December 03, 2001 12:00 PM

I was in bed reading the paper and the phone rang,” TV newsman Aaron Brown says, recalling how he heard about the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 Nov. 12. “It was someone from CNN, and I said, ‘I’ll be there in 60 minutes.’ ”

Driving to the network’s Manhattan studio from his “Westchester County house, Brown could not help but flash back to Sept. 11. That day, just two months after joining CNN as one of its two new principal anchors (the other is Paula Zahn), Brown tailed a speeding New York City police car through red lights to his office to begin covering what he calls “the biggest story of my life.” He witnessed the collapse of the World Trade Center towers from the roof of CNN’s midtown headquarters. “You realize fairly early this is not a news story, this is history,” he says. “Your kids’ kids are going to hear the words you speak. That’s pretty sobering.”

Brown admits he cried off-camera and felt like vomiting when officials spoke of thousands of body bags. “My wife will tell you, I cry at cotton commercials,” he says, “so I tend to be kind of a softie anyway. But this was horrific, and for the longest time, every time I tried to sleep I’d see the towers collapse.”

In fact Brown, 53, has gotten very little sleep since Sept. 11, when his low-key, conversational delivery earned him raves. In addition to anchoring breaking news at CNN (which, like PEOPLE, is owned by AOL Time Warner), he hosts his own prime-time show, News Night, which draws about 1.6 million viewers. Roughly 2,000 of them have e-mailed Brown. “One guy said, ‘You’re too chatty, and sit up straight,’ ” he says. More typical are fans like Matt Rainey, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer at the Newark, N.J., Star-Ledger, who says Brown “allows himself to be moved on-camera by what his audience is moved by.”

Brown’s compassion is matched by his candor. During a breaking news story, he admits, “I’ll say ‘I don’t know’ when I don’t know. I think the job requires me to be accurate and honest with viewers.”

One thing Brown knew for certain from early childhood was that journalism was “the only thing I ever wanted to do.” Growing up in Hopkins, Minn., as the third of five children of Rose, now 79, a home-maker, and Morton, a scrap-metal dealer who died in 1993, Brown was a boy when JFK was assassinated and remembers staying glued to the television for days: “Dan Rather was there. And I wanted to be there.”

Brown’s first break came in 1968 when, as an aimless freshman at the University of Minnesota, he dropped out to take a job as a local radio talk show host. Seven years later (still without a college degree) he was covering the Washington state legislature for a Tacoma public-television station. There he fell in love with fellow reporter Charlotte Raynor. In 1980 Brown moved on to anchor the 11 p.m. news at KING-TV, the NBC affiliate in Seattle. “He asked me, ‘Do you think our relationship could survive me working nights?’ ” says Raynor. “I said no. And of course he took the job. Our deal has been to support each other and go for it.”

They wed in 1982. Nine years later the couple left Seattle for New York City when ABC hired Brown as co-anchor of its overnight newscast. In 1993 he jumped to World News Tonight, where anchor Peter Jennings proved to be friend, mentor and “the most demanding boss I ever had,” challenging Brown on everything from his writing to his delivery, which he says Jennings found too informal. “I think Peter wanted to make sure that every spot I put on the air was the best I could do, and sometimes we fought about the approach,” says Brown. “Sometimes he was right and sometimes I was right. But I learned an incredible amount from him.”

Between crises Brown makes his home in an airy, four-bedroom stucco house with Charlotte, now a home-maker, and their daughter Gabby, 13. “Aaron’s interests,” says Charlotte, 49, “are his family, his golf game [he’s a 7-handicap] and his kitchen. He and Gabby love to cook together.” Brown says his daughter “has a great, adventuresome palate,” having progressed from chicken fingers to risotto. “That’s how I want her to tackle life,” he says. “I’ve said to her, ‘We take chances, we’re not afraid to fail.’ That’s about as philosophical as I get about anything.”

Michael A. Upton

Diane Herbst in New York City

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