In September 2011, I wrote a piece for my then-employer, the York Daily Record/Sunday News, to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11. In less than five years, it vanished from the Internet.
I've written before about how easily we can lose the history we trust to the "safety" of cyberspace. This time, I was able to cyber-salvage my column, so I'm re-posting it today for the 15th anniversary of 9/11.
I'm also making a hard copy.
Going back to the source on 9/11/01
By CHRIS OTTO
Daily Record/Sunday News
York, PA -
I haven't opened the manila envelope many times in the past 10 years. That's kind of how it works when you're a well-organized packrat. The stuff gets sorted, filed away and forgotten.
Not entirely forgotten, of course.
On the front of this envelope is written, simply, "Sept. 11, 2001."
The contents include some of the papers that were received and generated in the office of the York Daily Record -- we weren't the Daily Record/Sunday News until 2004 -- on that horrible day 10 years ago.
I also dug up -- in the computer forensics sense of the term -- some long emails that I crafted to friends and family a few days after 9/11, describing life in our newsroom on the day that came to define so much of the 10 years that followed.
Having these original sources and emails is a good thing, historians will say. And I'd agree. Memories will fade or become confused. Others countless original documents will be lost or destroyed.
But I'll hold onto the pieces of paper from that day and the printouts of the digital conversations I held with loved ones in the days following 9/11.
They help to paint a far more accurate and eloquent picture of what happened in the sports department of a newsroom in southcentral Pennsylvania than anything fresh that I might write, 120 months after the fact.
Here are some excerpts from those letters and documents...
"I am just now getting a chance to sit down and collect my thoughts. ... As I imagine has been the case with many of you, I have scarcely had a chance to reflect on the meaning of all of this, to sort through my emotions or even to grieve.
"And grieve is certainly something we all need to give ourselves a chance to do. In the middle of the 15-hour shift I worked at the York Daily Record on Tuesday, there were moments toward the end of the night when I just wanted to find a quiet corner and shed some tears.
"No doubt my role as a member of the media gave me a different perspective on Tuesday's events. This was all business for us. It had to be. From the first reports of the attacks around 9 a.m., we had approximately 14 hours to put out perhaps the most comprehensive special report in our newspaper's history. There was no time to do anything but work. I guess, in a way, that necessary mobilization was cathartic. Everybody's immediate instinct was to do something to help. So many thousands of people across the country went to blood donation centers that afternoon. Our way of helping was compiling and relaying all the latest information to York County, both on our Web site and in Wednesday morning's special edition."
Typically, I would have still be sound asleep when the first plan struck the World Trade Center. But I had been invited to York City Hall for a sports-related news conference.
The news release had stated:
"The first ever semi professional basketball team, 'The York City Noise,' in conjunction with the Women's American Basketball Association (WABA) would like to announce the launching of this women's team. The board of directors invites you to attend a press conference on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, at 10:00 AM on the steps of the York City Hall (50 W. King St.)."
"I was listening to pop music on the radio during the 15-minute drive to work, and then, after one song, the DJ cut in and announced that it was confirmed that jetliners had crashed into both of the Twin Towers in NYC, apparently the work of terrorists. ... I was in the office at 9:30 and one of my sportswriters, Eduardo Encina, was already there because he was supposed to be listening to Joe Paterno's teleconference in advance of Thursday's Penn State-Virginia game.
"Of course, he was already off the telephone and we watched CNN, incredulous, as the events kept unfolding and more reports kept piling on top of each other: The Pentagon had been hit by a plane, the National Mall was on fire, a plane had crashed near Pittsburgh, a car bomb had gone off at the state department, two other planes had strayed from their flight plans and were unaccounted for. ... Even though, thankfully, some of those reports turned out to be untrue, that first barrage of reports from across the Northeast was probably the most scared and shaken I'd ever been. It seemed the entire country was under attack and there was no way to predict when it would end.
"Stupidly (in retrospect), I decided to walk the one block to City Hall at 9:55 a.m. to see what the basketball press conference was all about it. (Maybe it was my attempt to delude myself that it was going to be 'business as usual' for the sports section on this day.) ... The organizers (Vilma Garcia-Jones and Deitra Muldow) said it was going to be a couple minutes before things got started, so I sat on a bench in the lobby. Five minutes passed and I was wondering what the heck I was doing there when so much obviously needed to be done.
"A woman came out of one of the side offices and said to another woman, 'You won't believe this, it just collapsed.' ... With a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach, I thought to myself, 'WHAT collapsed?' Part of me knew exactly what she was talking about, but I couldn't wrap my mind around the reality that a 110-story skyscraper could just tumble to the ground.
"After waiting just a couple more minutes, I went over the basketball folks and told them that, in light of the events, they'd probably have to postpone their announcement. They readily agreed, and I went back to the Daily Record."
One of the first came from the Baltimore Orioles. Across the top, it read "ORIOLES GAME POSTPONED."
