TERRE HAUTE —
There are memories branded forever in our minds. They are as clear as if they occurred just yesterday. I will never forget that Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, or the days that followed …
I was working in Columbia City as the publisher of The Post & Mail, a small newspaper that served a community of 7,000 in northeastern Indiana. Our circulation was 4,500, but on Tuesdays, our paper went to everyone in the county for a total distribution of 12,000. As an afternoon paper, our press would generally start about noon each day, except Tuesdays, when we’d start the press at 8:30 in the morning to give the carriers time to make deliveries to the entire county.
On 9/11, the press started at the normal time and I was in my office, getting started on my day. Sometime before 9, the phone rang and when I answered, my wife, Mary, was on the other end of the line. She asked if I had the TV on or had seen anything on the Associated Press wire service about an airplane accident in New York. Since the news staff generally stayed late on Monday night to get the majority of Tuesday’s paper ready, there was no one in the newsroom yet.
Unaware of what had happened, I listened as Mary filled me in on what the morning news programs were reporting: A plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. I asked if she knew what had happened, assuming that a pilot had gotten ill during a flight or that a mechanical failure had caused the crash. She was still watching the news and on the phone with me when I heard her gasp in shock. She told me that another plane had crashed into the second tower; I told her that I had to go, and hung up the phone.
My first task was to get the presses stopped. I am often asked if it’s fun to yell “Stop the presses!” My response is always, if you have to do that, something bad has usually happened. As the roar of the presses quieted, I learned that we had run about a quarter of the newspapers so far. I told the press crew to gather the papers that had been printed, that we were going to have to make another front page as a result of a breaking news story.
Afterward, I walked to the newsroom, where I called the editor to come in, knowing we would have to put together a new front page. Of course, she was already on her way. Next, I went to our conference room, where a crowd of about a dozen people gathered around a TV to watch as events unfolded. Gleaning information from TV and AP wire accounts, the challenge became that no one knew what was happening and why. The Associated Press was moving stories quickly, but the revisions were many as details became available, more planes crashed — in Washington and Pennsylvania — and rumors about other attacks, namely car bombs, were discounted.
At about 11, we knew that we were going to have to get something on the press. We understood that our readers wanted to know the in-depth story and were going to look to us to try to make some sense out of the happenings of that morning. We also knew that our readers were going to keep that paper for the rest of their lives. That the piece of history that we presented to our community would be passed along to kids and grandchildren.
One item that we did not have was any pictures of the event. Being a small community newspaper, we did not subscribe to the AP photo service that larger papers use. Our photos all were taken by a staff reporter or photographer each day. I knew that we needed art to complete the slice of history that we were going to print. I decided to take a digital photo of the crash as it played on the TV. We gave credit to the appropriate network and channel. Later that day, AP opened up the photo gallery to all members, and we were able to get more photos from them for subsequent editions.
We knew that the story would continue to unfold, so we referenced the time that we pulled the story as an editor’s note, so that as the story developed, the reader had the reference to the time and what was known at that point.
The page was redone and sent to the pressroom. We restarted the press at about noon, and the employees watched in silence as the papers rolled off. There was a stack that came off first that was placed near the employee crowd, and they all picked up a paper to see what we had produced for our readers.
Once the paper was printed, the planning began for the next day to get the local reactions and related local stories for our readers. The planning for that continued for hours as stories were assigned and angles were explored.
As the work day came to a close and 5 o’clock arrived, our thoughts transformed from our obligation to our readers to our families and friends and to our country. It is amazing the feeling that I had when I went from thinking about our coverage of the terrorist attacks to the meaning of the tragedy to me. At that moment, I was saddened for the people who were in the World Trade Center and in those planes, and the heartbreak and worry that the families of those people were feeling. I turned my thoughts to my own family and how, at that moment, I needed to see them and hug them and be with them.
I immediately headed home. The adrenaline rush that had kept me going during the day had extinguished. I was separating my focus from the newspaper to the reality of what had happened and the uncertainty that we faced as a country. I wanted to be able to assure my wife and kids that everything would be OK, but I could not do that. All I knew was that the world would never be the same again.
Each Sept. 11, I think about that day. I think about the hard work that the newspaper folks put in and what a challenge that we faced to put out a paper that had correct and timely information. I also think about how I disliked the uncertainty that I felt that day and how I wanted to protect my family, but wasn’t sure how. I think about those people who were in the planes, the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, and how as their day started innocently on 9/11, and my sadness is renewed.
B.J. Riley is publisher of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (812) 231-4297.