Eighteen years after the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, so many Americans recall where they were when they heard the news and the horror of the days afterward. For “Morning Joe” co-host and Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski, it was a day that cut life in two.
“There are events in my life that are markers: before I had kids and after I had kids, when my father was alive and after his death. September 11 is like that for me: Everything changed in a moment,” Brzezinski told Know Your Value in an interview.
“Everything was divided into before and after,” she added. “It was really a moment that changed absolutely everything about our outlook, our families, our way of life, our perspective.”
On the morning of September 11, Brzezinski was only two days into her job as a correspondent at CBS News. Fellow correspondent Byron Pitts had given her a tip: Get into the office early so you can be the first to grab the story. So though the team’s morning meeting wasn’t until 10 a.m., Brzezinski had gotten in two hours early and was at her desk when the first plane hit at 9:03 a.m.
“I wanted to get down there, but of course we couldn’t get any cars out of the garage—it was complete gridlock on the West Side Highway, and people were clustered around cars listening to the radio,” Brzezinski said. “So I took my shoes off and ran barefoot downtown to the World Trade Center.”
Even before the second plane hit the South Tower, she felt the first incident was not an accident.
“I felt right away, this is not a crash—my gut told me this was something very different,” Brzezinski said. “It was clear something huge and transformative had happened.”
Brzezinski was at the scene reporting for CBS, standing under the Twin Towers with her colleague Pitts, when the first tower began to fall to the ground.
“I froze when I saw the tower tumble down, and Byron grabbed my hand and said, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here,’” she said. “We ran inside a school and reported from there all day.”
She stayed at Ground Zero for weeks afterward, reporting from various locations. On the day itself, “to be blunt I don’t think there was a lot of time to step back and think about it broadly,” Brzezinski said. “I was kind of in reporter overdrive. You’re so focused on getting it right that you’re not thinking of yourself. I put together what I saw and spoke about it on air.”
Brzezinski found herself “compartmentalizing” over her time at Ground Zero, going nonstop for three weeks. She felt disconnected from her family: her daughters were very young at the time, and her then-husband James Hoffer was also reporting on the story.
“I wanted to report the story until there was no story; weeks later I left Ground Zero and went right to my daughter’s kindergarten and I just collapsed and started crying,” Brzezinski said. “The teachers were like, ‘You need to go home and get some rest.’”
It wasn’t until she got home that “it really hit me how hard it had been, how traumatic it had all been. I felt almost guilty about my family being intact after what had happened to so many people. Like, my God, I get to go home.”
Brzezinski said she thinks back to seeing people jump out of the towers to avoid the fire, and about the weeks afterward talking to people who were walking around with photos in a futile attempt to find loved ones.
“That’s about as gutting as it gets in terms of understanding the fleeting nature of life and joy and beauty, and how it quickly it can all get away,” Brzezinski said. “It taught me the simplest but most important lesson possible: the value of life.”
The attack also highlighted the “preciousness” of our democracy and our freedom, in addition to our families and the time we have with them, Brzezinski added.
“Those things can get muted because our lives get so busy,” Brzezinski said. “But on September 11 everything ground to a halt in your mind and your heart. You can’t look at anything the same way afterward.”