9/11 20th anniversary: Breaking news on Sept. 11

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 9, 2021

Odd, isn’t it, how a moment 20 years ago can feel centuries old — and at the same time seem like yesterday?

The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, is one of those moments for me.

The Salisbury Post’s newsroom was putting together stories and photos for that afternoon’s paper when Chris Crowell rushed in and said a plane had struck one of the Twin Towers in New York City.

Chris was our tech guru, but he’d gotten the news the old-fashioned way — a phone call from his wife, who heard it on the radio.

Weird, thought those of us who stopped long enough to listen. Must’ve been an accident, a fluke.

Someone turned on the TV so we could see what was going on. Minutes later, we watched with the rest of the country as another airliner crashed into the second tower. The ball of fire that erupted would be seared into our collective memory.

This was no fluke. Something deliberate had happened, something we had never imagined. Within minutes, it became clear. The United States was under attack by terrorists.

And we had a paper to put out.

We were shaken, but we had a job to do. With one eye on the TV, we went to work.

The Post was a daily afternoon newspaper in 2001. As the editor, I was responsible for making sure we finished putting all the pages together in time for the Post’s carriers to deliver papers in the afternoon.

This was not exactly a stop-the-presses moment; deadline was more than two hours away. But it was a go-to-the-pressroom event for the editor. I told the press crew we would be late because two planes had crashed into the Twin Towers in New York and killed hundreds, possibly thousands. I had to say it more than once; they weren’t sure they’d heard me right.

The rest of the morning was a blur. The Associated Press gave us news from the scenes, which grew to include the Pentagon in Washington and a field near Shanksville, Pa. Columnist Rose Post had long ago proclaimed that all roads lead to Salisbury, and so it was even with terrorist attacks. Reporters soon got calls from people with Salisbury connections who had been near — even in — the towers when terror struck. Locally, people announced blood drives and prayer services.

The big front-page headline declared: “Terrorists attack U.S.”

   

What do you do after putting out a paper like that? You start on the next one, as usual. This time, Publisher Cathy Wilkerson brought up something else we’d never thought of before: an extra edition, the kind newsboys of old would hawk by yelling “Extra, extra!”

This was before the Post had a webpage. We didn’t yet have smartphone technology to flash notifications, and Facebook and Twitter hadn’t been invented. News was gushing out like water from a fire hose, and we wouldn’t be able to update our readers for another 24 hours if we kept our usual schedule. Publishing an extra that night would get the news out faster.

We had more than enough news. But which photo should we use to dominate the front page? People sometimes save newspapers from historic events. This edition mattered more than most.

Paris Goodnight was laying out the front page that night, as he does today. Calm and steady amid the hubbub, Paris placed a striking photo of the burning towers on the page under a headline that said, “Nation stunned.”

We were just about done when another Associated Press photo came across, an image that nearly prompted tears. Amid the dirt and debris of the fallen towers — and their own exhaustion — firefighters were raising the American flag.

The photo went beyond the destruction of the day to the aftermath, to the story of a nation rising undaunted from the ashes.

Even though we were running late, Paris redid the page and used that photo.

   

Throughout my years as editor, calls came in from people who asked why we ignored an important date, such as failing to mention Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, or printing no stories about D-Day on June 6. We forgot, I’d have to say, and the callers hung up disgruntled. I don’t blame them.

The day will come when “Sept. 11” is just another day to young news staffs. Years from now, Sept. 11 will go by without mention of Twin Towers or terrorists in the news. But millions of us will forever remember the significance of Sept. 11, 2001 — what happened, where we were, what we did.

It was a day of shock and newly discovered vulnerability. Yet, as the flag-raising photo showed, it was also a day of hope, of vowing to pull together and overcome the evil force that attacked our country.

I’ll leave it to the news analysts to debate how successfully we’ve battled the destructive forces of 2001. As Joshua Cooper wrote in his aptly named book “The Age of the Unthinkable” over a decade ago, “There’s no final whistle in international politics.”

Conflicts change shapes and grow more complex, but they don’t end.

For now, let’s think back 20 years, mourn those who lost their lives and celebrate the inner strength America found on that dark day. It seems like centuries ago. Or was it only yesterday?

Elizabeth Cook is former editor of the Salisbury Post.

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