Tim Whyte | We All Have a 9/11 Story. Here’s Mine.

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Twenty years ago this morning, my alarm clock went off. Not the alarm on my smartphone — iPhones didn’t exist yet. This was an actual alarm-clock-radio, with the red digital display on the front. You could set it to wake you up with an obnoxious, jarring buzzer sound, or it could turn on the radio when it was time to get up.

I had mine set to “radio.”

The radio turned on at the appointed time. I heard the news come on the radio, something about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. 

“We’ll probably carry a wire story on that,” I thought to myself. 

Our daughter, Brooke, was just over a month old, so we were still in that phase of parenting where every second of sleep is precious. I still had some time left before I had to get up and go through the morning routine of taking our 6–year-old, Luc, to school before heading in to The Signal’s newsroom. So I did the normal thing:

I hit the snooze button.

Not long after that, the phone rang. The land line. I answered, groggily. On the other end was Patti Shea, then one of our reporters at The Signal. She was already in the newsroom.

“You need to get in here,” she said, sounding perturbed that she hadn’t heard from me yet.

“Why?” I asked, still unaware that this was anything other than an ordinary day, albeit one with a plane crashing into a building 3,000 miles away, which normally would be something for our wire pages, as opposed to a local story for the front page of The Signal.

“Turn on your TV,” Patti said.

I did. And that’s when I realized this was anything but a normal news day. After that initial report I’d heard on my clock radio, another plane had hit. And one into the Pentagon. And one bound for the Capitol had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, for as-yet unknown reasons.

I hustled through a morning routine that was now anything but. My wife and I debated sending Luc to school. In the end we decided, no, he’d stay home with Mom, who kept him busy with things other than the television. 

I headed to the newsroom, where we marshaled our entire staff — news reporters, feature writers, photographers, sports reporters, interns — to cover the biggest news story of any of our lifetimes.

On a day like that, you get absorbed in the continuing moments of the task at hand: finding the local connections, flushing out the local angles, bringing a worldwide story home to your readers in a unique and meaningful way that makes sense of the specifically local impacts and reactions.

You get caught up in the work. Which is maybe a good thing.

That day, we didn’t even get to the big-picture questions that we all look back on now: What does this mean for us in the long term, will this lead us into a lengthy war, and when that war is “over” what will that look like? And we didn’t have social media yet — Facebook was three years away, Twitter five — so the reactions of the community and the nation played out much differently than they would have in today’s toxic environment.

Looking back on it, I’m proud of the work the newsroom team did that day. 

We relied on the Associated Press for the reports from New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., but The Signal on Sept. 12, 2001, was filled with content specific to our community: impacts on schools, reactions from local residents, interviews with SCV people who were in New York and Washington, impacts on businesses, questions about security, and even updates on cancellations of high school sports.

It was good community newspapering, executed by people who cared about a community that, like the rest of the nation, was united in being saddened, frightened, maddened by what happened on Sept. 11, 2001. 

It ended up being a long day, of course. In between coordinating coverage and editing stories, I wrote a column and put together a one-subject, fist-shaking opinion page. I got home very late that night, many hours after I had hit the snooze button that morning when I was unaware of the gravity of the situation. 

When I got home that night — early the next morning, really — I turned on the TV again, and I saw the continuing, round-the-clock coverage, by that point showing the extent of the devastation and including images of people desperately looking for missing loved ones in New York City, posting pictures on fences asking, “Have you seen this person?”

That’s when the gravity of it all really hit me. 

And I just cried.

Tim Whyte is the editor of The Signal.

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