MANSFIELD — A knock on the small conference room door on Sept.11, 2001, ended my participation in the weekly department head meeting at the Mansfield News Journal.
Then the 40-year-old managing editor at the News Journal, it’s the only time I have ever regretted being called away from any meeting.
“Something’s happening in New York City with the World Trade Center,” I was told at the door. “An airplane flew into one of the buildings.”
I left the room behind Publisher Tom Brennan’s office and walked the hallway into the newsroom. A group of reporters and editors were standing around the small TV on the city editor’s desk.
The stunned looks on their faces told me this was bad.
But there was no way to tell just before 9 a.m. that day just how horrible that day, and others that followed, were about to become.
‘We have a breaking news story to tell you’
As we watched the images of the smoke and flames pouring from the burning North tower, I listened to the voices of the national TV news people.
There was no real consensus on what was happening, other than a plane had struck the 110-story building somewhere around the 90th floor at 8:46 a.m.
Every national television network was interrupting their normal Tuesday morning pablum of talk-shows to alert viewers of the tragedy unfolding in NYC.
“We have a breaking news story to tell you,” is one of the first things I heard.
(Below is a video collection of news and events from Sept. 11, 2001. Some scenes and language may be disturbing.)
Nothing was immediately clear. In the absence of facts, live TV was doing what it does best from a breaking news scene.
Speculate. Offer conjecture. Fill air with words as pictures tell a horrifying story. Try to understand.
“Was this purely an accident or could this have been an intentional act?” one anchor wondered aloud, saying what many of us wondered.
In my mind, looking at the screen, two things were instantly clear.
— This hole was not made by a small plane. A large aircraft, perhaps an airliner, had struck the tower.
— It was likely not an accident. Planes that big don’t fly into the sides of New York City buildings by accident.
At 9:03 a.m., as we huddled around the small TV on the second floor, the answers became more clear.
A second airliner smashed into the South tower, an event seen on live television.
This was not an accident. This was some kind of coordinated attack on U.S. soil.
‘Oh my god, a plane has hit another building’
I don’t remember if I went to find my boss at that moment, or if Brennan had come into the newsroom. But he and I had a quick conversation. This was a major national story that would need immediate local effort to cover.
The News Journal had no online website in 2001. We had no way to easily and quickly share this horrific news.
Our news product was a a morning print newspaper that came off the press seven days a week.
In this case, that meant the Sept. 11, 2001, Mansfield News Journal had already been delivered across north central Ohio.
It was a good Tuesday-morning newspaper.
The lead story was about the legal battle over the use of the Ten Commandment displays in courtrooms, written by a Gannett national writer named Barbara De Lollis.
There were local stories by on animal cruelty in Ashland by reporter Mark Caudill, an Amish school in Ashland County from reporter Lou Whitmire and the execution postponement for a murderer written by Joel Moroney, a former MNJ reporter who was then working at the Gannett statehouse bureau.
The front page also told me it would be a sunny day in Mansfield with a high near 73.
A good Tuesday morning front page for a local newspaper — and at that moment, not worth the paper it was printed on.
‘We need to do an extra’
It became clear to Brennan and I that we needed to do an extra edition, something rarely done at the time in Mansfield.
The last time the News Journal had produced an extra edition was in 1990 when Dr. John Boyle was convicted of killing his wife, Noreen.
It was not a decision Brennan and I could make on our own.
There were newspaper production leaders, especially in the pressroom, who needed to be involved. We could write and edit stories and paginate pages, but those pages needed to be turned into metal plates and printed on a press.
Circulation director Bob Scott needed to work with us. He would be responsible for making sure an extra edition could be sold and circulated around the region.
Advertising Director Carol Zimmer needed to notify that day’s advertisers that the extra was coming out and what it would look like. We would replace the front page and two other inside pages, adding “open pages” for coverage of the disaster still unfolding in New York.
Brennan also gained approval from Nick Monico, the president/CEO of the Newspaper Network of Central Ohio, based in Newark. We would lose money by printing the extra edition. The former publisher of the News Journal, Monico signed off on the idea.
It was an effort that had a lot of moving parts.
