'No words to describe that fireball': US journalist's 9/11 coverage brought plaudits tinged with guilt

A 2001 photo of Melinda Murphy, aerial photographer Chet Wilson (left) and helicopter pilot Ray Rivera who covered the 9/11 attacks as a team. PHOTO: COURTESY OF MELINDA MURPHY

SINGAPORE - It was a transformative, pivotal life event and a story that made her career as a journalist. But 20 years on, Ms Melinda Murphy still struggles to find the right words to describe how her Sept 11, 2001 experience began.

Then a reporter who was part of a team covering news from a helicopter for the WB11 Morning News show in New York, the Texan native and her crew had just taken off when the second of two plane crashes into the World Trade Center's twin towers occurred.

"There was this gigantic fireball coming out the side of the building. I can never find the words to describe what that fireball looked like, it was just so frightening and overwhelming and so, so real," says Ms Murphy, 57.

Her coverage that day was nominated for an Emmy, and her anniversary story one year later won the award. These, along with a book she co-edited and which led to a documentary, paved the way to a plum role as a network television correspondent with CBS.

But along with these accolades came guilt on multiple fronts.

"On that day, I felt like I should have been on the ground helping people," says Ms Murphy, who moved to Singapore in 2012 when her husband took a job here.

"I had friends who lost people; my husband lost so many of his friends; and there I was with my career blossoming. It was good for me, but it was awful for me too. This was always hard to reconcile."

From her position in a helicopter hovering above Lower Manhattan for almost seven hours, she witnessed horrific scenes - including people standing on ledges, about to leap to their deaths after failing to find an escape route.

The events of the day have stayed with Ms Murphy. In the aftermath, some friends enlisted in the military and others who were first responders at the time eventually succumbed to illnesses related to their exposure at Ground Zero.

"9/11 will always be a part of the American fabric. It's made us live differently," she adds. "Because the United States is so big, a lot of times Americans don't think about other things globally, they're so busy thinking about their little town, state or country. It opened up a lot of eyes as to what the rest of the world felt about us."

She is grateful that in Singapore, where she is general manager of the American Association of Singapore, her children - aged 11 and 13 - can be raised in a safe environment.

"They also have friends of all races, all sorts of countries; so they grow up accepting and embracing each other's cultures. That is really one of the things that I most treasure about Singapore," she says.

Still, it will be strange being in this part of the world on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Ms Murphy admits. "On Sept 11, I'm still a New Yorker. And it's hard for me not to be there."

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