Carol Marin on the legacy of 9/11: ‘I don’t want us to forget’

Carol Marin (Photo: Don Moseley)

It took nothing less than a miracle — and a courageous New York firefighter who has never been identified — to save Carol Marin from the collapse of the second tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

Then as now one of Chicago’s most respected journalists, Marin was working as a “60 Minutes” correspondent for CBS News in Manhattan on the morning of the attacks. She raced to the site to cover the story and was a block or two away when she heard a roar and felt the ground rumble.

A firefighter screamed at Marin to run just as a fireball of ignited jet fuel consumed the base of the north tower, causing the building to come crashing down. As she started to run, Marin fell and the firefighter picked her up. “The firefighter threw me against a nearby building and shielded my body with his,” she would recall. “I could feel the pounding of his heart against my backbone. In seconds the air was black and thick with debris.”

The firefighter handed Marin off to a policeman, who helped her find daylight and catch a lift from a paramedic unit. Then she hitched a ride the rest of the way to the CBS Broadcast Center in Midtown Manhattan from the driver of an empty city bus.

Carol Marin on Sept. 11, 2001 (Photo: CBS News)

Her navy blue suit still covered with soot and ash, Marin went live on the air with CBS News anchor Dan Rather to recount her harrowing ordeal. At one point Rather took her hand to help her maintain composure. (Here is the link to the video.)

“It’s the closest I ever came to dying,” Marin told me on the phone later that day. “Both of us were sure we were dead,” she said of the anonymous firefighter.

Marin, 72, who retired from daily broadcasting last November, still runs the Center for Journalism Integrity and Excellence at DePaul University with co-founder and co-director Don Moseley. Today Marin, who grew up in Rolling Meadows and graduated from Palatine High School, finds herself teaching students who have no firsthand recollections of a world before 9/11.

On the eve of the 20th anniversary Marin reflected on the events of that day and shared her insight on how journalism has changed:

Q. Carol, I remember you saying a few years ago that you wanted to put 9/11 behind you and didn’t want to talk about it anymore. What changed your mind?

A. Yeah, I’ve gone through these different phases worrying that I was guilty of exploiting it, worrying that there were no new words for it, that I will say the same thing again and again, which I do say again and again because my memories are so clear on that day — or most of my memories, anyway.

And then we get to 20 years, right? And I have students who don’t know what it was. And now I’m in the mindset that I don’t want us to forget it because it was so important, and it has so many multiple meanings.

Every September, we start our very first class by explaining the evacuation policy of the building and how you need to go down 11 flights of stairs to get to the ground, and that you can’t grab a purse or a cup of coffee because you can’t waste a second. That is good fire policy, but 9/11 has provoked the finer points of it. And then I explain that some of us have a personal experience of what an evacuation means or doesn’t.

Q. How has your perspective on it changed?

A. I’m struggling to find new descriptors. One of the things that I started thinking about is the smoke. I mean, I can still smell the smoke. New York smelled of an inferno still burning down on the ground. There were like 20,000 gallons of jet fuel in that building when it collapsed. I can smell the air, I can feel it. I can feel the grit under my shoes. And this always chokes me up: I can see the posters on all the walls in and around that site where people were saying, “Have you seen my son, my daughter, my wife, my husband?” They were like wanted posters. People wanting so deeply to think that somebody got out of the building and was somehow still alive but not found. That was all around us.

I wish I could for just a moment help people who were too young know what it smelled like, felt like, looked like — not just for days but for weeks. I went back after a number of months and I could still smell it.

What I also want us to take out of this is that after 9/11 for a period of time we were the United States of America. We were all in it together. It wasn’t as polarized or as partisan as it is now. I don’t wish for another 9/11, God knows. But we were a whole country. After that we broke into our divided parts again. Can you remember a time that so united us since then? I can’t.

Q. What do you tell students who are about to become journalists?

A. Our challenge is to prepare them for reporting on everything. You know, I wasn’t ever assigned something like 9/11. It assigns you to it as a reporter. So how do you report on something you are yourself experiencing? And how do you detach yourself enough to tell other people’s stories — not your story because you’ve decided you’re so important?

Our students are growing up in an age of believing that there is no objectivity anymore. You might as well tell your own story, be part of your own story. And what we explain to them is, ‘Not in our class.’ You can believe that, if you want to do that. But for the purposes of our class and our center, it is to tell other people’s stories as fairly and as ethically as you can. And while you can’t entirely pull yourself out of it, you can’t always be the star of your own account. And that’s very hard to kind of drill in to a young generation of new journalists.

Q. Can you ever really prepare for what you experienced?

A. You learn because you practice it, how to keep your head about you, how to control what you may be feeling on behalf of explaining it to someone else. It’s not that you’re not human. On the set with Dan Rather that terrible day, I really struggled because I had not even yet absorbed the size of the calamity. I was still trying to figure out what happened on West Street when the north tower came down on me.

So in the middle of these things, you’re also trying to grasp the size of it, because you don’t know yet, and tell it well enough that you know you’re giving your steps as your understanding grows.

People ask me all the time if it happened again, would I go? And you know the answer, right, Rob? It’s what we do. It’s what we do. And we’re proud that it’s what we do. So you report for duty. I’m not glad, God knows, that this thing happened. But I’m grateful that I could be there.

Q. What do you think when you see the tape with Dan Rather?

A. It’s hard for me to watch ... There’s a place you saw where my voice wobbles a bit because I was so in awe of the different people that helped me — the firefighter, the police officer, the paramedics, the bus driver. I was aware that my job was to get back to CBS and tell whatever part of the story I knew.

I was on a massive adrenaline rush because when the tower started coming down and the firefighter yelled “Run!” he made me kick off my high heels and we ran through the rubble of the street. It wasn’t until 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning when I finally got back to my hotel after doing reports through the day and night, and I got in the shower that I looked down, and saw I had lost some skin on my toes. I hadn’t noticed until the water hit it and I jumped. So there is an overdrive when you’re in a situation like that. What I also realized in the moment I was running was all I could do was run.

Q. Have you had any lingering physical effects?

A. The physical effects I experienced in the very beginning. I was training for a marathon, and I ran a really bad marathon because I lost training and I had skinned toes.

I had a window into PTSD because for more than a year or two after, if I heard anything like a loud crash, like a wrecking ball at a construction site, I had a visceral response. I had a visceral response every time I saw a plane come in for a landing or saw a plane in the sky and wondered, before I could even think it rationally, I hope he doesn’t hit that building. That slowly drifted away, but it gave me an appreciation of what soldiers must experience in such a larger measure than that.

I had my lungs checked regularly because the worry always was that we’ve got some filaments of asbestos or something. It was raining debris and at first all you could do is cover your face with your hand. So I had breathing issues that my doctor watches closely because there’s probably some hit that my lungs took since I was at that site with regularity in the days that followed. But so far, knock on wood, nothing wrong.

Q. How do you make the lessons 9/11 relevant today?

A. The students that we teach at DePaul were either not born or were 2 or 3 years old when 9/11 happened. Their parents remember but they don’t. So this is why I do show them the video — so they can relate to the idea that someone they know was there, and it becomes more experiential for them.

But beyond that, I think educationally in America, we do not do enough history. We don’t help students enough grasp the fact that they’re not just in this time and place ... It’s a big challenge, and I don’t know a really good answer except to keep trying. If 9/11 can do anything (it is) to remind people that in some ways, as a stricken country, we were a better country to each other than we are right now.