Fox News Channel Reporter Rick Folbaum shares with the Insider his story of reporting from ground zero on 9/11. Read his emotional account and watch the incredible video Folbaum and his crew captured on scene that day.
Almost every New Yorker’s 9/11 story starts with what a beautiful morning it had been. It’s become cliche. But that’s because it’s true. The calmest, clearest early morning I can remember.
I’m standing with my friend and camera man, Adam Petlin, enjoying the sunshine and waiting to be let in to the Times Square theme restaurant Mars 2112, where we are set to record segments for an upcoming Fox News special on, of all things, UFOs. That’s when we get word that a small plane has struck one of the World Trade Center towers. The assignment desk tells us to wait there. A sound engineer, John “Hollywood” Kisala, is on his way to meet us and then we’ll head down to see what’s going on.
We get in our SUV, turn on the radio and wait for Hollywood. The reports are still focused on this small plane, somehow veering off course. It sounds like a tragic accident. I’m sure the pilot is dead. And any passengers he may have had. I wonder about people inside the tower. Adam and I listen to the reports. Where is John? We really need to get down there. Then we hear on the radio that the other tower had been struck. What? Within seconds, my cell phone rings.
It’s my mother. “Don’t go down there,” she pleads. “It’s my job, mom. I’ll be careful and I’ll call you as soon as I can.”
Call waiting. My girlfriend (now wife). “Rick, don’t go.”
“Honey,” I tell her, “you’re a reporter. You know I have to go. I’ll be OK.” I promise to call her too, as soon as I can. Hollywood arrives and we’re suddenly screaming down the West Side Highway, following a procession of emergency vehicles. In seconds, we can see both towers, with thick black smoke and flames shooting from the upper floors.
Maybe my girlfriend and mother were right. What business do I have heading to this scene? Fire and police and EMTs were one thing. But they’re trained for these kinds of things. My only training was as a journalist, and I’d never set foot in a war zone before. That was about to change.
Soldiers, not yet combat tested, must wonder how they’ll do when the time comes. Will they charge forward or retreat? As my colleagues and I drive closer and closer to the smoldering buildings, I instruct Adam who is driving, to pull over. We’re two blocks north of the North Tower, on Murray Street and I tell him we’re close enough. I’m scared. The West Side Highway is absolute pandemonium. Thousands of people have come outside from nearby offices, apartments and schools to look up at the burning skyscrapers.
Adam sets up his tripod and begins shooting. On our last contact with our assignment desk, we’d been told that we were the roving crew, charged with filming whatever we could. Someone would be meeting up with us to get our video tapes and run them over to our satellite truck a few blocks east, where they’d be fed back to Fox’s midtown studios and broadcast. Adam gets some establishing shots. Hollywood gets the microphone ready for me. I just look up and stare in disbelief.
Adam says, “OK, Rick. Let’s get you on camera.”
“What?” I ask.
“Talk to people,” Adam says.
I tap a woman on her shoulder. I ask her to describe what she, what we, are looking at. Dumb reporter question. Firemen in full gear march past us, heading towards the buildings. “How do you think they’re going to get the fire out?” I ask the woman, another dumb reporter question. Not even the firefighters know that. Finally, we chat for a few minutes on camera, this woman and I, about how they needed to bring in those airplanes that dump fire-retardant on those forest fires out west. That, we agree, is the only way to get to those flames.
Then, I hear a voice from the crowd yell, “They’re jumping!” And in seconds I spot two people, holding hands, leaping to their deaths from more than a hundred stories up. Then another. And another. Adam says, “Rick, talk. Do your job. Be a reporter.”
But at that moment, during what will no doubt be the biggest story I will ever cover in my entire career, I am speechless. I cannot be a reporter. I cannot do my job. I cannot believe my eyes. All I can do is think about the dozens of people I’m watching; people who have decided to determine for themselves how they are going to die. People who have decided that jumping from one of the tallest buildings in the world is their best option.
“We’ve got to get you on camera, Rick. They’re going to come and get these tapes,” Adam says. I’m still in shock. Suddenly, a wall of smoke and debris. The South Tower begins to come down. A thunderous boom. What is happening? Soon, we can see that the South Tower is gone. People are crying and hugging each other. Some start running north. Adam keeps filming, and I stay close to him and Hollywood, even though I, too, want to run. But I know I can’t abandon my crew. We huddle and decide we’re going to stay put. The debris isn’t heading directly towards us. There’s still another tower standing. We have reporting to do.
I try to shoot some as-lives, reports delivered straight to camera, which Fox can air later. Adam says, “I’m rolling.” I start by stating where we’re standing, and that we’ve just witnessed the South Tower come down, but then my mind drifts back to the jumpers, and I cannot go on. I try again. And again. And then suddenly the North Tower, just two blocks in front of us, begins to tumble. How could we not have anticipated that? Adam turns his lens to the devastation, and finally I find my voice.
“Let’s go!” I yell, as I grab Adam’s shoulder. Hollywood grabs his gear. The three of us, along with hundreds of others who had stuck around, begin bolting northward, trying to keep ahead of the tidal wave of destruction that was hot on our tail. We ran for probably seven or eight blocks before finally stopping to catch our breath. The air is thick with dust and who knows what else. We buy bottled water from a hot dog vendor on the street, and pay a paint crew $20 for three of their masks. And then we wander to Church Street to find our colleagues at the satellite truck. Thankfully, everyone is accounted for. A producer in the truck asks for our tape. “Give me what you got,” he shouts, “the desk wants it fed back stat.”
And so this is some of what we fed back. It’s stuff I’ve never looked at. Ever. Until now. I’ve always been a little embarrassed about not being a more capable reporter that day. Now that I’ve seen some of my 9/11 work, I wish I’d looked at it years ago. It’s not as bad as I remembered. Reporters are accustomed to interviewing eyewitnesses, not being one. “Tell me what it was like,” I’d asked countless people on countless stories over the years. Well let me tell you: it was the worst thing I’ve ever seen. It was hell.