The intensity of the emotions nearly overwhelmed me, and for a moment I was stunned.
For a few weeks now I’ve been contemplating the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, but in a very detached way. I decided long ago this week’s column would be about the terror strikes, but I didn’t really know how to approach it.
Last Sunday I watched a news segment about the upcoming anniversary, and as soon as I saw the video of smoke pouring from the first tower I immediately was back in The Bryan Times newsroom, and I sharply caught my breath.
I realize I was not in New York City or Washington D.C. when the planes hit, but it was an intense emotional experience nevertheless.
In 2001 the Times was still an afternoon paper, and when those first images of the World Trade Center hit the television screen we were nearing our late morning deadline on a very busy news day.
As it is now, Sept. 11 was during Williams County Fair week, and our front page that day was nearing completion. Page 1 and the first two inside pages were nearly all local news, stories that were and still are the staple of a community paper.
We had a television on the wall of the newsroom, and I immediately realized the New York story was front page news and began to figure out how to rearrange the layout and cram in yet another story and photo on an already overwhelmingly busy news day.
At first my thoughts turned to the 1945 accident when a B-25 bomber struck New York’s Empire State Building, wondering if this was some sort of strange reoccurrence. When a plane hit the second tower the entire staff stared at the screen in stunned silence, as we realized the horror of what was occurring in front of our very eyes. To this day I look away from footage of people jumping from the burning buildings, and the towers collapsing and spewing debris.
I took a deep breath, stared at the screen for another moment, and then loudly told the staff, “OK guys, we’ve got a paper to get out”
The Associated Press was sending updates on the disaster paragraph by paragraph, and providing a steady stream of photographs. As these came in I kept one eye on the television screen, seeing the smoking Pentagon and learning of the Flight 93 crash in Pennsylvania.
As the events unfolded we moved our deadline back two hours, an option open to us as we printed the paper in-house at that time, and discussed how to rework the paper. Publisher Christopher Cullis said we could add two pages to the front of Section One, leaving the rest of the paper as is, and we all immediately began putting that plan into action.
After the Pentagon was struck I wondered if Washington would come under further attack. At the time our son worked in one of the D.C. suburbs, and when we were unable to reach him by phone I feared for his safety. Knowing there was nothing I could do for him at the time I forced myself to concentrate on getting out the paper, building the stories paragraph by paragraph and selecting what I believed to be the best AP photographs at the time. I held off sending out the final two pages until the last second, working in every Associated Press update that came in.
Even after the pages were sent to press there was no time for a letdown. We immediately shifted to finding out all we would about any local connections, getting a jump on the next day’s follow-up. Calls from local residents who were in airports in the New York and Washington areas were fielded, and we tried to locate and interview any people from the affected areas with ties to Williams County. I was able to breathe a sigh of relief when we heard from our son that afternoon that he was OK.
For the next two weeks the newspaper was pretty much my life, building on our follow-up. A number of local first responders volunteered to assist at Ground Zero, and we made arrangements to interview them from the city and share photographs they captured.
That follow-up coverage remains pretty much a blur to me. But images of the towers burning and collapsing, the smoking Pentagon, the unfolding story of Flight 93 and the raw emotion of it all, remain very much with me even today.
It is difficult, it is painful, but I share my memories here because it is important that we never, ever forget.
Don Allison is an author, historian and retired editor of The Bryan Times. He can be reached at www.fadedbanner.com.