Journalists recall covering Sept. 11

By Chris Shores

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Daily Collegian – Sept. 9, 2011 | Daily Collegian – Sept. 12, 2001

Scott Eldridge/Collegian

University of Massachusetts senior Adam White woke up early on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, and made his way to campus for his sports management class on sport and law. The professor walked in and, before beginning his lecture, announced that someone had just crashed a plane into the World Trade Center in New York.

As the lecture proceeded as it normally would, White wasn’t sure what to make of the comment. It was only when he made his way through a Campus Center filled with students silently huddled around televisions that he began to realize the gravity of the situation. He headed for the basement, the office of the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, the college newspaper of which he was the acting editor-in-chief.

“I had no idea about the scale and I had no idea that there were subsequent attacks in other locations. I thought it was just an isolated incident,” said White. “At first … I clearly remember saying, ‘How many people are dead?’ I was approaching it from a very clinical journalistic approach right away. I wanted to know facts. What were we dealing with here?”

Across campus in the basement of Central’s Brett Hall, Ken Campbell, a senior and Collegian assistant news editor, woke up to the sounds of his computer.

“I was getting a lot of instant messages, it was ‘bing, bing, bing, bing,’” he said. “The top message … just said, ‘Turn on CNN.’ I turned on the TV just in time to see the second plane hit.”

Campbell’s colleague and friend Scott Eldridge sent him another instant message.

“He said, ‘What do we do?’ and I said, ‘I’ll see you at the office in 10 minutes,’” said Campbell. “I threw on clothes that were there and threw on my jacket and ran down to the Campus Center basement.”

Eldridge, a sophomore who also lived in Brett, was on the run too, but he had another thing to consider. As assistant photo editor who had already been assigned to work Tuesday, Eldridge quickly gathered his cameras and all the film he could find before heading out the door.

Forming a plan

In the immediate aftermath of Flight 11’s impact into the North Tower at 8:46 a.m. and Flight 175 crashing into the South Tower roughly 17 minutes later, the Collegian office, like virtually everywhere else in America on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, was full of frenzied people trying desperately to reach family and friends.

The subsequent events – Flight 77 impacted into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. and
United Airlines Flight 93 crashed 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh at 10:03 a.m. – only added to the confusion.

“We were all trying to reach our families,” said Campbell. “All the phone lines were jammed and Internet sites [like CNN] crashed. It couldn’t handle the traffic.”

Managing editor Sam Wilkinson said that an initial report announced that the fourth plane crashed 90 miles south of Pittsburgh, Pa., the exact location of his hometown where his infant daughter was living. He quickly called home and confirmed that she was safe.

The news spread through campus, by word of mouth.

“Early on you saw people who had no idea what was going on,” said Eldridge. “Why would they? It wasn’t a time when even texting was as popular as it is now. People were finding this out as they went to class. It was a very stuttered and staggered way of this news unfolding.”

The University cancelled classes at 11:15 a.m. By that time, a majority of Collegian reporters had found their way down to the newsroom. As people filled the office, wondering what was going to happen next, Campbell said that Wilkinson suddenly jumped on the couch and erased the large whiteboard in the center of the newsroom.

“I’ll never forget when we sat down and basically had the budget meeting that morning,” said White. “We huddled up and … shifted gears. We said, ‘What does this mean to us? What do we do? How can we best approach this situation?’”

“Everyone was so focused flinging ideas off of each other,” he added. “One of the things we decided was let’s mobilize as much of the staff as we can and come at the story from as many angles as we can, because it had all these impacts on people, all these sub-plots.”

Wilkinson said that all of the paper’s writers became “de facto news reporters” that day. He and White assigned topics for everyone and dispersed them around campus.

Around campus

As news editor Catherine Turner walked to Thompson Hall to conduct an interview, she couldn’t help but notice how quiet the campus was.

“Everything just kind of grounded down to a halt,” she said. “I remember walking around campus in front of the Campus Center and … the whole place was empty. You never experience anything like that.”

The fear on campus could be felt, she said. Students wondered at the implications of large military airplanes flying over the campus. While Turner now believes the planes were protecting Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, she recalled that students at the time wondered if the W.E.B. Du Bois Library was being protected from a possible terror attack.

Even after learning that classes had been cancelled, students stayed in groups in the campus buildings watching the media coverage of the event. Campbell was among a team of reporters assigned to interview students about their reaction.

