CBS News correspondent Byron Pitts looked up at the New York City skyline and saw something coming toward him. He thought it might be a large S.O.S. flag falling from the burning building. Then he realized it was a woman wearing a dress who had thrown herself from the building, and he was the main spectator in her suicide. It was Sept. 11, 2001 and Pitts was one of the first correspondents to the office that morning, which gave him first-hand access to the worst tragedy on U.S. soil and led to a heartfelt story that won him an Emmy award.
Pitts told his tale Monday night to a packed Casella Theater at Castleton State College. The chief national correspondent for CBS News and now contributing correspondent for “60 Minutes” talked about covering tragedies like Hurricane Katrina and the Indonesian tsunami and being embedded with troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“I have watched 47 people die. Die from being shot, stabbed, execution, being blown up, beaten and drowned,” explained Pitts. “But the most saddening experience so far was 9/11. It was the only time people had no responsibility for their own death. A lot of other times I have seen people allow themselves to be in dangerous situations, but with 9/11, they were purely innocent, and I watched them die.”
But Pitts also talked about how his life, and how public speaking to a theater filled with people was something unfathomable earlier in his life. Pitts was illiterate until he was 12 and a constant stutterer until the age 20. Despite those obstacles, however, he said hard work, faith and support from unlikely heroes helped him attain his dream.
“I was raised to believe that there are no stumbling blocks in life, only stepping stones,” said Pitts, during one of three journalism class visits earlier Monday.
He spoke of his family’s sacrifices to help him overcome his illiteracy and how he learned while interviewing people to pretend he was speaking to his grandmother, because he never stuttered to her.
Even with the family support, however, going away to college at rural Ohio Wesleyan University from Baltimore would prove difficult for Pitts. He could read now, but he was still far behind his classmates and still struggled with speaking.
“I was one mid-term away from failing. My professor called me to his office and told me that I was wasting his time and the government’s money and that I should give up. That crushed me, and I cried knowing that I would disappoint my family, since I was the first person in my family to go to college,” he told the audience Monday night.
It was then that a woman he’d never met whom he later earned was another English professor stopped to see what was wrong with him. She convinced him to stay in school and became a mentor, spending countless hours tutoring him.
“People were stepping out of nothing to help me, and that is where the title of my book came from,” he said.