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Lester Holt Talks About Covering 9/11, The ‘Dateline’ Spotlight On Flight 93 Families & What We’re Still Learning About The Heroism Of That Day

Editor’s note: One in a series of stories tied to the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

Very soon after after Lester Holt arrived at MSNBC’s New Jersey studio on 9/11, he was on air and then in the anchor chair, as bits of information streamed in from correspondents and wire services. As the screen showed images of a smoldering Lower Manhattan, Holt told viewers that, amid all the chaos, they had gotten a report that a large, fourth plane had crashed, “just north of the Somerset County airport, 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.”

It was United Flight 93 and, as is recounted in a Dateline special, Heroes: The Story of Flight 93, to air Friday evening at 10 PM ET, the family members of the crew and passengers on that flight share their stories of the day and the heroic effort to overtake take the hijackers who had taken control of the plane. By then, largely via the use of Skyphones, passengers had been able to call out and learn of the terrorist attacks, but their harrowing accounts, minutes before their own deaths, provided a narrative of what went on in the flight and gave a number of those onboard a last chance to say goodbye to loved ones.

9/11 Programming Schedule Leading Up To 20th Anniversary Of The Attacks: How To Watch On TV, Streaming & Online

As consumed as he was that day with the unfolding events, Holt also recalled how concerned he was about his own children, who were in school about a mile and a half from Ground Zero. He was able to email his wife to get them home, but he also recalled emailing a friend, in the midst of the scramble to cover everything: “I’m covering the biggest story of my career right now. And what I really want to do is go home and be with my family.”

Holt and other network anchors will be at Ground Zero for their coverage of the anniversary on Friday and Saturday. He spoke to Deadline about the Dateline special, his account of that day and why the Flight 93 story stands out as a remembrance that “none of us knows what we’re capable of doing until we’re tested.”

Lester Holt interviews children of Flight 93 passengers. NBC News

DEADLINE: Among the family members of the crew and passengers on Flight 93, is there a commonality in the way that they view what happened on 9/11, 20 years later?

HOLT: I think they take an enormous sense of pride in the knowledge and belief that their loved ones stood up against these hijackers. And some of them, quite frankly, talk about how at first they wished that their loved ones would have stayed out of it in the hope that things would resolve themselves as hijackings traditionally did back in that era. But in the end, I think there was a sense of pride that their loved ones stood up, as they were part of a part of an effort to not only to fight back on their own behalf but on behalf of anyone who would have been [an eventual target of the plane].

DEADLINE: You interviewed grown children who were perhaps too young then to comprehend what happened. But what was interesting to you about how they perceive the events that day?

HOLT: They range in age, but most of them were very, very young at the time, and they see it through the lens of a little child watching their mother, in some cases absorbing the news and being overcome with with grief. That’s the moment that they realize that something horrible had happened. But it’s interesting to watch the young people — we brought several of them together — and to watch them interact, all of them with a mission to make sure that other young people know about this story and understand what their parents did, because it is such an important story that comes out of what was an awful day. And I think there’s an acknowledgement that there are a lot of young people who weren’t alive or simply don’t have memories of that day, and these kids are very united in their beliefs that they want people to know about what their folks did.

DEADLINE: You were working for MSNBC at the time. There is a reference to that in the special.

HOLT: I was probably underneath the Hudson River in the Lincoln Tunnel, going to work at MSNBC, which at the time was based in New Jersey, and I was on a company shuttle bus and all of us on board looked up and questioning what that smoke was coming from Manhattan. And I walked in the studio, saw a monitor, this was apparently moments after the first plane hit. I like and cover airplanes and aviation a lot, and so I immediately was pressed into action trying to identify what kind of aircraft this was and essentially was part of the anchor team well into the night. And I guess one of my biggest memories of that day was trying to do my job as an anchor at the same time worrying for my family. My children were both in school about a mile and a half from Ground Zero in Greenwich Village, Soho area. And so I was trying to send emails, comfort my kids while throwing to correspondents in the field. Like most people who were a part of it, it was all very surreal.

DEADLINE: Do you remember what time you went on air once you got to the studio?

HOLT: I saw the monitor, saw what had happened, and I think I asked someone to give me a microphone and IFP [an earpiece to hear the producer]. I immediately said [that] I can talk about airplanes flying up the Hudson — what’s normal, what’s not — because we were still going through that process of maybe this was an accident, and I went on the air and I talked about planes flying to LaGuardia come up the Hudson River, make a turn over the Bronx and the White Plains area to come into the runway there, but how unusual would be for an airplane to come near a skyscraper, especially on a clear, visual-flight-rules day. So I remember in offering, you know, my limited expertise on flying and aviation in the New York area. .. I went right at it. I don’t remember anybody asking me to join the coverage, I just sort of did it.

Holt said he was rotated into the anchor chair, and was there into the early evening.

HOLT: I do remember stepping outside and it was dusk outside. I just went outside to get some air, and two fighter jets flew over and that was the moment for me, strangely enough that it took on a new reality. I looked up and saw those airplanes and I thought, ‘My goodness, we’re at war.’ Even though I’ve been reporting it for several hours, to step outside and confront that reality was really quite overwhelming.

There were just so many moments that day. I remember, you know, being handed a piece of wire copy that a plane that had apparently gone down in Pennsylvania, and trying to piece together, ‘Oh, is that part of this? Is that some wicked coincidence, a field in Pennsylvania? I remember, late in the day, reading a account of someone at Ground Zero describing the loss of firefighters, hundreds of firefighters potentially. You just couldn’t process that kind of information because none of us had ever reported anything even close to this before.

Holt said that his wife, who had been downtown and saw the tower burning, had left him a voicemail, but he couldn’t immediately get back to her.

HOLT: In all caps I emailed, “THIS IS NOT AN ACCIDENT. THIS IS A TERROR ATTACK. GET THE KIDS OUT OF SCHOOL AND HOME NOW.” She and I couldn’t talk, but somehow we were able to email. She got the kids home, and then I wanted to comfort my children. [My son] was starting fifth grade, and he asked me, ‘Well, Dad, what happens if they kill the president?’ So I thought, ‘Well, here’s a way to kind of distract him and empower him a little bit.’ I said, ‘Well, here’s your assignment. Since you’re out of school, I want you to tell me all you can about something called the line of succession,’ and left it at that. And later he emails me the line of succession, and it helped him understand the continuity of government. So I was trying to play the role of comforting dad, at the same time I was doing this job. I also remember … an email to a friend who had reached out in the middle of all this. I wrote back, ‘I’m covering the biggest story of my career right now. And what I really want to do is go home and be with my family.’ He reminded me of that several months or years later, and I said ‘I wrote that? Me? Mr. Newshound?’ But it kind of took me into that space of where I was, how huge this was.

Holt said that he was not able to get home that night because the bridges and tunnels leading into Manhattan were closed, so he stayed in a hotel in Secaucus.

The windows were kind of dirty, but I could see out in the direction, see the smoke, you know ,from Manhattan. And then the next day, I actually went to Ground Zero on a boat. I can’t remember how we arranged it, it was a tugboat or something, but was able to take a boat right to the shore of Lower Manhattan and then [they] walked us up to the pile. And of course that’s the moment it really hits you when you see all these fire vehicles,  crushed like tin cans, and of course the smoke was still heavy, and there was just there was a weariness and a sadness that kind of enveloped the entire site.

It was not until that evening that he got home to his family. 

Those of us who are covering this were not a part of that process of being an American, sitting with your family, sitting in your living room, watching this story unfold, processing it on the phone with friends and family. We were busy covering it. That moment in which the country kind of stopped, we weren’t really a part of. And so, at the first anniversary, as I was interviewing survivors and family members and first responders, I remember just being overwhelmed. It was like in many ways I was hearing these stories for the first time, because I had time to kind of reflect on them and it was not in the heat of the moment of minute by minute anchor coverage.

DEADLINE: A lot of on-air journalists have said that they were so engaged in doing their job that they didn’t have time to process what was happening. 

HOLT: You’re reporting this stuff, and your mind can’t really catch up with what just came out of your mouth, if that makes sense. That evening [of 9/11], when I was given a piece of wire copy, and it was explaining you know what someone was saying in terms crushed vehicles and this incredible loss of firefighters, and I think I believe that might have been the first moment I actually choked up a little bit on the air as I came to process that.

I was at the 9/11 Memorial Museum, working on some of our coverage the other day, and the young lady who was escorting me to where we were going to do the interview. We’re making small talk and I asked her, ‘Are you from New York? Where were you on 9/11?’ And she tells the story of being a 4-year-old girl and really remembering how distraught her mother was during all this. And I said: ‘Wow, let’s talk about generations. The story you told is my story when John F. Kennedy was shot.’ I was 4 years old. I remember how distraught my mother was, that here was something awful happening and that it involved this president. That’s how I processed it. It was just kind of interesting that two different generations, two national calamities, and how we kind of saw it through a similar lens at a certain point in our lives.

DEADLINE: There are a number of specials that are on as we approach the anniversary. Do you think it will be difficult for a number of people to watch? It was such a national tragedy, and we’re going through some difficult times right now.

HOLT:  Yes, to your question. I will give you an example. I’m sitting here as we speak and I’m trying to write a story that’s going to air our Friday Nightly newscast. And it involves the voices and the final phone calls and voicemails from that day, and I can’t get through it without crying. It’s still very raw, fresh emotions, but I’ve been trying to write this story for two days now, and I get to these points that my eyes just well up. It’s still very much with all of us.

DEADLINE: For the Flight 93 special, did you learn information about what happened on that flight that you didn’t know about or that really surprised you?

HOLT: We’ve learned a little bit more about what went on in the cockpit. Some of the family members took advantage of an opportunity to listen to the voice recorders, and were able to hear you know some detail of what was going on. Some of it had to be translated, but they heard a struggle with what some of them think was one of the hijackers being killed during the assault by the passengers. So I think we get a little bit more insight into this plan that the passengers had put together, and their execution of that plan. I found it fascinating that one of the calls from one of the passengers, that they have given consideration to, ‘Let’s hold off our assault until the plane is over an unpopulated area.’ So they’re thinking not only themselves but who might be in the path of this plane, if their plan doesn’t work out.

Frankly, some of these messages [from passengers to their families] are so calm, and so matter-of-fact, you can’t go through this material or listen to this material without kind of thinking: ‘What would I do? What would I say in what could be that final call?’ It’s a difficult process because none of us can ever really picture ourselves in the situation that these people were in. But they didn’t lie down. They decided they had to do something. Because their plane had been a little bit delayed on the ground, the other events of 9/11 were already in motion and so, as they talked to loved ones they were getting some intelligence about, hey, a plane just hit the World Trade Center. So they knew that this plane was intended to become a weapon, and with that knowledge, they did what they thought they had to do, and it was going to be a very steep hill to climb. … It was an extraordinary task they took on, and every time I read about or dig further, I become just more in awe.

DEADLINE: What do you think it says about how humans react in situations where, where they, they know in these traumatic situations where they know, they may not live? 

HOLT: The story of Flight 93 affirms to me what something that I’ve witnessed throughout my 40-some-odd years as a journalist, and that is, none of us knows what we’re capable of doing until we’re tested. I’ve covered people who have faced all kinds of trials and tribulations and have been tested in extraordinary circumstances, and they do things that even they weren’t sure they had within them. And I find it kind of affirming that maybe there’s something in all of us that could stand up at the appropriate time to do what has to be done even at risk to yourself. I think this is a story that we should all know because I think it really tells us a lot about what we may be capable of.

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