The clock in my office had just blinked its digital numerals to 9:07 a.m. That’s something I won’t ever forget, because that’s the time the world seemed to stand still.
It was a Tuesday morning, just like it is now, and I’d been in my office at the Spencer County Journal-Democrat in Rockport, Ind., for about two hours. It was a typical day for my staff, and many of them had only begun to arrive for a day of work.
It was also a quiet Tuesday. The phone hadn’t yet rung and there had been no visitors since I’d unlocked the door at 8 a.m.
But at 9:06, just as the clocks were thinking about changing to 9:07, everything changed.
When my phone rang, I was confident it was either a high-school coach with results or a staff member saying they’d be late or out sick. But it was neither.
Instead, it was the president of Leadership Spencer County, who quickly gave me the news of “an airplane accident” in New York City. He told me it was on all the news channels and that “perhaps you’d better watch.”
I went into our break room and flipped on the little television — and suddenly felt my jaw and heart make a mad dash to the floor.
Within seconds, I had five others around me and we stood for what seemed like hours as the World Trade Center came under attack. And then the Pentagon. And then that field in Pennsylvania.
Long before we knew the depth of what was unfolding, about an hour after my phone call, we got the first glimpse into what was really happening. Terrorists were attacking the United States.
I realized that our front page was about to change in a very big way, but first I had to send someone out to gather local reaction to what what was going on. And before that, I had to tear someone away from the television. Even before that, I had to decide who that would be.
I chose two — my sports editor and a news reporter. I wanted the sports editor to go to the high school, where they knew the coaches and many of the students, and I wanted the reporter to hit the downtown area, including the police and fire departments, as well as the town hall.
I gave them just one hour.
Neither returned in less than two hours, but what they returned with was a lot of fear, shock, grief, prayers and panic. They say a picture is worth 1,000 words, but in this case the words needed no pictures. Each of my writers were filled with emotions that had rarely, if ever, approached this depth.
As their stories began to take shape, I could hear other employees telling them how riveting the comments were — including a number of “Oh mys” and “wows.”
It seemed that at least one person stood watching the TV news throughout the day, and every so often we all got called back to the break room when new information was given.
When the two stories were finally ready, I sat down with each writer and went through their story slowly. Journalists are always trained, or should be, not to empty their notebook. That’s because not everything said or written down is necessary in a story. If a comment is relevant or adds something, fine; if it’s just another quote that repeats something already there, forget it.
These stories, however, were different.
I wanted every word that every person said to be included. And I wanted observations to go along with these stories — if someone’s eyes teared up as they talked, I wanted it in there; if they showed signs of anger, I wanted it in there; if their face went ashen, put it in there.
By 2 p.m. that day, we had two terrific stories for Page 1A and only two hours to deadline.
We certainly didn’t have anything award-winning. What we had was fairly typical of what newspapers were doing all over the country. But I was proud of what my two writers had gathered and presented.
We did a follow-up the next week, asking if there were any family members who worked at the World Trade Center or Pentagon, but there were not. Thank goodness. By then, the enormity of what had happened had already sunk in.
It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I was informed my cousin — a New York City police officer — was on a day off when the attacks came, but was immediately called in. Thankfully, he never was i n harm’s way, but his story about that day is far more heart-wrenching than mine.
There are but a few moments in our lives we will always recall with clarity. For me, the birth of my daughter and adoption of a second daughter, along with the assassination of President Kennedy, the news on the death of New York Yankees catcher Thurman Munson and the attacks on the World Trade Center will always stand out.
This particular Tuesday was Sept. 11, 2001. Do you remember where you were?
W. Curt Vincent can be reached at 910-506-3023 or [email protected]