Archive for Sunday, September 11, 2011

Commentary: 9/11 is editor’s most memorable day working in the newsroom

September 11, 2011


Twice a year for the past five years I’ve been visiting Southwest Middle School teacher Sally Landoll’s class of eighth-graders to do mock interviews. The object is for the students to get a sense of what it’s like to apply for a job.

The students are usually nervous and uncomfortable. The boys wear dress shirts and a tie borrowed from their dad; the girls are in skirts and walk unsteadily in high heels.

Landoll provides me and the other guest interviewers with a list of prepared questions to ask. I’ve never used the list. Instead, I jump right in, asking the young man or woman about their work and volunteer experience (usually baby-sitting, household chores, mowing lawns). When it’s their turn to guide the discussion, few students stray from the list of questions Landoll has provided them.

One of the questions is, “Describe a memorable day at work.”

I’m lucky to be in the news business, in which no two days are ever the same.

When I was asked this question for the first time, my mind went back to that sunny Tuesday morning on Sept. 11, 2001. I can still see myself behind the wheel of my car driving to work at the Norwich Bulletin in Connecticut, listening to WFAN, a sports radio station in New York.

Sports reporter Warner Wolf had just called in to Don Imus’ show to say he was seeing smoke come out of one of the World Trade Center’s towers. Wolf’s voice was excited but not like he was calling a close game. He was reporting a frightening event that he was watching live from his apartment window.

I arrived at work and ran up the long stairwell to the Bulletin’s second-floor newsroom. A handful of people huddled around a small TV at the news desk, watching coverage of the beginning of a terrorist attack on New York City. The news was happening so fast — a second plane hit the second World Trade Center tower, another at the Pentagon, still another crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania.

Like newsrooms across the country, the staff mobilized to tell our readers the story. We decided to put out an “extra,” which is a print edition that’s off the morning cycle. Our night crew that built the morning paper was still asleep, so our features editor was designing the pages for the extra, which was on the street by noon, three hours after the first plane hit the first tower.

This story was close to home for us. As she was designing the extra, our features editor was trying to reach her father who worked a few blocks from the WTC in downtown Manhattan. By mid-afternoon, she still hadn’t reached him or her family who lived in Queens. Other news staffers had friends and family living or working in New York, and few were able to make contact with them. Still, they worked. It’s what we do.

All of the staff’s family and friends were later accounted for. But over the course of the day we reported that four people with ties to our community, including Madeline Sweeney, a flight attendant on the American Airlines Boston to Los Angeles flight that hit the first tower, had been killed in the attacks.

Sweeney usually worked only weekends so she could spend more time with her family, her stepmother, Doris Todd, told us. “She just happened to pick up an extra day, and today happened to be the day,” Todd said.

The Norwich Bulletin’s front-page headline in large type was “Terror, Now Anger.” That front page is on a poster of other 9/11 newspapers from around the globe that is sold at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

Since the first student asked me five years ago about my “most memorable day,” I still talk about 9/11. I must have told the story at least 50 times.

No day since has matched it, and I hope no other day does.

Each student appears genuinely interested in what happened that day and how the newsroom responded. But few ask follow-up questions.

Then, last spring, I told a different, yet related, story that was fresh in my mind. I told a girl about what had happened, just the Sunday before, on May 1, when Osama bin Laden was killed. That night I got a call at home from the Journal-World copy desk, and I came to the office to help with coverage.

The girl got a big smile on her face as I told her the story. It seemed strange, and I asked her why she was smiling. She said that over the weekend she had asked her mother whatever happened to bin Laden. The next day, she told me, her mother started screaming for her to come into the room.

“Osama bin Laden is dead!” the girl recalled her mother shouting.

“I don’t know what made me ask her about bin Laden, but it was weird that just like that he was on the news,” the girl told me.

The girl will always remember that day, just as I will remember 9/11.


Lawrence Morgan 6 years, 8 months ago

This is a great article. Perhaps people also saw the article in the Washington Post today by Colbert I. King. There must be other articles by writers who were in newsrooms when this happened. Why not put them all together on one separate web page in the Journal World? This would be another thing that could go with the exhibit of front pages in Topeka and the quilt from the Lawrence Professor. Again, it might also be taken up by national news media, and if the Journal World were to put everything together, that would be a prize for the paper. Thanks again. The article was very rewarding! I don't usually put in personal comments of this kind, but I can't resist commenting that I have friends in Meriden, CT, not too far away from Norwich! There's a Meriden and a Norwich in Kansas, and I've wondered if their name is derived from the Connecticut cities?

Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 8 months ago

I have a friend from childhood that had the most terrifying day of her life on 9/11.

It began as an ordinary day, when her husband got on the train on Long Island and left to take care of a few things. He does not work at just one place, he makes several stops when he leaves home to take care of business.

He works in the publishing industry (sorry, books, not newspapers!) and one of his first stops was to be at one of the offices in the World Trade Center. After that, he had business to take care of at several other places in Manhattan, and he would be home sometime that evening, but he wasn't sure exactly when.

Of course he did have his cell phone along, just in case anything should come up that his wife might have an urgent need to discuss with him.

It didn't seem to his wife that he had been gone very long when the news came about what had happened at the World Trade Center that morning. I don't need to describe how she felt when she heard the news.

And then she couldn't reach him on the cell phone! She tried and tried for hours. All day long, she was in a panic.

That evening, they were finally able to talk on the phone.

Yes, he had been in the World Trade Center. Then, after he had finished with his business there, he got on the subway, and headed for his next stop.

Then the subway suddenly stopped in the tunnel, and the lights went out. And, his cell phone didn't work. He had no clue what had happened for quite a while. He was just stuck in the subway, and all the power had shut off for some reason, that's all he knew for a very long time.

teacherspet2 6 years, 8 months ago

Dennis, thank you for your article. It was very touching.

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