As we’ve highlighted over the past several days, throughout September 11, 2001, people were inundated with coverage on their televisions and radios.
But that radio coverage was not only found on news stations, and within news departments.
At Classic Rock station Q 104.3/WAXQ, midday disc jockey Maria Milito was starting her day just as millions of others were forced to abruptly end theirs.
FishbowlNY spoke with Milito for our continuing series–9/11: New York Remembers.
“I walked to work while it was happening,” Milito says. “So I didn’t know what was going on.”
Before leaving her home on the West Side for the Midtown studios, Milito had only a slight inkling of trouble brewing, when she learned that a plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m.
But, Milito set out on her 20-minute walk, not giving it much credence—believing it was a rare accident, perhaps caused by the pilot having a heart attack.
“I kept hearing sirens and alarms, and [seeing] all these ambulances,” Milito recalls. “It was just too much at the same time.”
The next clue that there was something larger at play—when Milito tried to reach some detective friends her cell phone didn’t work. Compounding the problem, a lack of cellular signals wasn’t unique to her.
“I knew something was up, but in my head it was, ‘Well, the pilot hit the World Trade Center, so he hit the antenna, and we’re all screwed up as a result of that.’ I just thought it was as simple as that,” Milito remembers.
It wasn’t until she arrived at the radio station that Milito knew the gravity of the situation.
“It was mind-boggling to me.”
She barely had time to absorb the news of New York’s and the nation’s worst terrorist attack, when it came time to do her show. But it was an abbreviated program, as Q 104.3 took the NBC News feed non-stop for the next 24 hours starting at noon.
Milito, a Hicksville, New York native, may have only done two hours on 9/11, but with so much news flowing that morning, her role was altered on the fly.
She made sure to describe what she saw on the TV, give announcements regarding missing family members, and play the occasional song “that felt appropriate.”
Milito was talking to her listeners as the second tower was pulverized.
“To see it come down, and talk about it on the air–it was very emotional,” Milito recalls. “It was almost surreal.”
Despite the sadness just under the surface, Milito kept a professional tone and didn’t lose her composure on mic.
“When I look back, I don’t know how I did it, but you just do it,” Milito admits.
As commuters arrived at work, many tuned to Maria Milito, relying on her voice for the horrific details.
“A lot of people said we were really their lifeline because they were listening to the station anyway and they had no idea, especially if they were in the suburbs,” Milito says.
The veteran jock (who celebrated 15 years at the station in July) said those 120 minutes before passing the baton to NBC News were disturbing.
However, it didn’t get much easier for Milito, the first voice on Q 104 after resuming regular programming on Wednesday, September 12. The Clear Channel station allowed the DJs to play “free form,” meaning they could program their shows with any songs or take any requests.
She says a large part of the radio station’s audience were firefighters, policemen, and emergency workers.
“Probably the most difficult part was hearing from people asking me to play a brother’s, a husband’s, a cousin’s favorite song, because maybe that will make the person call,” Milito remembers. “It was really difficult to keep it together. I would walk home and cry.”
In light of the fact that Milito lived in the city she was not part of the slow-moving mass exodus from Manhattan.
“I’ll never forget that night, everybody being so happy they could get home and get out of here and I stayed here,” Milito recalls. “I ran into different friends in the street. I remember hearing the fighter jets all night. Everything about it was very surreal.”
Through the tough times, Milito took solace—thanks to a strong bond with her listeners. She says support went both ways in those darkest hours, loyal Classic Rock fans needing Milito almost as much as she needed their proverbial shoulder to lean on.
“It was just me sitting in a studio not physically being there, but people were calling from landlines that were able to get through to us,” Milito says.
Milito, who earlier in her career worked at K-Rock/WKRK, was proud of her industry, acting as a vital link to listeners.
“It was such important information to get out to them, if we weren’t there doing it how would people know,” Milito says.
Milito hasn’t heard any of her on-air work from those devastating days, and has no plans to listen.
“It’s etched in my memory forever, so I don’t need to hear it,” Milito admits. “[It’s] probably the one day, the few days of my career, that I will absolutely never forget, would never want to relive again, and probably the most difficult days I every had to be on the air.”
In the midst of the horror and heartbreak, on September 12, Milito went to one of the touristy souvenir shops in Times Square. Patriotism was already at an all-time high when Milito bought an American flag scarf that she tied to her bag. “Aunt Maria” also purchased several postcards of the twin towers for her young nieces and nephews.
“Please don’t ever forget this, that these existed,” Milito wrote them.
Tomorrow, a longtime radio news anchor and his on-air partner relive covering 9/11.