Today is one of those days where everyone remembers where they were — where they were when the first plane hit, where they were when the second plane hit, where they were when the towers fell.
I was at work, still in the newspaper industry back then. We had just broke from our morning meeting, going over the details of what would be in that day’s paper, other things we were working on, etc. Our education reporter, who sat caddy-corner behind me, was doing an interview for a “where are they now” valedictorian story. The woman she was interviewing lived in New York City. Reporters across the room were working on the overnight police news. I believe I was writing about the night before’s city council meeting.
News of the first plane crash came over the wire and word spread around the newsroom. There was talk — oh my, what happened, how could that happen, where do we put it in the paper, etc. — and one of the sports guys turned on the TV in the sports department to get the latest. Hearing the commotion and curious, I stood around the TV, with several others, watching the news coverage when wham! the second plane hit. I, like so many who watched that second plane hit on live TV, was shocked at what I saw. What?!? I couldn’t make sense of it. What was actually happening — terrorists attacking America — never entered my mind.
I was naive.
“Terrorism” was not a word I encountered all that much back then. That was something that happened somewhere else, in other countries, not at home.
The seasoned writer who sat on the desk next to me said very matter-of-fact that this was obviously a terrorist attack.
A “terrorist attack”? What is that even? I remember looking at him all confused like and asking, “terrorists? really? how do you know?”
I feel so ignorant having been so naive then, but I had never been exposed to anything like that. I had heard, of course, about the Oklahoma City bombings and recalled an earlier attack on the World Trade Center and a bomb at the USS Cole. But those were car bombs (or boat bombs), not airlines full of people being used as bombs. Who would fathom such a thing possible?
The rest of the morning and day gets a bit blurry. After the second plane hit and everyone realized this was no longer a random accident but now the story of the day, the editor called us all together to come up with a new plan for that day’s paper. Assignments were made — call the mayor, call the local military base, go to the corner coffee shop and get local reaction. And remember that education reporter on the phone with the valedictorian in New York? That became our lead story because now our “where are they now” hometown hero was on the front lines of a major terrorist attack on America. All of this unfolded between 8 and 9 a.m. at a paper that was to be printed and on racks by lunchtime. Our staff bustled to get as much local reaction as we could round up, and by lunch our readers had the latest from New York but also the initial reactions from our city. We came out with a second edition a few hours later and worked the rest of the day on 9/11 related stories. It would be several days and weeks before we would return to any of the stories we had been working on that morning.
There was a run on gas that day and that was one of the stories passed along to me — go to the gas station and talk to people about their reactions to the day and about the run on gas and the apparent price gouging.
Even as young and naive as I was, I quickly figured out that Sept. 11 was my generation’s Dec. 7, another “day in infamy,” the kind of day that when it comes around every year you remember where you were “when.”
Newspaper front pages from Sept. 12, 2001
Originally published Sept. 11, 2010.