Report from the Heartland

Sep 17, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The tip that Air Force One was heading for the military air base just outside of town came from law enforcement. That’s all Tracy Madden, reporter and anchor on the 4 o’clock local news at WOWT-TV, the NBC affiliate in Omaha, Neb., will say.
According to the tipster, “Some high ranking official was going to be arriving in the afternoon,” said her news director, John Clark. “We speculated amongst ourselves that it might be the president.”
At that point, Mr. Clark dispatched Ms. Madden and a photographer. He sent a second crew to the opposite side of the giant military base. He also dispatched the station’s satellite truck.
Omaha is a world away from Manhattan’s tall towers. About 15 miles south of the prosperous, bustling Midwestern city is Offutt Air Force Base, one of the most secure facilities in the entire nation.
During the Cold War, Offutt was the nerve center of the Strategic Air Command and the nation’s force of B-52 bombers. It is now the headquarters of the U.S. Strategic Command, a joint command between the Army and the Air Force. “There is an underground bunker facility there,” Mr. Clark said.
The station had stayed with the network’s feed ever since first word of the disaster in New York. Mr. Clark first learned of the disaster from a television in a corner of the waiting room at a hospital, where he’d gone for a CAT scan that morning. Ms. Madden learned of it from a colleague who called her home, waking her after a late night at work, and told her to turn on her TV.
Mr. Clark, a 32-year veteran of the Omaha TV news business, immediately called the newsroom from the hospital, making sure everyone knew what to do.
At her home, Ms. Madden called the newsroom immediately, too, but the assignment desk told her everything was under control; she didn’t need to come in until the start of her regular shift. But Ms. Madden got up and went in anyway.
As the morning wore on, she was dispatched to a local-angle story but was diverted by the desk to the military base and the “high official” who was on his way.
By the time Air Force One and its fighter jet escort came in, Ms. Madden and a photographer were stationed just outside the air base, about 300 yards from where the big blue and white 747 eventually taxied to a stop. WOWT informed the network the president had arrived, Mr. Clark said. “I passed it on to them. It wasn’t more than 30 seconds after that [Tom] Brokaw said [on air that the president] was there.”
With Air Force One and its military escort on the ground, “We fed [the network] raw tape,” Mr. Clark said. Later Mr. Clark learned the president had gone directly to the underground bunker on base, where he conferred by video conference with the Joint Chiefs and other military advisers. Later the networks broadcast reports that just hours after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, Air Force One-with the president aboard-had been a terrorist target.
Mr. Clark said that within an hour after touching down Air Force One was “wheels up and gone.” That was when armed military police appeared and demanded Ms. Madden’s videotapes.
By then she had fed her tape back to the station, which had passed on the footage to the network. “The military police officer said, `We need to confiscate your tapes,”’ Ms. Madden said.
A crowd of some two dozen people was forming-police, civilians, other stations’ crews-and everyone was shooting videotape, Ms. Madden said.
“Then [the MP] went around to each photographer and took the tapes. … They were thrown over the barbed wire fence to [another] military officer.” Ms. Madden said. “You cannot take our tapes. We need these back immediately,” she told the MPs, and the confrontation quickly turned into a shouting contest-“Until I suggested [the MP] get a supervisor on the phone.”
The supervisor who came on the telephone said to her: “`If you come to this Korean restaurant [nearby] … in less than five minutes, we can give the tapes back to you.’ We went to that location and got the tapes back.”