PORTLAND – People were trickling into the newsroom that Tuesday to begin the day’s work. The TV was on and broadcasting reports of a seemingly strange accident: a plane striking the World Trade Center’s north tower against the backdrop of a clear blue sky.
City Editor Eric Blom turned up the volume and called Managing Editor Eric Conrad out of his nearby office. As they watched, another plane crashed into the south tower.
“First, we’re all stunned. And then you realize it’s not an accident,” Conrad recalled.
The people now gathered around the TV could not have known what would soon follow: A third plane hitting the Pentagon, a fourth crashing outside of Pittsburgh, the collapse of the south tower and then the north tower. But it was already clear that The Portland Press Herald had a big story to pursue.
Conrad went into a regular meeting of newspaper executives that was taking place. He explained his plan to put out a special edition of the paper that day — an idea that the executives embraced with enthusiasm.
The push was on to get the special edition on the street before lunchtime. Employees not normally at work at that time of day — like the printing press workers and copy editors — were called in. Reporters and photographers were dispatched while others scoured the wires for information and worked to put it all together.
Blom said they were essentially working on two newspapers at once, the special edition as well as the following morning’s paper.
“Journalism is always deadline-driven, but never more than that,” said Blom, who, like Conrad, is no longer at the newspaper.
While the news elsewhere played out on television, telephones were ringing and the police scanner was buzzing with chatter that a gunman might be holed up in a Congress Street building by City Hall.
Reporter David Hench recalled thinking that perhaps police were overreacting by having officers lining the street and cordoning off part of the road. It turned out that the man in question was no longer in the building, but the incident revealed how seriously authorities were taking the situation.
“When you’ve just had planes fly into the World Trade Center, you don’t know what’s connected,” Hench recalled an officer saying.
Everything seemed surreal to columnist Bill Nemitz as he went outside. He spoke to a woman and an officer mentioned the Pentagon — the first Nemitz had heard of that attack. He tore back inside to see the Pentagon smoking on TV and hear that contact with a fourth plane had been lost. Conrad asked him if he could provide a column for the special edition — within 45 minutes.
“At that point, my brain was scrambled eggs,” Nemitz said. “And I sat down and tried to make sense of all this, basically what the last hour had been like — locally, nationally, globally — and banged out a quick column.”
Nemitz’s column, “It’s safe in Portland for now … Or is it?” ran in the eight-page special edition that came out that day.
The front-page banner headline declared “UNDER ATTACK” with a secondary headline reading “Crashes level Trade Center; Pentagon rocked,” over a grainy photo depicting smoke billowing from the north tower as United Flight 175 approached the south tower. The section included wire stories and locally produced articles with reaction from Maine residents and political leaders, security around potential terrorist targets across the state and an editorial headlined, “Terror will not triumph over a united nation.”
Bart Jansen, then the paper’s Washington correspondent, recalled being evacuated from his office space in the U.S. Capitol that morning. He and the other reporters had been hustled out so quickly that he left his laptop computer on the desk, not realizing he wouldn’t be able to return.
Jansen was able to interview lawmakers outside and called in some quotes to the newspaper for the special edition. He continued reporting for an article in Wednesday’s paper, while the sonic booms of jet fighters sparked rumors of car bombs exploding around the district. He scratched out his notes on napkins at a pizzeria, where he first saw images of the towers collapsing.
“That made me feel physically ill,” said Jansen, a native New Yorker. “I had been to the top of the one building, I brought friends up there because I thought it was a better view than the Empire State Building. Being at the top was always unnerving because it swayed. Thinking about being on top of that building and having it collapse beneath you was really upsetting.”
Cellphones weren’t working anymore. But he met a woman in a “What Would Joan Jett Do?” T-shirt at the pizzeria and she brought him to a nearby Christian dormitory, where the headmistress allowed him to call the paper on a landline phone.
The newspaper continued to report on the attacks and their aftermath. The paper published articles about the victims of the attacks, the interfaith efforts that followed, stepped-up security measures, the economic impact and other ways the attacks reshaped the world. Nemitz and photographer Gregory Rec traveled to New York, where they spent a week providing accounts to the paper.
Within days of the attacks, it became clear that Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari had been in Greater Portland. The two had slept in a South Portland motel before flying to Boston from the Portland International Jetport on the day of the attacks.
Michael Chitwood, Portland’s police chief at the time, released an image of surveillance video that showed the men rushing through airport security. For most Mainers, that was likely the iconic image of the attacks, said then-Editor Jeannine Guttman.
The revelation of their presence made the story of 9/11 even more of a community-based story, she said.
“The newspaper and the newsroom felt a really strong public-service duty to report the story as quickly as possible even as it was developing,” she said.
Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: