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Columns
World Trade Center explosion a life-changing assignment for Nina Pineda

Saturday, September 15, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Former WTAE reporter Nina Pineda, hired by New York's WABC a year ago, arrived at her Upper West Side office Tuesday morning planning to go about her day as she normally would. But any sense of normalcy quickly came to an end.

It was 8:45 a.m. and she was preparing for a quick oatmeal breakfast when the station got word of an explosion at the World Trade Center. As one of the few reporters in the newsroom at that early hour, Pineda was sent to investigate.

"We jumped in the car and raced down there ,and we were getting there just as the second plane hit," Pineda said in a phone call Thursday afternoon. "We jumped out of the car to get footage, and people were running up to us screaming. We had no idea if it was a fire, explosion or a small commuter plane."

Soon Pineda and the rest of America learned the awful truth. As she and a videographer ran toward the World Trade Center, people trying to escape ran past them in the other direction.

"We were very close and the police were running toward us yelling 'It's going to go! Down on the ground, now!' " the Uniontown native recalled. "So we immediately ducked."

A videographer captured images of Pineda, clad in a pink suit, crouching behind a car, her arm around another reporter.

"We were just running on instinct," she said. "You just cover yourself and whoever is near you."

The image of Pineda was relayed by satellite and broadcast on stations around the world. She's gotten phone calls from concerned colleagues who saw the footage, including former WTAE anchor Shawn Yancy, now at a Fox station in Washington, D.C. Pineda's parents, who live in Uniontown, saw the scene, too.

"My mom couldn't get a call in to [WABC] because the phone lines were disrupted," Pineda said. Eventually she did get through and learned her daughter was fine.

With a satellite dish, Pineda's parents were able to watch WABC and see their daughter's first live shot of the day in midafternoon after the station cobbled together a way to get live coverage out of debris-strewn lower Manhattan.

Coverage was hampered by the fact that communication arrays were located atop the World Trade Center. Pineda and other reporters ducked into shops and begged merchants to use their phones to file reports.

"When the second tower collapsed, we were overwhelmed with smoke, debris and dust," Pineda said. "Day was blocked out and it turned to night. You couldn't see your hand in front of your face."

She said they saw the dust cloud advancing but tried to capture pictures for as long as possible.

"We were waiting until the last possible moment," she said. "I stayed with the photographer and guided him, holding him by the belt. He's walking backwards, I'm walking forwards. We waited until the dust cloud was upon us and over us, and people were running out of black darkness covering their faces."

Pineda said she was afraid all day, but no time more so than when she and her crew were standing on the West Side Highway trying to reach one of the WABC live trucks.

"The police started screaming, 'You're standing on a gas line! There's a gas leak! Run for your lives!' " Pineda said. "At that point I said, 'We have to turn around and run right now.' And even as we were running, we tried to run as close to the water as possible."

The gas line never blew.

Pineda said several viewers called the station because they were concerned to see particles going into her mouth. She was eventually given a mask by a rescue worker to prevent her from breathing in more debris. She ended up working from 9 a.m. Tuesday until 2 a.m. Wednesday.

"It was total chaos and mayhem," she said.

She was most amazed by the shoes that were left behind as people ran out of them as they hurried uptown and away from the destruction.

"I don't think I'll ever be the same. We saw people on top of the World Trade Center jumping. We were standing there not knowing if we were seeing debris, and then we'd see ties flapping and oxford shirts and khakis flailing," Pineda said. "There are so many bodies and parts of bodies, and all of that now is being hidden from the cameras because they've sealed off lower Manhattan below 14th Street."

She described it as being "in the center of hell."

"I didn't have a breakdown until [Wednesday] when families started putting pictures [of the missing] on news vans," Pineda said. "People were coming up to us just so desperate."

Pineda said if there's any good to come following Tuesday's tragedies, it's the response to the crisis.

"New Yorkers have the same steely resolve as people in Pittsburgh," she said. "What we saw, with Flight 427 or the tornado, of people coming together to help each other, we're seeing that here, too. ... New York can be such a hard and cold and unfriendly place, and it's become a place like Pittsburgh. People are friendly and extending a hand and helping one another."

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