “There’s no time to do anything, you just do it.”
“In terms of the ability to go into this mode where I have a job to do and I have to get it done, but it was so gut wrenching,” Schacknow remembers. “We did and did a good job, but it was really tough to keep it together. You really had to focus on what you were doing.”
The tragedy, as was the case for many on air, became a personal story for Farnsworth. Five parishioners from his Roman Catholic church in Wyckoff, New Jersey were killed.
Farnsworth is determined not to forget the many aspects of covering 9/11.
“It’s something that’s going to be with all of us,” Farnsworth says. “It’s something that we shouldn’t forget. It just should remind us what a fragile society that we’re living in.”
“It’s probably the most difficult day in the lives of anybody ever in broadcasting,” Schacknow says.
Join us tomorrow as another former “Bloomberger” describes the sadness of having to relay the story to listeners.