“I felt like a vulture because I was walking up to these kids who were crying watching the footage in the Campus Center and all I’d ask was ‘What are you feeling right now?’” said Campbell. “I literally had a kid turn to me and go, ‘I’m from New York. What do you think I’m feeling right now?’”

“At that point, I felt really low,” he continued. “I’d been trying to put aside my own personal stuff about it, how I felt. When he said that to me, it all kind of came out. It’s funny because that’s the day for me personally as a college journalist that I was at my best and I also think it’s the day that I decided I didn’t want to be a journalist.”

Eldridge felt similar feelings as he took photos around campus that day.

“I can remember a man leaning against a tree and crying,” he said. “I started feeling a sense of almost violating people’s privacy on that day.”

Eldridge added that he witnessed a true spectrum of emotions from the UMass community, culminating in a vigil held on the Campus Center lawn.

“Everyone [was] completely opening up and showing what they felt and banding together,” he said. “You never saw anything like that at UMass. There was never a reason for it. Even the biggest events didn’t look like that and didn’t feel like that.”

Putting together the paper

Back in the newsroom, Campbell used previous contacts to get phone interviews with the White House, the Navy and other Pentagon sources. Meanwhile, White was busy calling people in New York for an eyewitness account story.

“I called someone I knew and said, ‘Do you know anyone who lived in [the World Trade Center’s] vicinity?” said White. “I was put in touch … by another friend of mine [to] someone who … witnessed one of the planes hitting one of the buildings. He described it as a missile, a high-pitched whining sound.”

White felt the eyewitness story was important to include in the paper.

“The media coverage was very sporadic that day and trying to write about an event like that that’s happening afar [while] relying on secondhand accounts is virtually impossible,” he said. “These were people who actually saw and experienced these events themselves. That’s the most reliable form of reporting you can do.”

As stories were completed, they went through a continuous editing process throughout the day. Wilkinson, White and Turner labored over the newspaper’s layout, particularly the front and back pages.

The staff decided on “Tragedy” as the major headline stretching across the top over a cutout of the New York City skyline. It was a headline that drew ire from some students on campus, said Wilkinson.

“People on campus said it wasn’t a tragedy, it was an attack, and [that] we should have gone for more violent language,” he said. “I think at the time, in the context of that day, I’m not sure we concretely knew enough that it was what it was. I don’t regret that headline.”

The back page, typically reserved for the sports section, featured a large photo taken by Eldridge. To get the shot – an aerial one of students gathered at the vigil – Eldridge climbed a streetlamp, said Campbell.

“That photo is very compelling. There was nothing more perfect to go on the back page,” said Wilkinson. “It sort of brought back the national tragedy to ‘We’re a UMass paper and this is the extent of what we can cover at UMass of the experience here.’”

Eldridge said that the photo captured the essence of UMass that day.

“You went through the day and you saw surprise, amazement, wonder, curiosity, anger and sadness … you saw all of these things,” he said. “It all wrapped up together in what can best be described as a sense of community. Even if that didn’t last, even if that was something that would later be torn apart by politics or disagreement, at least for a moment people understood that this was something that no one could go through alone. That I think is captured in that photo.”

The aftermath

White said he has trouble believing that 10 years has gone by since that day.

“I can still remember so much even so clearly,” he said. “What is significant to me after all this time is the fact that [working on the newspaper] enabled us to kind of detach ourselves … from the fear, from the terror, the sheer catastrophe of the event. It was almost like a defense mechanism in that regard.”

Wilkinson said that he chose, on that day, to focus on the “thing I knew most about.”

“[We] just clicked into all these things [we] knew how to do for 12 hours,” he said. “Then [I] got home and all of a sudden it was, ‘Oh my god, what an unbelievably horrible day for so many different reasons.’”

Turner said that the effects of the event reverberated throughout the semester, both for the Collegian staff and collectively for UMass students.

“It changed the country fundamentally,” said Turner. “Everyone was really naïve and carefree and all of a sudden one morning, we got hit in this tender spot.

“Of course the entire [Collegian] issue had to be about it because there wasn’t anything in life that didn’t somehow relate to or was affected by the tragedy,” she added. “It was like a thick fog that came across, like an airborne pathogen. Everyone caught it. Everyone was shaken to their core.”

Adam White is now an editor and writer for a publishing company in northern Vermont. Ken Campbell is an assistant principal in Florida. Scott Eldridge is now a Ph.D student in journalism studies at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. Sam Wilkinson is now a project manager at the West Virginia University in Morgantown. Catherine Turner is now a lawyer in Minnesota.

Chris Shores can be reached at [email protected]