In September of 2001, I was a 24-year old reporter for a small weekly newspaper in Western Pennsylvania. This was job number five for me since graduating college, but by all accounts, my first “real” gig.
There were five newspapers spread across the county, each with its own office in a different small town. Our first three pages were different, but after that, it was the same paper. My actual title was Bureau Chief.
I even had a business card.
I worked at the Mainliner in Cresson, PA, the paper named for the railroad industry that was once booming but by 2001 felt more like ancient history. Trains still ran on the track across from my office and while the rumbling at first felt like a giant slice of good ol’ Americana, eventually the rattling knocked photos from the walls and spilled coffee on my rusty desk.
I worked in a soon-to-be-condemned building with faux wood paneling warped from mildew, sharing the tiny space with Glenna, the office manager who took care of subscriptions and answered phones while I sat in the back room trying to make a stories out of town meetings where the main topics revolved around barking dogs and noisy roosters.
Most of my days were spent trying to find news in these sleepy Pennsylvania towns. Weekly papers make stories out of the local Boy Scout troops and school board meetings and of course, Friday night high school football.
People left home and subscribed to our newspaper for entertainment, not news.
Though the door to my back office closed, there was a windowless space above my desk and so I heard all of Glenna’s conversations and she heard mine. And together, before Spotify and Pandora, we listened to the radio. An actual radio with an antenna and a knob to turn the dial.
On September 11, 2001, the announcement that a plane had struck the World Trade Center came in between songs on Key 95, the local radio station that promised hits from yesterday and today. The announcement was made as both of us were working intently at our computers, old Macs that were clunky and far from the sexy big screens you see today.
Tuesdays were the days we put the paper to bed, so I was designing my front page and Glenna was looking for news and we were barely listening to the radio.
As the DJ continued talking and the words began to register, I stood up from my desk to look at Glenna.
“Did I hear that right?”
Neither of us knew what we’d heard exactly, and turned our attention back to work. The World Trade Center had been bombed less than 10 years earlier, and while it was news, it was news that happened a world away.
Then the radio station broke into the middle of a song to announce that a second plane had hit the towers. There was no internet at our office, and certainly no smart phones. Glenna pulled out an old tv she kept in the office and hooked it up.
On a black and white screen, we turned on NBC news and watched in horror as people jumped from the burning building. Then we watched the towers fall.
At our office, the police scanner was always on, as ambulance chasing was part of my job, one that I ignored at every opportunity. While we watched the news, the fire whistle for the town blew, and the local scanner mentioned a plane crash in Somerset County, less than 50 miles from our tiny Cresson office.
Our country was under attack. And it was not just in New York City. I called my parents in the next town, and my mom said their fire whistle was going off too. Every volunteer fire department from our county was headed to Shanksville.
It felt like the sky was falling.
Then the day snowballed. Schools closed early, businesses shut down and people chased down their loved ones. A plane hit the Pentagon. It seemed that every few minutes, another plane was crashing. I called the editor of the newspaper, who said we were still going to print the front page as it was. With lead stories, if you look at the photo below, that included a new tanker for the local fire company, clear water, and a playground.
In a rare stand of conviction, I drove to the main office and went toe to toe with the editor. I wasn’t alone. None of the reporters or photographers understood exactly what was happening, but a big part of it was happening in our backyard. Publishing a newspaper that didn’t reflect the confusion, the fear, and the emotion of the day felt wrong.
So we scrapped the stories and went out in to the community. We covered the news conference regarding what we later learned was Flight 93. Many volunteer firefighters and EMT’s and medics from our area took off to help with the unthinkable job of searching for survivors in New York City.
Later in the day, on my way to be with family, I drove over a bridge that crossed the main four lane highway and noticed a car pulled to the side of the road. I parked behind the minivan and found a mother standing there with her two small children, holding an American Flag over the bridge for all of the drivers to see. The cars below were honking their horns and waving.
I had my camera with me, and probably should have taken a picture. Instead, I walked over to her, a woman I’d never met before and stood with her and her children.
“I didn’t know what else to do,” she said. I nodded.
None of us did.