GW alumna recounts ground zero tale

On the morning of Sept. 10, 2001 Robyn Walensky went to work as usual, a reporter for the Associated Press Network Radio in New York. She was covering volatile markets at the New York Stock Exchange. That day she ate lunch outside the World Trade Center.

The following day Walensky was assigned to cover the opening stock market bell at 9:30 a.m. Along with millions of other Americans, she watched “Good Morning America” before work. Moments into the show, Walensky and a stunned nation watched as a plane crashed into the north tower in the backdrop of the show.

Walensky called her studio and screamed, “Do you guys see this?”
“Yes,” a boss responded. “Go live and get there.”

While massive crowds headed one way, Walensky went the other, straight to the site of what were once two of the tallest towers in the world.

“I was thinking only how I was going to get the story on the air. I had no time to be afraid,” Walensky said.

Walensky, a GW alumna and correspondent for AP radio based in New York City, will speak about her experience that day and sign her first book, “Covering Catastrophe: Broadcast Journalists Report September 11,” at the GW Bookstore Friday.

While most New Yorkers fled the holocaust at ground zero, Walensky stayed, documenting first-hand accounts of the day’s catastrophes from reporters and civilians.

“I kept focused on how I was going to call Washington to do my live reports,” she said. “I was running from pay-phone to pay-phone begging people to let me use the phone.”

While hiding out in a building Walensky saw the name of friend and fellow journalist Allison Gilbert come up on the TV screen listing victims.
Walensky and Gilbert both dealt with the ordeal of September 11 through writing.

“It was suggested at the hospital to Allison to write down her feelings to get through the trauma of the day and we both decided that clearly every journalist who was there had a story to tell,” Walensky said.

Written in 100 days, “Covering Catastrophe” is a collection of the stories of more than 150 journalists in New York, D.C. and Pennsylvania.
Contributing authors include news anchors Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Larry King and Judy Woodruff.

Walensky describes her book as “a history book and a strict chronology of the day as told through the eyes of journalists, reporters, anchors and news photographers in New York City and D.C. who saw the events unfold firsthand.”

Walensky said the book deals with the events of September 11 that many people did not see.

“In ‘Covering Catastrophe’ we leave all of these horrible realities in the book … as we want future generations to know how bad it really was,” she said.

While a student at GW, Walensky said she devoted most of her time to writing news for The Hatchet and interning at CSPAN, ABC, WTTG, the Washington Bureau of the Baltimore Sun and the White House.

After she graduated in 1988 with degrees in journalism and political science, Walensky received her master’s degree in journalism from New York University. Since then, she has been a TV and radio reporter in New York, covering breaking news stories including the crash of TWA’s flight 800 and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Each time Walensky casts her mind back to that horrific day, a single moment reverberates in her mind. She was on a payphone with an anchor in Washington, who was notifying her about the attack on the Pentagon. Simultaneously, she observed the climax of the nightmare in front of her.

“My eyes were seeing, but my brain was not comprehending,” she said. She said people began screaming, “Oh my God! Oh my God!” and recalls dropping the phone and turning to see the South Tower collapse.

Walensky and her co-editors are donating all royalties from the book to relief organizations. She said 75 percent of the money will go to the Citigroup Relief fund and the remaining profits will be given to the Society of Broadcast Engineers Relief Fund.

“I am not a firefighter, I am not a paramedic, I am not an EMT,” Walensky said. “This is my way of helping.”

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