Remembering 9/11: an editor's perspective

By LEW K. COHN

Managing Editor

HIGHLAND LAKES NEWSPAPERS

It was a Tuesday morning in September and it was deadline day for getting the Bowie County Citizens Tribune out the door. I was in the office early, like I usually am when it is deadline day, and the phone rang around 7:50 a.m.

“You won't believe this!” my (now former) wife said. “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. It's on Good Morning America.”

“That's horrible!” I said. “Let me know if you hear anything more about it.”

I ended the phone call and went back to work on the paper, thinking a plane crash in New York City was tragic, but would have very little impact on my job locally as managing editor of a small-town Northeast Texas newspaper.

Then the phone rang again at a little after 8 a.m.

“Oh my God, it just happened again! Another plane hit another of the towers at the World Trade Center! They are saying it may have been hijacked and flown into the building on purpose!”

And that was how Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, began for me – a day that turned out to be one of the longest and most physically and emotionally draining days I ever had in this profession.

We didn't have a TV in our newspaper offices in New Boston. Our publisher didn't believe in them and thought all of us would spend more time watching TV than getting our work done.

That was a foreign concept to me. When I worked at the Tyler Morning Telegraph, not only did we have a TV in the newsroom, but every day, one person was designated to watch the local news channels to make sure there was not anything we had missed.

Because it is sometimes better to beg forgiveness than ask permission, I went home and got a spare television and brought it to the office. I then made a quick call to the local cable office to ask a favor of the manager – come install cable TV so we could monitor the news.

After I got back, word came to us that all government installations were being shut down. This included the Red River Army Depot, which is a few miles east of New Boston on U.S. Highway 82. In the past, access to the depot was not restricted at all. You could drive down a four-lane divided road past a single guard station that was rarely, if ever, manned. I often went to the depot to meet with the commander or his delegates regarding issues that impacted RRAD and Bowie County and I could drive straight to the administration building, park and go inside with little hassle.

On this day, by the time I got to the front gate of the depot, there was heavy equipment moving concrete dividers into place across the roadway, creating a bottleneck, so there was only one lane in and one lane out of the installation. Guards with machine guns and rifles were posted on both sides of the barricades and all traffic trying to get into the depot was being turned away.

I started to get out to take a couple of photos of the scene and was being accosted by the guards, who demanded to know who I was and what I was doing. They had to call the commander's office and verify my identity, even after I gave them my driver's license and Texas Press Association ID card, and they had to have approval from the commander himself before they would let me continue to take photos.

After a lengthy amount of time at the depot, I finally drove back into town to find out that Crestview Elementary, where my daughters were in third and first grade, was being bombarded by parents wanting to take their kids out of school because of concerns about the events that had happened. It was not necessarily logical, but I guess looking back I could see where they may have thought that since the school was only a few miles from a military depot which refurbished the Army's ground fleet — especially Abrams tanks — that our town could have been a terrorist target.

I spoke with the principal and her staff about what they were doing to help the kids understand what was going on and they had arranged for counselors to speak to the school in an assembly. Children were also being given crayons and paper and were told it was okay to draw what they feel about what was happening in New York and, by that time, in Washington, D.C., where a third plane had crashed into the Pentagon a little after 8:30 a.m.

Then, the South Tower of the World Trade Center (Tower 2) came crashing to the ground just before 9 a.m. Texas time. It was the second of the twin towers to be hit, but the first to collapse, and it was broadcast on live TV. The sight of that mighty structure falling down, level by level, and sending up a toxic cloud of ash, dust, smoke and other debris, is one I will never forget.

Just as we started to grieve for the poor souls lost in the South Tower collapse, there came word that a fourth airplane had crashed in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.

United Flight 93, which had originally taken off from Newark, New Jersey, for San Francisco, had been turned around and was apparently headed towards Washington, D.C., to crash into the Capitol or the White House, when several brave passengers aboard the plane attacked their hijackers and forced them to crash in a field outside Pittsburgh.

I knew as event after event unfolded that this was shaping up to be my generation's Pearl Harbor, a date that would live in infamy. I began tearing up my front page (we were still using the cut and paste method of laying out the newspaper in New Boston at the time) and I went to work writing a story about what was happening.

At about 9:28 a.m., Tower 1, or the North Tower of the WTC, began collapsing, repeating the horrific scene from earlier with Tower 2. Even worse were the reports that began coming from all three major stations, as well as from Fox News, CNN and MSNBC, that there were people who had jumped to their deaths from the building in the time after it was hit and up the point it collapsed.

Word then came down that the military had moved to DEFCON 3 for the first time since the Yom Kippur War between Israel and several Arab nations in 1973 and that President Bush was being taken to safety at Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City, Louisiana, which was just 97 miles away from New Boston.

Somehow, we put together a newspaper that day. I was able to write a story about all of the events that had happened and we were able to run one of the photos from Red River Army Depot. We got the newspaper out the door and the rest of the day, I think the entire staff of the newspaper — including our publisher — was glued to the images coming across the TV of the destruction and chaos from these attacks.

It was at this point that news was also coming out that it was believed that al-Queda, which was not a well-known name at the time, was responsible for the attacks, which had been masterminded by their leader, Osama bin Laden, a Saudi national living in Afghanistan.

All that night I spent huddled watching the TV, unable to turn away from the coverage of the attacks. Do you know those ticker scrawls you see at the bottom of your screen on almost every channel these days? Those started — first on Fox News, then CNN and then MSNBC — as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks.

All I could think was how all of the things we thought only happened in other countries had come to America and how this country would never be the same again.

Fifteen years later, we have seen a significant reduction in our liberties and freedoms in the name of protection and patriotism. Government agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security (which is now the third-largest Cabinet department, or the Transportation Safety Administration, which is a part of DHS, were created in the wake of the attacks. The USA Patriot Act increased the powers of the federal government, including the power to detain “suspects” for a week without charges and the power to monitor communications by phone, email and Internet of anyone “suspected” of being a terrorist.

And it all started 15 years ago on a Tuesday.

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