‘I am gonna need you to come in’
By the time the South tower collapsed at 9:59 and the North at 10:28, we were already making coverage plans. Images and videos of residents, firefighters and police officers filled the TV screen.
There was little time to work.
The first thing we needed was more people — and fast.
There were not a lot people in the newsroom at the time. At the time, we still had more than 35 journalists on staff.
But the bulk of our work normally came in the afternoon and evening hours. Morning staff was primarily there to make daily calls to law enforcement agencies and fire departments and work on advance features and pages for the lifestyle section.
I picked up the phone and started calling reporters and copy editors. “I am gonna need you to come in,” was a repeated phrase. “We are doing an extra about the events in New York.”
No one declined to join the effort.
But the questions were: What can we do and how fast can we do it?
It starts with a story budget
As the team began to assemble, we built a story budget — a list of stories and photos we wanted to publish in the extra edition.
It wasn’t, “What stories do we want to do?” It was, “What stories can we do fast?”
— The new front page would be dominated by the best NYC photo from the wire services, as well as the latest stories, including the attack on the Pentagon and the airliner that crashed into the ground in Pennsylvania. Copy editor Russ Kent hit the streets to do the local story for the new front page, getting reactions from Mansfield residents.
— Photo Editor Dave Polycn went out to the 179th Airlift Wing at Mansfield Lahm Regional Airport and got a photo of wing security forces inspecting a vehicle coming onto the base. He also learned the 179th’s C-130 aircraft were grounded for the day, as were planes across the country. We ran his photo as secondary art on the extra front page.
— Moroney wrote a story about local government officials’ reactions, including a quote from then-Mayor Lydia Reid, “We’re in shock,” a comment that summed up the reaction from all of us by then.
— Reporters David Benson and Dan Kopp teamed for a story on tightened security at local government buildings, including the main U.S. Post Office building in Mansfield, a federal building. “We have contingency plans in place,” security officer Randy Ballard said. “Everybody is on a higher level of security. It’s normal procedure.”
— Sportswriter Larry Phillips did a story on how local schools were dealing with the disaster. Schools remained open that day, but district and building leaders were monitoring the developing story. “I went on the loudspeaker and told them the news as briefly and factually as I could,” Ontario High School Principal Curt McVicker said. “We have students that are asking a lot of questions and some may have concerned families in those areas.”
— Reporter Jennifer Kowalewski turned a story talking with local ministers about the need for prayer during the beginning of those fateful times. Prayer vigils were planned that evening. “America has never seen such a tragedy as this,” said Pastor Thomas Blair of the First Assembly of God Church on McPherson Street. “Many people will need to be in the presence of the Lord to help get through this difficult time.”
— Reporter Lisa Loeffler wrote a story about local residents trying to contact family members and loved ones in New York. “I can’t get through to New York City,” one woman told her at 10:15 a.m.
— Moroney and Benson spoke to area college professors familiar with terrorist activity to get their insights on what could be driving the events of the day. Dr. Alam Payid, director of the Middle East Studies Center at The Ohio State University in Columbus, said, “The situation in the Middle East is holding the whole world hostage, unfortunately.”
We also built a second “open page” with national wire photos.
News editor Jason Maddux came into the office to build the new front page.
The extra edition was quickly written, edited and printed. I had no idea how well it sold, nor did I really care.
We did our job that day.
Satisfied, but horrified
As journalists, we learn to compartmentalize.
While working, we put aside feelings when we are working on stories about tragedies, disasters — and even horrifying terrorist attacks that level giant buildings.
Only when that extra edition rolled off the presses and into the news racks around town, did I stop for a moment to think about what had happened — and what was continuing to happen.
This country was immediately and forever changed that morning in ways I didn’t understand, nor could I foresee coming more than two decades later. None of us knew that day exactly what had happened.
As I sat down in my office early that afternoon and drank my 15th cup of coffee for the day, Brennan came in and asked me the same question he asked moments after we we had done the Boyle extra edition 11 years earlier.
“So what have you got for tomorrow?”
That question refocuses the mind quickly.
That day’s news was done. Twice.
But there would be another newspaper to produce on Sept. 12, 2001.
I started looking at the budget.