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How 60 Minutes reported on the September 11th terrorist attacks

It has been 22 years since the attacks of September 11th, but so many of the stories that emerged in the days that followed are still fresh in the minds of the 60 Minutes correspondents and producers who reported them.

60 Minutes reported at length on the far-reaching aftermath of the homeland attacks, both on the Sunday broadcast and on 60 Minutes II, a weekday edition that ended in 2005.

Below are some of the most memorable stories that aired on our broadcasts in the weeks and months after the attacks.

An American Town

Originally aired September 16, 2001

When 60 Minutes aired on the Sunday after the attacks, people all over the country were still trying to make sense of what had happened five days earlier. The devastation had extended well beyond ground zero; it splintered into hundreds of small towns in the suburbs of New York City, where families were still waiting for word on their missing loved ones.

One of those towns was Summit, New Jersey, a small town where about one in seven adults worked in financial services in Manhattan. As 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley reported that first Sunday, the World Trade Center was only 35 minutes away from Summit by rail, and in the parking lot outside the town’s train station, cars were still sitting unclaimed by the commuters who had left them there that Tuesday.

Summit resident Debbie Rancke was among the waiting. Her husband, Todd, worked as a bond salesman at Sandler O’Neill on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center’s south tower, and Debbie did not know what had happened to him. But unlike the cars in the parking lot, she did not sit idle. She and Todd’s sisters spent days searching for Todd, canvassing New York City until they were exhausted.

The morning after the disaster, there was no one list of all the dead, injured and missing, so Debbie and her sisters-in-law started going to hospitals. The injured were taken to 130 hospitals in the New York area. But Todd Rancke did not appear to be among them. The group found the master list with names of all the injured, but they did not see “Rancke” recorded.

The next day, the women went to New York City’s armory, where a list of the dead was coming together. Todd’s name was not on that list, either.

“Just help me find him,” Debbie implored Ed Bradley. “He’s my whole life.”

In a follow-up report a year later, Bradley reported that 33 residents of Summit had died on September 11th, nearly as many as the town had lost in the Vietnam War. Todd Rancke was one of them. Searchers had found his remains in April 2002, and along with them, his wallet, remarkably intact. Inside, photographs of his children were still covered in dust.


Originally aired October 7, 2001

Out of almost 500 stories 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft reported for the broadcast, he has said the one that emotionally impacted him most was his October 2001 report about New York financial firm Sandler O’Neill.

Headquartered on the 104th floor of the South Tower, Sandler O’Neill lost 66 of its 171 employees in the World Trade Center attacks. But just days later, the firm was determined to keep going—while also providing logistical, emotional, and financial support to the families of the staff who died.

60 Minutes documented as then-44-year-old managing partner Jimmy Dunne began to resurrect the company from a temporary office in midtown Manhattan, space that had been donated by Bank of America. Sandler O’Neill had lost its entire communications system, nearly every piece of paper, and more than one third of its people. As they tried to reassure clients that their company was still very much in business, employees were also trying to collect DNA samples to identify their deceased coworkers.

They worked through their grief. On spreadsheets normally used to report sales and earnings, a long list of funerals, wakes and memorial services was pinned up at the front of the office. But despite so much loss, they were able to make it back to Wall Street, in part thanks to programmers and software specialists who worked for Dunne’s college roommate. The group drove all night from Chicago to pitch in and get most of the firm’s computer system up and running before the markets reopened six days after the attacks.

“They were intent on destroying this country,” the firm’s founding partner Tom O’Neill told Steve Kroft. “I don’t think we appreciated the depth of their hatred. But I think for every percentage that we might have underestimated them, I think they very much underestimated us.”

In January 2020, Sandler O’Neill merged with Piper Jaffray Companies to become Piper Sandler Companies.

The Children of September

Originally aired October 17, 2001

Five weeks after the 9/11 attacks, Scott Pelley sought to know what life was like for the youngest of those left behind. He interviewed children who lost a parent on September 11th and asked how things had changed since that Tuesday morning, the day their mom or dad went to work and never returned home.

What Nicole Spinelli remembered from that morning was her father kissing her goodbye. Her father, Frank, worked as a foreign exchange broker at the World Trade Center. He always gave a parting kiss to Nicole, then 18, and her siblings before he left, even if she protested how early the affection came.

“But he told me one time, you know, ‘Nikki, I kiss you and your brother and sister goodbye in the morning to, you know, let you know that if anything ever happened to me at work, that you would always know that I loved you,'” Spinelli recalled.

Mike Shaw was 16 years old when he lost his father, Jeff, an electrician at the World Trade Center. Five weeks after the attacks, Shaw was still calling his father’s cellphone nightly to leave him a voicemail. He told his dad what he did at school, what he had for dinner, how much he missed him. It became a ritual that allowed him to feel as though he were still having a daily conversation with his dad.

Tyler and Kelsie Williams said goodbye to their dad, US Army Major Dwayne Williams, during a service at Arlington National Cemetery. Dwayne had started a new job at the Pentagon three months before the building was struck in the attack. After their father died, the siblings began writing about him.

“I let mom lean on me because now I stand in your shoes,” wrote Tyler, then 17 years old. “I don’t know how you did it, but you got us through. Now when you look down at me, there’s an image of you.”

Band of Brothers

Originally aired November 21, 2001

For decades, a small band of New York City’s bravest have routinely traded their firefighting hats and gear in favor of bagpipes and kilts. These full-time firefighters are part-time musicians, performing at many department occasions — the happy and the sad, the weddings, the parades, and every once in a while, the funerals.

