Remembering 9/11/01: Charlie Tuna, On-Air Personality
It was 5:56 A.M. and I was doing my regular 5 to 10 a.m. morning radio show here in L.A. and just coming out Kim Carnes “Bette Davis Eyes” and had my two regular TV monitors of Channel 5 & Channel 11 in front of me watching reporters trying to make some sense out of what they were seeing & reporting in New York City of a plane crashing into one of the World Trade Center towers. At first glance, I thought it was like I had read about a plane hitting the Empire State building in New York in the 40’s, but that was in a thick fog, and this day in New York that I was looking at on TV was a bright blue sky.
My news reporter Barbara Brooks said on the air to me that initial reports were that an airliner or even possibly a missile had hit the tower because there were two gaping holes and flames of fire leaping from the top floors. My comment was that having flown in & out of New York many times, I couldn’t ever recall a flight path that took us over the city itself. Then at 6:12 on the next scheduled break in the music, Barbara Brooks came back with an update that indicated now 2 planes had crashed into the 2 towers of the World Trade Center. I mentioned on the air with the flames and smoke we were seeing, it reminded me of the Irwin Allen terror movie “The Towering Inferno”, and by then all of us in the studio realized that what we had seen glancing at the TV monitors while going about the business of doing our radio show, that we had at first thought was just the replay of one plane hitting a tower, was in fact 2 different planes and both towers had been hit. And I surmised on the air at this point that this might be the work of terrorists who had vowed revenge in retaliation for those World Trade center bombers from 1993 who were captured & convicted for a truck bomb in the WTC tower basement, meant to crash one tower into the other and bring them both down.
There was also a chilling feeling I expressed on the air of disbelief that this was real or was actually happening…maybe it was just a bad dream or nightmare that was playing out and my alarm would wake me up to go to work shortly, but reality had set in and by my next break 10 minutes later, my producer Dianna Olea remarked she had just talked to her boyfriend who dealt with the New York Stock Exchange everyday and his conversation with his friends in New York indicated it was utter chaos there, with everyone wondering what was going to happen next. One of his friends he was on the phone with was on the 80th floor in one of the Twin Towers and looked up just as a huge explosion flashed in front of him! The tragedy began to unfold with a local angle as we learned one of the hijacked planes that crashed into the towers was bound from Boston to L.A. originally, and traffic reporter Lori Ryan broke into the discussion with news reporter Barbara Brooks and myself, that she just got a report another plane had hit the Pentagon! It was at that point at 6:44 a.m. that I described the morning as an American Nightmare and our country was under a very well designed and coordinated attack from terrorists, and we dropped playing any music to focus on all the information we could find and relay to our listeners.
Having found out moments later, less than an hour after the first plane hit the WTC, that the White House, Capitol building and all government buildings were being evacuated and the FAA was now grounding all aircraft across the United States till further notice, forcing all planes to land at the nearest airport, I asked all our listeners to take a moment and offer a prayer for all the victims in this attack and their families, and for everyone listening, to stay where you were with your loved ones, and don’t go anywhere in Southern California today if you absolutely don’t have to, until we could find out what exactly the extent of this attack was going to be. I said anyone’s boss would understand you not showing up for your job or work you had to do today, and more than likely most businesses would be telling employees to take the day off. LAPD went on tactical alert, the Sears Tower in Chicago was evacuated, and L.A. was being recognized as another potential target, all this happening as the sun was just beginning to light the skies of Southern California! I talked to some of our listeners on the air, including one who worked in a L.A. high rise downtown and was in tears over all the news, and was being told that most of L.A.’s big office buildings downtown were being shut down, and employees evacuated from them as a precaution. And by this time, all flights that were going to land at LAX under the FAA order were being diverted to Ontario airport.
My radio career has had some monumental events happen while I was on the air, that started in 1963 when I was playing a Little Peggy March song called “The Impossible Happened” when the bulletin came across my hometown station’s newswire in 1963 that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas and I interrupted that song echoing the lyric that the “the impossible has just happened in Dallas”, I watched the chaos at the Ambassador Hotel on TV the night Robert Kennedy was shot in 1968, and searched for words for my show the morning after to describe how we Angelenos must be feeling, having just gone through a period of mourning the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. gunned down just 2 months earlier in Memphis, then playing Dion’s “Abraham, Martin & John” 4 months later on the air at KHJ remembering Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., President Kennedy and that haunting lyric also in the song, “Anyone here seen my old friend Bobby” referring to Robert Kennedy. I’ve seen our torrential rainstorms, flooding, and mudslides, plus the terrifying fires that raged out of control over the last 44 years working here, and I have been through the two major L.A. earthquakes on the air, Sylmar in 1971 and Northridge in 1994, but nothing even comes close in comparing the apprehension, horror, and nightmarish feeling that morning of 9-11 from ten years ago left me with. To this day, those images we watched on TV over & over again still seem surreal, and it’s impossible to imagine what the victims final moments were like. God bless them all, and hopefully they’re all in a place to see that they’ll never be forgotten by those of us who carry the memory of that tragic day in America’s history.