Fifteen Years Ago

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Fifteen years ago on Sept. 11, like most Americans, I recall exactly where I was when the attack began. I sat alone on that Tuesday morning in the newsroom of the Daily Sentinel in Nacogdoches, laying out the editorial page for the next day’s paper. It was my routine: Show up about 7:30 and produce the page before the doors open the phones started ringing. As always, the 19-inch television mounted on the wall was broadcasting CNN. My standing orders, as editor/publisher, was that the police scanner was always on, and the TV as well. If something newsworthy happened, we needed to be on top of it. It made for a noisy place, but that is the nature of newsrooms.

As I worked, I detected a sense of urgency on the part of CNN’s broadcasters and walked over to the TV to get a closer look. An airliner had plowed into the north World Trade Tower. That’s horrible, I thought, assuming it was a rare airline tragedy, which we would duly report through the wire services. Newspapers regularly report tragedies, and this would be a huge one, but still distant from our little East Texas haven.

Then the second plane hit the other tower, at 8:03 a.m. CDT. It only took seconds to figure out this was not an accident but an attack on our country. Soon, the entire newspaper staff was crowded around the television, watching in horror. At 8:37, another airliner crashed into the Pentagon. A few minutes after that, CNN reported that Flight 93 crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, after some of its brave passengers stormed the cockpit and prevented the hijackers from flying the airliner into either the Capitol or White House.

While the country in large part stayed glued to their television screens, as the towers collapsed and the Pentagon burned, amid reports of hundreds of firefighters, police and paramedics dying during the rescue attempts, along with an untold number of civilians, we had to go back to work. The Lufkin publisher and I quickly decided we would publish a joint “extra” edition that afternoon rather than wait until the next morning’s issue.

That was the third — and last — extra of my career. The first was when President Eisenhower died, in March 1969. I was a paperboy for the Longview paper. The second was a few months later, when Americans landed on the moon for the first time. More than four decades later, I was helping to produce a four-page extra. I am fairly certain — given how the media world has largely morphed into a digital landscape — there will be no more extras in print. But I have been wrong uncounted times. Still, I doubt any newspaper would consider doing so, whatever cataclysmic event occurred. The times have irrevocably changed.

I had doubts 15 years ago that we should produce an extra, which contained no ads and sold for 50 cents. Would people want to pick one up, given television and the Internet? But we knocked out a respectable four-page edition for a pair of small-town papers with a scattering of locally written stories. We bought some radio spots and posted on our websites (Lufkin and Nacogdoches) that it would be on the streets by 4 p.m. I helped fill the racks and counters around Nac to get the extra out as quickly as possible.

Everywhere I went, folks were practically grabbing the extras out of my hands. When I got back to the newspaper office, the line of folks waiting to buy a copy at the counter for a brief time stretched outside. It struck me then that folks were hungry for information, even as they were being saturated with it on television and online. And they wanted something to keep, to remind them of this despicable attack.

I finally got home about 8 p.m., after helping plan the next morning’s issue. For more than 12 hours, after that first plane hit the north tower, all I could focus on was doing my very small part in bringing people news of what had happened. I sat on the back porch, listening to the cicadas, a faint hint of autumn in the evening air.

And I wept.

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