Then came September 11, 2001.

In the weeks that followed the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center, “every once in a while” became every day and, on some days, every few hours. By that Thanksgiving, the band had played at about 300 memorial events.

A November 2001 60 Minutes II report told the story of the band playing at the seemingly endless number of funerals and memorial services to honor their fallen brothers. At the time, the 70 members of the New York City Fire Department Emerald Society Pipes and Drums had become full-time musicians, honoring more colleagues in a matter of weeks than most had in their entire careers.

“A lot of people, they lose a family member, or they lose a friend, maybe it might have been a young person, an old person, a grandfather or something like that. It’s usually one person, one at a time, you know,” said Tim Grant, the band’s leader. “Everybody here knows 20, 30 people. When do you ever in your life lose that many people in one day that you know?”

The Emerald Society continues to play. In March, in place of the St. Patrick’s Day parade, which was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic, the band performed virtually to honor first responders and essential workers.

The Miracle of the Pentagon

Originally aired November 28, 2001

Even though 125 people were killed in the Pentagon on September 11th, there was something miraculous and somewhat fortunate about that day. Although the commandeered Boeing 757 obliterated the first and part of the second floor, the third, fourth and fifth floors remained, suspended in midair for 35 minutes. Hundreds of people had the chance to escape.

That is because, in a remarkable stroke of luck, the terrorists had hit the only section of the Pentagon designed to resist a terrorist attack.

As Scott Pelley reported for 60 Minutes II in November 2001, a billion-dollar project to renovate the Pentagon had been underway since 1993. The first section was five days away from being finished when the terrorists hit it on September 11th.

“We had made several modifications to the building as part of that renovation that we think helped save people’s lives,” said Lee Evey, who was managing the Pentagon renovation at the time.

The Army Corps of Engineers had helped design the building’s new protection. The engineers studied past attacks, including the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon, Oklahoma City in 1995, the US embassies in East Africa and the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia.

“At Oklahoma City, the bulk of the casualties were caused by the collapsing structure, so one of the things we studied was how to put redundant capability in a structure to prevent it from collapsing if it was attacked,” explained Lt. Gen. Robert Flowers, who commanded the Corps of Engineers.

The Pentagon Renovation Program that began in the 1990s was completed in full in June 2011.

Under Ground Zero

Originally aired October 31, 2001

Seven weeks after September 11th, smoke still wafted up from the rubble at ground zero. Firefighters were still working to extinguish the subterranean fires at the site, and those working to clean up suspected it would be many more months before the space would be fully cleared. Complicating the cleanup was the fact that debris from the falling towers had crashed through the roof at Six World Trade Center, plunging through the basements six stories underground.

At the end of October 2001, 60 Minutes II took viewers on a rare tour of the site under ground zero. It is an area that, prior to September 11th had been something of an underground city, consisting of a shopping mall, rail tunnels, and parking garages. After the terrorist attacks, it became a space where the effort to rebuild, both physically and psychologically, faced extraordinary challenges.

60 Minutes cameras filmed the descent underground, as mangled cars hung suspended on hunks of concrete, their tires burned away and their hubcaps melted into puddles of aluminum. As they went further into the darkness below the earth, where the ground was slick with oil and gas from the abandoned cars, the crew was warned the floor could collapse at any time.

As the cleanup team found, removing the debris underground was an engineering challenge. When the World Trade Center was built, so too was an enormous retaining wall below ground that was designed to prevent water from the Hudson River from flooding the six-story basement.

But beyond the logistics, the cleanup at ground zero was also mentally challenging because, just as it was a graveyard for automobiles, it was also the final resting place for hundreds of people.

“In order for me to work here every day, I think I have to segue away from the sacred ground considerations and move towards a construction site,” said Ken Holden, then the commissioner of New York’s Department of Design and Construction and the city’s point man in the cleanup effort. “But I think you can’t work here without being cognizant of the fact that there are people, there’s suffering here, there’s dead bodies here, and there’s a need to treat this ground in a manner different than you would in any other construction site.”

Frozen in Time

Originally aired May 1, 2002

In May 2002, 60 Minutes II returned to ground zero. This time, the cleanup and recovery were almost complete.

In the days after September 11th, the World Trade Center site was 1,500,000 tons of wreckage heaped in a pile, with almost 3,000 of people still inside. After almost eight months of nonstop work, digging each day and night, every holiday and weekend, the gaping hole at ground zero covered 16 acres and cut 70 feet deep.

With each shovelful, the debris was searched for human remains. It then sailed on barges across the Hudson to a landfill on Staten Island, where the ruins were separated, sorted, and searched again. At the time of 60 Minutes’ 2002 report, 135 victims had been identified at the landfill who were not found at the World Trade Center site.

In total, only a little more than 1,000 victims were ultimately identified from the rubble.

Officer Dan Henry, a Port Authority policeman, was among those helping to recover human remains. He was moved to keep searching for one person in particular—his brother, fireman Joseph Henry. Dan knew that, if Joseph were never found, ground zero would be his final resting place, along with hundreds of other people.

“I think there should be a nice-sized park with lots of beautiful trees and flowers and benches,” Dan said when asked what he thought New York City should do with the site. “And I think a big wall, big memorial wall with each victim’s name on it because you don’t have a cemetery to go to. This is going to be the place where we go on his birthday or Christmas, you know, and say hello.”

This article was originally published in September 2021.

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