Bill Steckman was working on Tuesday
morning, Sept. 11, 2001, shortly before 9 o’clock. But unlike thousands of
others in the North Tower of the World Trade Center, the WNBC(TV) transmitter
engineer was not just reporting to work. Instead, he had already finished his regular
overnight shift and remained at his post a bit longer to help install some new
Minutes after the tower was hit by a
commercial jetliner, Steckman was able to get word out by phone of the encroaching
smoke on the 104th floor —half of which WNBC(TV) shared with financial bond
trader Cantor Fitzgerald.
Top (L-R): Don DiFranco, Steve Jacobson, Gerard “Rod” Coppola Bottom: Robert Pattison, Isaias Rivera, Bill Steckman
Six floors above in the same tower, five
fellow engineers were coping with increasingly ominous conditions. Working that
morning in the windowless maintenance facility on the 110th floor were Don
DiFranco of WABC(TV); Gerard “Rod” Copolla of WNET(TV); Steve Jacobson of WPIX(TV);
and Bob Pattison and Isaias Rivera of WCBS(TV).
“It was typical for all the stations to
have someone up on the 110th floor or another location like the 104th,” said
John Lyons, vice president of broadcast communications for the Durst
Organization, which leases tower space to several broadcasters at 4 Times
“From about 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., typically
all of the stations were manned somewhere up in the North Tower.”
North Tower FM radio “residents”
included WKCR, WPAT, WNYC and WKTU.
The television side consisted of CBS-owned
WCBS; NBC’s WNBC; Fox-owned WNYW and WWOR; ABC’s WABC; Tribune’s WPIX; PBS
station WNET; Paxson station WPXN; and Telemundo’s WNJU.
Steckman, a WNBC(TV) employee for 35
years, and his five colleagues eventually were listed among the more than 2,750
dead and 6,000 injured in Manhattan a decade ago.
“Bill typically worked
the overnight shift, usually Sunday night through Thursday,” said WNBC(TV)
Engineering Supervisor Jeff Baker, who was a WNBC studio maintenance engineer
10 years ago.
“It’s still difficult to think on it.
Bill was the same age that I am now… 56. That’s way too young to be cut short
like that.” Steckman was born on Christmas Eve of 1944.
Steckman had four daughters and a son. Deanine
Nagengast said she continues to cherish memories being with her father.
“He was able to see me graduate college, get married, buy a house and share
our love of boating together with my new husband Jim,” she told Radio World.
“I do get frustrated and angry that he was not here to see my children
being born or have them know and love him as ‘Pop Pop Bill,’ as the other
Nagengast said she tries to keep his spirit alive within the family, “telling
them stories about him, or things he would have said and done. The hard part is
when they ask what happened to him, ‘Why is he in Heaven?’ These are questions
with answers I have yet to figure out myself.”
“Bill was my transmitter
guy,” says former WNBC(TV) Chief Engineer Jeffrey Birch, who knew four of the six
men. “He was one of the most giving and selfless people any of us would ever
hope to meet.”
WABC(TV) RF Supervisor Don DiFranco,
43, was born and raised in Brooklyn, where he was living in 2001. Station
Engineer Al Silvestri remembers his fellow Brooklynite as a good friend.
“A very smart guy — quite knowledgeable about
broadcast issues. And quiet. Don was very dedicated to his job and almost a fanatic
about it. He was an excellent technician. He could fix anything. And put up
anything … like the new HD transmitter,” Silvestri said.
“I went to college with Don,” said Birch, now vice president
of engineering for CBS Television Stations Division. “Then we had crossed paths
years later at World Trade after we had attended Staten Island Community College.”
A few days after the 9/11 attacks, former WABC
Engineering Director Bill Beam issued a staff memo that read, in part: “[DiFranco’s]
attention to detail left no room for compromise in the quality of the video and
audio that passed through the transmitter plant … At his insistence,
manufacturers often found ways to improve the products that were part of the
transmission system at the World Trade Center.”
Mast to Rise Again; Museum to Honor
Part of the main antenna mast from the
roof of the North Tower of the World Trade Center — easily visible in many
pre-Sept. 11 depictions of the New York skyline — will be hoisted once more, albeit
in a museum setting.
A new office tower will rise a symbolic
1,776 feet to the tip of the highest pole on its roof (which, to date, is not
likely to hold any broadcast antennas this time). But a nearby museum set to
open in September 2012 plans to exhibit part of the original antenna mast,
perhaps 16 to 18 feet, that survived from the North Tower.
Associate Curator Amy Weinstein of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum
told Radio World that other mementos of the North Tower’s broadcast
transmission facilities from the 110th and 104th floors may included, as well
as special audio recollections by family members of WNBC(TV) Engineer Bill
Steckman, and perhaps other broadcasters.
Along with the museum, a memorial
scheduled to be unveiled this month at the original site will include the names
of all those who perished on Sept. 11, 2001, in Manhattan. The planned panels
at the North Memorial Pool will include the names of the six engineers:
Gerard J. Coppola
Donald Joseph DiFranco
Steven A. Jacobson
Robert E. Pattison
William V. Steckman
In the days immediately following the 9/11 attacks, the charitable arm
of the Society of Broadcast Engineers created the Broadcast Engineer Relief
Fund to help the families of the six men. Don DiFranco of WABC(TV) was an
active SBE member.
“With donations from many members of SBE, and vendors and industry
foundations, we were pleased to send checks of $42,500 each to every family… without
any strings attached,” said SBE President Vinny Lopez. “Every penny [raised]
went directly to the families.”
Also, the New York chapter of
NABET-CWA, Local 16, had set up a Scholarship Fund in memory of DiFranco, which
continues today. Donated funds are used for scholarships for offspring of Local
16 members to pursue technical degrees at Staten Island Community College.
— John Merli
Beam, who today heads WH Beam Associates, says 10 years later, “Those of
us close to the events of that day have never forgotten these men.”
Isaias Rivera of WCBS(TV) was a native of Puerto
Rico who lived in Perth Amboy, N.J.
Rivera spent most of his time away from the North Tower as an
evangelical pastor. At age 51, he had already worked for both WCBS(TV) and CBS
Network for more than 30 years, having begun his career in the CBS mailroom. A
survivor of the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 1993,
Rivera also had mentored troubled youth in Spanish Harlem and other tough
After Sept. 11, many of the youngsters he once helped had returned to
honor him. In fact, those paying respects at his home reportedly numbered in the
hundreds, coming to pay homage to their mentor in the company of their own
children and spouses, according to the archives of the Newark Star-Ledger.
Rivera was survived by his wife and four children.
Bob Pattison, Rivera’s
colleague at WCBS(TV), at 40 was the youngest of the six men.
A devote lover of crossword puzzles and
words, he had at one point during a challenging upbringing thought seriously of
becoming a writer. He served a stint in the U.S. Air Force before signing on
with the CBS O&O in 2000.
His brother, Brendan Pattison, recalled
in a New York Times report that shortly before Sept. 11, Bob had had the first chance
to hold his two-week-old niece. That family event, a colleague noted later to
WCBS(TV) news, had put an uncharacteristic spring in Pattison’s step on the morning
of Monday, Sept. 10, 2001.
Birch and Baker hold fond and respectful memories
of WNET(TV) Antenna Engineer Rod Coppola.
“Rod and I had hung microwave gear together a few months earlier, and he
was always willing to help out in anything,” said Birch.
Baker vividly recalls his work with the public TV engineer over that
last summer: “The transmitter we were using was from the same
manufacturer as Thirteen [WNET] and we able to easily exchange modules whenever
we had a blowout. We worked with Rod and Thirteen on that quite a bit.”
Born and raised in
East Orange, N.J., where Coppola bought his own 2-watt radio transmitter at age
12, Coppola would have turned 47 in November 2001. An amateur song writer and
former high school rock musician, Coppola is survived by his wife and four
Steve Jacobson of Tribune’s WPIX(TV) was a native New Yorker.
Lyons, who was working for Clear Channel’s
WAXQ(FM) on Sept. 11, remembers Jacobson “always had a very dry sense of humor,
always kind of a little grin on his face. He used to wear a sloppy fedora, and
after a day’s work it was always like watching Steve literally ‘walk into the
“It gives me goose bumps to think about
it again, but I can still see Steve today walking down that hallway heading
Jacobson, 53, also had been in the North
Tower during the 1993 attack. A New York Times archival profile reported that a
fellow engineer had run out to retrieve lunch for the men that day, only to alert
Jacobson urgently by phone that smoke and flames were starting to engulf part
of the World Trade complex. Jacobson reportedly deadpanned: “Does this mean I
don’t get my eggroll?”
“They were all very selfless,” Birch said. “We were
competitors, but we always helped each other out up at World Trade. It was all
such a tragic loss back then. It’s still a tragic loss today.”
The author acknowledges the contributions of the engineers who
assisted with this article, including CBS TV Stations Liaison John Byrne.