Whitfield, owner of Indianapolis-based Fletcher Communications Inc., was a freelance television news producer working for CNN, Reuters News and the Christian Broadcasting Network’s news division in Washington, D.C., when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. Four years later, Whitfield crashed emotionally and was hospitalized suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder.
The daughter of a retired Army officer, Whitfield, 39, had moved many times as a child before settling in Columbia, S.C. She graduated from high school in 1986, but didn’t go to college immediately.
“I was still planning on being a successful rock and roll star,” she said with a laugh. Singing and performing were passions that continued beyond high school.
Whitfield married and moved to Greenville, S.C., where she was “mostly a stay-at-home wife,” she said, something she was “really miserable doing.” She divorced her husband and moved back to Columbia.
A new beginning
At age 30, Whitfield started attending the University of South Carolina part-time with a goal of being the female equivalent of sportscaster Bob Costas, but she realized that it would take too long to earn a degree.
“I thought ‘nobody’s going to want a firsttime 40-year-old anchor,’ so I went to the Carolina School of Broadcasting in Charlotte, a one-year program that teaches all facets of radio and television.”
She planned to work in front of the camera, but six months into the program she received an internship at the NBC affiliate, WCNC-TV6 in Charlotte. Whitfield was there about a month when the news director asked if she was interested in a news producer opening. She was hired as the station’s consumer investigative producer working on in-depth health and safety stories.
“In the back of my mind I thought that this would be a foot in the door and maybe eventually I’d get a shot at being on camera,” Whitfield admitted. “It never turned out that way, but I loved every minute of it.”
She was nominated for two Emmy awards for her consumer investigative work and won AP and Radio Television News Directors Association awards for her reports.
In 2000, Whitfield followed her thenboyfriend, a video photographer, to Washington, D.C., when he was hired by Tribune Broadcasting. During her two years in Washington, Whitfield worked as a freelance producer and correspondent for several production houses and for television station WTTG Fox 5DC.
“I was working for the morning show, which meant I was going to work at 1 a.m. and getting off at 9. That was killing me,” she said. When an opportunity arose at CNN to work as a field producer on Capitol Hill, Whitfield jumped at it.
“I really enjoyed getting to see the ins and outs of politics, the good and the bad,” she said. “I followed Gary Condit around a little too much,” she said of the former Congressman who was embroiled in the Chandra Levy scandal.
Whitfield settled into her producing duties and also taught a class at the Arlington, Va., branch of Boston-based Connecticut School of Broadcasting. The school, located directly across the 14th Street bridge from Washington, is less than a mile from the Pentagon. She awoke Sept. 11, 2001, expecting to give a final exam to her students before traveling to CBN’s offices in Washington where she was scheduled to audition for their Capitol Hill correspondent position.
Most mornings Whitfield tuned in the news, but that day she didn’t because she was rehearsing for her audition. When she entered the school, things were chaotic, she said. The executive director was holding a phone receiver against one ear, a cell phone against the other. He told Whitfield that a plane had just crashed into one of the World Trade Center buildings.
“I remember thinking it wasn’t a very funny joke, but I was waiting for the punch line,” Whitfield said. “‘It’s no joke,’ he said. ‘I’m on the phone with my brother who’s in the other World Trade Center building.” On the other phone was his brother’s wife, who was in New Jersey and couldn’t connect with her husband.
“You could hear the commotion in the background. R.J. was screaming, ‘Get out of the building! Get out of the building!’Thank God he did get out right away before the second plane hit.”
Whitfield postponed the exam and started talking to the students about what it means if you’re a journalist and you’re forced to cover an event like this.
Of the 20 people in the class, about half decided that broadcast journalism wasn’t for them, Whitfield said. “I think some of them went in with the idea that they would be Barbie or Ken on TV and it’s going to be glamorous, but we know that’s hardly the case.”
Rumors were flying that bombs were going off at the State Department, Capitol Hill, the White House, and other locations-then she heard the crash.
“We froze,” Whitfield said. Two of the staff were heading outside to see what happened when Whitfield shouted, “Don’t go!” Her fear was related to a month-long project that she had completed just two weeks earlier for CBN News. It was a training video for upper-level Pentagon executives on the effects of weapons of mass destruction.
“I had seen pictures of what anthrax could do to your lungs,” Whitfield said. “I saw coroners’ reports and autopsy photos of what polio and smallpox could do. My fear was we didn’t know what was on that plane.”
She called the CBN bureau chief, who hired her on the spot-not exactly the way she wanted to get the job, she said. “We agreed that I would report the next morning because they would be going wall-to-wall and I could replace the people who worked all night.”
Heading to her home four miles away in Alexandria, Va.-normally a 15-minute commute-took nearly five hours. She could feel the intense heat, see the smoke billowing into the air and smell the jet fuel.
Two weeks later, Whitfield and a stringer for CBN News were dispatched to New York for a story on the aftermath of the attacks. “Our cab driver dropped us off about eight blocks from Ground Zero because you couldn’t get closer,” she said. “Buildings were covered with soot and debris, and the closer you got, the stronger the stench of jet fuel, buildings that had crumbled and, of course, 3,000 dead bodies.”
Most of Whitfield’s time was spent covering Capitol Hill, and what members of Congress were doing in reaction to the attacks. It was during a visit to the Hart Senate Building that Whitfield was unknowingly exposed to anthrax contained in a letter sent to former South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle. Fortunately, she suffered no physical harm.
Strength forged by faith
But the cumulative effect of those events proved life-changing, Whitfield said. She moved to Indianapolis in 2002 to pursue a new career in writing for the motor sports industry after losing her job with 100 other staffers at CBN in a cost-cutting move.
“People don’t realize that the media took a really hard financial hit after 9/11,” Whitfield said. Around-the-clock coverage meant no advertising revenue.
“CNN lost over a million dollars in the first 24 hours,” Whitfield said. “CBN News relies strictly on donations, and at the time people were donating to 9/11 causes.”
It proved difficult breaking into motor sports writing. “I thought most editors would be impressed when I told them I worked at CNN, so I thought it would be a breeze,” Whitfield said. “That wasn’t the case. TV writing is a lot different from print journalism, and I had to find that out the hard way.”
Here she met and married her husband, Kurt, and went to work for L.G. “Bob” Hancher, CEO of Westfield-based Commerce Street Venture Group Inc. It was while working at Commerce Street that Whitfield literally crashed.
“I went to an outpatient mental health hospital and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder,” she said. “I had visions of people jumping out of buildings because I had seen a lot of raw video that the average person didn’t see. I kept hearing the sound of the planes crashing. I smelled the smells day and night as if they just happened. When the physician said I had posttraumatic stress disorder, I thought he was nuts. I wasn’t a war veteran-it doesn’t happen to regular people.”
In January 2006, Hancher offered to bankroll Fletcher Communication’s start-up. She took him up on the offer.
Today, Whitfield writes content for company Web sites, articles and speeches for professionals in the financial, personnel and insurance industries, and articles in trade and sports magazines.
The healing process has been a long journey, she says, but faith has played a strong role in her recovery.
As part of her therapy, Whitfield was asked to write down the good things that happened to her.
“All of a sudden the list was five pages and I began to see that God is in everything,” Whitfield said. “For so long I asked why God allowed me to be there. Why did I have to experience this? Perhaps part of it is sharing this conversation and learning more about PTSD and how it’s increasing in prevalence among journalists. I’ve been able to provide encouragement to let people know they can get through it.”