The most chilling paragraph from that Orioles news release, in retrospect, stated: "To comply with Federal and State initiatives to keep phone lines free, FANS and MEDIA are asked not to call the Orioles offices today. The Orioles will provide further information when it becomes available."
The newsroom also received faxes from the Baltimore Ravens ("In light of today's devastating and horrific events, the Ravens will make no announcements today regarding our roster. To help limit the use of phones, we will close our offices for the rest of the day. FYI: Carnell Lake flew to Baltimore last night and passed his physical this morning.") and York College ("Due to the tragic events in New York and Washington, York College has postponed the two athletic events that were scheduled for today. ... The York College athletic department wishes to relay their sympathy and best wishes to the families that have been touched by this act of terrorism.")
There was also this sobering sentence on an otherwise long-winded news release from Franklin & Marshall: "The NCAA will cooperate with any executive orders that may be issued by the President."
They weren't referring to the president of the NCAA.
"As soon as the disasters struck, the editors and reporters at the Daily Record were very single-minded about what we needed to do to cover the news, both locally and regionally. Reporters, not worrying once about their own safety, hopped into cars and headed to the international airports in Baltimore and Harrisburg to do interviews and take the pulse of the crowds there. Another reporter didn't even flinch before grabbing his notebook and heading to Three Mile Island.
"After some quick planning, we added eight wide-open pages to the Wednesday morning paper. We also decided, at my urging, to chop the sports section from seven pages to three pages. That allowed us to get more attack coverage into the newspaper and it also allowed a second section front to be focused on the local effects of the attack.
"It was shortly after noon, and I was sitting there with the responsibility of taking care of that three-page sports section. The most utterly insignificant three pages in the next day's paper. I couldn't focus on it at all. It was so meaningless to me, reading about the national sports cancellations and calling local high school athletic directors to see what they were doing. I had to edit a column about a local team of marathoners and find a national story about Michael Jordan's apparent return to the NBA.
"There were potentially thousands of dead in New York City alone, just about everyone in the Daily Record newsroom was on this story of the attack on America, and I was still focusing on bats & balls and wins & losses.
"(Meanwhile), my whole sports staff was mobilized. Eduardo Encina was the reporter who was sent to the Harrisburg airport. Dan Connolly, our Orioles writer, went out to do 'man on the street' interviews in York. Dave Sottile, our hockey writer, did a piece on all the members of the Hershey Bears who were stranded in airports across the country, unable to get to training camp. Chrissi Pruitt, our high school sports writer, helped me edit and proof the three-page sports section. And our two sports copy editors, Brad Jennings and Mike Helsabeck, were loaned over to the news department for the day to design some of those extra pages devoted to the terrorist attacks."
I kept my budget titled "York Daily Record stories for Wednesday, Sept. 12."
For Page 1, the budget states:
--- MAIN ART: WORLD TRADE CENTER
--- BOOM0912 -- 50-60 -- local airports, defense firms, nuclear plants, police, schools, courthouse, etc., on alert (Staff, Argento compiling) w/art DEADLINE: 6 p.m.
There is a breathtaking collection of local stories listed on that budget, the hard work of everyone in the newsroom.
Stories on local connections, gas prices, banks, airline pilots, talking to kids about the attacks, Three Mile Island, community gatherings, churches and much more.
Great journalists kicking ass on our worst day.
"(As the day went on) the newsroom atmosphere returned not quite to normal, but to something at least approximating it. Everyone was organized and barreling ahead with their stories and photos and pages. It was bigger than Pearl Harbor, almost everyone agreed. But on the other hand, it was just another big story for a newspaper that has had to handle big story after big story for the past 12 months. ... So it really was business as usual in a lot of eerie ways.
"There was even some sporadic laughter in the newsroom. Journalists have a morbid way of dealing with trauma and tragedy and long hours by making jokes that would probably be inappropriate in just about any other workplace environment. It's just the way we are. But then, I suppose, humor is way that many people naturally deal with their fears.
"On the other hand, the last thing I wanted was a sense of normalcy. ... Of course we need to laugh and we can't keep the adrenaline flowing 24 hours a day. ... But I didn't want to feel like the worst was over, that everything was under control. ... I didn't want this to be just another CNN Special Report with a fancy logo and theme music. ... That wouldn't nearly be doing justice to what this day meant to U.S. history. What this day meant personally for so many Americans who lost a relative or friend, or know somebody who did. ... Tuesday's disaster more than doubled the death toll at Pearl Harbor and will far eclipse the Battle of Antietam (4,800) as the bloodiest day in American history.
"I think that's why our newspaper's editor, Dennis Hetzel, decided early in the day that our banner headline on Page 1 would simply be '9/11/01.'"
Do you still have yours?
Our original words -- messy, raw, emotional and sometimes inaccurate (No, it wasn't deadlier than Antietam.) -- will always be among the most valuable information we can retain for future generations.