Reflections from an ancient newsroom

“Terrorism: Explosions rock New York, D.C.” screamed the Palladium-Item headline on Sept. 11, 2001.

Yes, in those days the Palladium actually captured the day’s breaking news.

It was news that would change the lives of every U.S. citizen forever.

The day had started with the casual 5-minute ride to work. Kids were in school and wife was at her job. As I eased my car into its parking spot, the radio guy interrupted the morning jangle of music with news that a small plane appeared to have hit a tower of the World Trade Center in New York.

By the time I walked into the newsroom, a gaggle of PI employees had surrounded the TV to watch the Trade Center tower smoldering. We stood and watched startled and confused.

What in the hell was happening?

In a few moments, confusion turned to horror. We watched as a second plane cruised through the sky and ripped into the second tower, issuing a huge fireball.

Everyone stopped and the moment was frozen in time. It can’t be. It cannot be. This can’t be happening. It began to sink in. We were under attack and we were watching it live on TV.

People gasped. I might have been one of them.

Everyone watched in total shock. Then we did what journalists often do in these situations. We met.

Bill Church was managing editor. I never liked Bill much and he liked me even less. But this seemed to be a situation he was made for. He began barking orders, delegating where possible, but mostly he took command of the copy desk that was tasked with putting the finishing touches on that day’s paper.

In those days pictures came over the Associated Press wire on a separate machine a few feet from the copy desk. He stationed a copy editor at the machine, who screamed out what pictures were coming across as he tore up the front page and began watching the news wire for updates.

What in the hell was happening?

Church broke only to yell at the jabbering group of staff gathered at the TV to quiet down and get to work. We were drawn to the TV like moths to a flame.

As the morning drifted into afternoon I was tasked with calling the Army Reserve and National Guard centers, the state police and local sheriff’s and police for any news of their status, any updates. I also called Fred Griffin at county emergency management for any news there.
“I know what you know,” he said in his calm, professional manner. “Go back to your TV.”

Later, I trundled off to the American Legion and VFW posts for reaction. Everywhere people were gathered in shock around their TVs.

Many things stick out in my mind from that day but two more clearly than the others. And they both give me chills to this day. First is Pam Isaacson, our education reporter and a native New Yorker, literally in tears as we all watched first the first then the second tower collapse. How many were dead? Five thousand? Ten thousand?

The second is Bob Johnson, our promotions director and an ex-military intelligence man, calmly sitting around the copy desk saying, “There’s only one person in the world who could have done this, Osama Bin Laden.”

The day was manic. There were additional reports of the Pentagon being hit, another plane crashed in Pennsylvania, possible gas and food shortages, planes everywhere being grounded.

What in the hell was happening?

The rest is a blur. Night classes (I was teaching at the time) were cancelled at Indiana University East, Earlham students and faculty joined hands in silent prayer, families with relatives in New York and Washington called frantically for news of their loved ones.

We at the Palladium continued our vigil while trying to find local people to share their thoughts and find contacts of relatives directly touched by the disaster.

We published an extra edition. “Terrorism strikes home,” the headline screamed, followed by a quote from President Bush, “Freedom itself was attacked this morning and I assure you, freedom will be defended.”

Residents expressed shock, anger, fear. Some likened the attack to the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that brought us into World War II.

As I drove home that night I saw an absurdly long line of cars waiting to buy gas at 16th and Main. Moments later I heard a frightening sonic boom as (I assumed) Air Force One roared overhead, bringing President Bush back to Washington.

That night, with children tucked safely in bed, my wife and I watched hour after hour of coverage of the attack. We couldn’t turn it off and walk away. Thousands of innocents were dead.

In the days going forward we explained the attack to our children and, in the years since, we have come to terms with the whole tragedy and the wars and ongoing terrorism that has become part of our lives.

We’ve come to terms with a different world. But we’ve never forgotten.

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