September 9, 2011

An unprecedented story unfolds

In response to the dawning horror of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil, The Portland Press Herald hastily assembles an eight-page afternoon edition with the banner headline: 'UNDER ATTACK.'

By Ann S. Kim akim@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

In the days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, The Portland Press Herald sent columnist Bill Nemitz and photographer Gregory Rec to New York to report from the scene. This is one of the photos from that report: A performance artist portrays the Statue of Liberty in Union Square in Manhattan.

click image to enlarge

In the days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, The Portland Press Herald sent columnist Bill Nemitz and photographer Gregory Rec to New York to report from the scene. This is one of the photos from that report: Frances Ortega of the Bronx hugs her daughter Quasha at the start of the "Prayer for America" ceremony at Yankee Stadium in New York on Sunday, Sept. 23, 2001.

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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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

In the days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, The Portland Press Herald sent columnist Bill Nemitz and photographer Gregory Rec to New York to report from the scene. This is one of the photos from that report: The wreckage of the World Trade Center can be seen from the intersection of Fulton Street and Broadway in the days after the terrorist attacks.

  


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