‘Something is wrong’: A chaotic scene as CNN reports on its own bomb scare

CNN anchors Poppy Harlow and Jim Sciutto. Photos by Alexandria Neason.

The crew had assembled in front of Fluffy’s Pizzeria in Manhattan around 11:30am, on the corner of 57th Street and 9th Avenue. CNN anchors Poppy Harlow and Jim Sciutto, who had evacuated the Time Warner building in Columbus Circle an hour earlier after a pipe bomb was sent to the CNN newsroom, were preparing to go live just blocks away from their own studios. Before the cameras caught up with them, the pair reported live on the air using their phones. “They say the device is inside CNN’s building. It was a package that was mailed,” Sciutto told the camera. In the meantime, they’d attracted a crowd of gawking pedestrians and other journalists, clamoring for footage of the building’s employees.

Just as the anchors went live on CNN, police officers ordered the team to move to the corner of 58th Street, a block north. Workers surrounded Harlow and Sciutto, grabbing cords and heavy containers. The cameraman lifted the tripod, walking backwards, and like a swarm of anchovies perfectly in sync, the group began to migrate.

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The CNN newsroom was just one of multiple targets this week: Explosive devices addressed to Barack Obama, Hillary and Bill Clinton, George Soros, former Attorney General Eric Holder (using Florida representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz as the return address), and California Representative Maxine Waters were intercepted by law enforcement. In the middle of a segment on the explosives sent to the Clintons and the Obamas, Harlow and Sciutto learned of the threat in their own newsroom.

“I’m wearing a headset and earpiece so I take it off and see everyone leaving,” says James Conroy, a stage manager for the show. “Once I saw that, okay, something is wrong. Jim is on the air and I tell [him] we have to go. He’s still talking and I say, ‘We gotta fucking leave now!’”

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A CNN security guard tells CJR that the newsroom evacuated quickly and calmly, some stopping for jackets and backpacks; once outside, they got to work.

The crew shuffled toward the corner of 57th Street, where the journalists again set up shop, Harlow reported on the air about a “heightened awareness” advisory message sent by the NYPD, indicating that officers and the public were to be on high alert. The crew shuffled into the crosswalk in an attempt to get out of the way of foot traffic, but a police officer again said they had to move, this time onto 9th Avenue. Journalists scurried around Harlow and Sciutto yelling updates from the NYPD about the location of the bomb. Police cleared the street; moments later, a convoy of bomb squad trucks and police cars sped past carrying the suspected bomb, headed for a police facility in the Bronx.

 

The camera crew briefly shifted to an empty corner near some construction fencing and, after another live shot, crossed 9th Avenue, heading west. Sirens blared in the background, and everyone leaned in to hear Sciutto and Harlow speak. When that throughway quickly became clogged, the CNN crew moved a fourth time, finally settling in front of a CVS on the western corner of 58th Street and 9th Avenue, having made a complete circle. CNN staffers ran in and out of the CVS, emerging with bottled water, portable phone chargers, and hand warmers. Several huddled around an outlet in the store like a campfire. In between shots, an aide armed with a purple, travel-sized bottle of hairspray doused Sciutto’s head in it. And on one break, Sciutto put on black gloves inside the CVS and rubbed his hands together.

Harlow, who had evacuated in open-toed high heels, also received a donation of slip-on sneakers from a staffer’s own feet; someone bought the shoeless woman grey ankle socks, which she layered until someone arrived with an extra pair of shoes. She also slipped on gray leggings underneath her red dress and navy blue coat.

Reporters and bystanders gather near the Time Warner building in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle after it was evacuated due to a bomb scare.

For hours the crew milled about, alternating between gathering updates about the bomb sent to their own newsroom and reporting them live to the world. At some point after trays full of Starbucks coffee arrived but before the group spread out in search of lunch, a little girl crossing the street in front of the camera stopped, screaming in glee. “I’m going to be on TV!” she shrieked, jumping up and down, as her grandmother dragged her away.

By 2:15pm, the Time Warner building was still closed. Harlow and Sciutto were ushered into a diner for lunch; a box of pizza materialized for the crew. For New Yorkers, daily life on the street is a carnival, and by this time, most people reacted to the reporters only long enough to snap photos. In typical fashion, few seemed to know what had happened, but all were annoyed by the sidewalk obstruction. A woman talking on a cell phone rounded the corner and got stuck in the jam of bodies. “I just want to go to CVS!”

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Alexandria Neason is CJR's Staff Writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow. Previously, she was a reporter at The Village Voice and covered education for the Teacher Project, a partnership between Columbia Journalism School and Slate. A team she worked on won the 2016 Education Writers Association award for news features. Follow her on Twitter @alexandrianeas.