The kegs were running dry at Langan’s bar on west 47th Street – the beer delivery trucks hadn’t made it into Manhattan. Soon after the crew of reporters from the New York Post arrived at their favorite watering hole, they switched from warm draft to bottled Rolling Rock.
No one cared that it tasted terrible. They were concentrating more on the television than the beer anyway.
The day’s adrenaline rush was fading away after seemingly endless hours of witnessing, interviewing, writing, photographing. The city outside was crumbling, and no one could believe it.
Keith J. Kelly, media columnist at the Post, was among the journalists in the bar that night. He couldn’t stop thinking about his two young sons, who had watched the World Trade Center collapse from their babysitter’s window that morning. He couldn’t stop thinking about a boat ride he’d taken with his wife the night before. A friend took their picture on the deck, the twin towers looming in the background.
Kelly’s chatty, buzz-filled column was absent from the Post the day after the disaster. After walking 65 blocks to work, he’d spent 12 hours trying to figure out just who had been inside the decimated building – not an easy task, considering that most of the phones in New York weren’t working. In the days and weeks that followed, he wrote about everything from victims to church services.
None of his colleagues was killed in the melee. One Post photographer was buried in the rubble, but he managed to dig himself out.
“He wanted to go back out there, but we sent him to the hospital,” Kelly said.
Similar scenes played out in newsrooms across the country in the aftermath of September’s terrorist attacks. The day the twin towers fell, Associated Press journalists worldwide jumped into the fray. Vacations were irrelevant – staffers sprang into action wherever they happened to be. Retirees came out of retirement. Sportswriters wrote news.
In New York, one editor jumped from the dentist’s chair and headed for the office. An off-duty photographer grabbed a passing tourist’s camera and later transmitted photos over the wire. Reporters walked or rode bicycles miles to the newsroom. Many couldn’t get home, so they stayed and worked around the clock. Some got T-shirts from the company store because they hadn’t changed their clothes in days.
Many AP journalists knew several people who died when the World Trade Center collapsed. Yet when police recommended they evacuate their Rockefeller Center offices, they declined.
Through it all, reporters balanced the professional and the personal, the emotional and the objective. Even now it’s far from over, as journalists begin their coverage of the war on terrorism. And like other citizens, they struggle to come to terms with a way of life that has been changed forever.
“Life goes on, but everybody’s numb, and it will never be the same,” Kelly said. “If you’re not grieving yourself, you know someone who is grieving.”
John C. Long, copy editor at The Wall Street Journal, and his wife, Paulette, found comfort at a church service after the World Trade Center fell.
“Our minister counseled us not to be afraid to cry, and we prayed for friends and relatives of our members among the more than 5,000 souls who are dead or missing. I think we sang even louder than usual,” he wrote in a column for the newspaper in his hometown of Fredrickstown, Ohio.
The Wall Street Journal offices are located in the World Financial Center, across from the remains of the World Trade Center. The two buildings used to be connected by a walkway over the street. Some of Long’s co-workers saw the planes hit the building, saw people jumping out of windows. The windows in their own newsroom were blown apart by the impact. So much dirt and debris blew in that they had to feel their way down the stairs.
Reporters were scattered. Sources were unaccounted for. Yet there was no doubt in Long’s mind that The Journal would be published the next morning.
“This is the financial district. This is what we do. This is what we cover,” he said.
There are usually about 900 people in The Journal’s newsroom on any given day. On Sept. 11, 30 of them managed to make their way to a company printing plant in South Brunswick, N.J. – about 50 miles from Manhattan – where they set up temporary headquarters. Reporters worked from wherever they happened to be, while editors struggled to master new computers. There was no telephone system in the makeshift office for nearly a week.
Every time Long sees a news report about the devastation in the city, his paper’s building peeks into the corner of the frame. He doesn’t know when he’ll be able to go back.
Employee time sheets, turned in on Monday nights, were undoubtedly among the thousands of sheets of paper that rained down onto the street. “I don’t know what happened to the picture of my wife and I that was on my desk,” he said. “It’s just gone.”
Jim Bohannon, news anchor and talk show host at Westwood One radio in D.C., spent most of Sept. 11 running around the nation’s capital – chasing rumors and trying not to offend policemen.
“With the second crash [into the World Trade Center], we knew something was up,” he said. “Then came word of a fire at the Pentagon. Fires don’t just break out at the Pentagon.”
Bohannon was sent to investigate a reported explosion near the White House, which turned out to be unfounded. He got as far as Lafayette Park, where protesters often gather for demonstrations. But on that morning it was empty, except for some stern-looking secret service agents with machine guns. He jogged over to the Old Executive Office Building, where Richard Nixon spent hours listening to tapes. There, too, the reporter was blocked by secret service agents and police. At one point, the officials started yelling, “Get out!” and panic ensued. The whole crowd ran, not knowing if a rumored car bomb at the State Department had materialized or if another plane was headed down.
By that time, Bohannon’s car was behind police lines, and he needed an escort to get to it. The trip back to his office, which usually takes five minutes, took an hour. He described the street scenes on the air and later learned that television commentator Barbara Olson, who had appeared on his show, had died in one of the hijacked planes.
A few nights later, Bohannon’s wife, Annabelle, went with him to work. When his show ended at about 1 a.m., the two of them drove across the Potomac River past the Pentagon. He recalled the evening about a week later.
“We couldn’t get too close, but close enough to see the ghostly lights burning into the night, as rescuers dug through the debris. Debris! At a landmark I’ve driven past every morning for 18 years. I guess this is all just now beginning to sink in.”
“There are places in our circulation area where the World Trade Center is part of the view, and it’s not there anymore,” said Elaine Silvestrini, reporter at the Asbury Park Press in East Jersey.
Immediately after the jetliners hit the buildings, the paper’s reporters began compiling a list of local people who were missing. By the end of the week, the list had grown to 100. And it keeps increasing. Hundreds of inches of copy have been dedicated to their stories.
“We’re calling people, taking calls from people, going out to houses, going out to churches. It’s horrible,” Silvestrini said.
One reporter would sob every time she hung up the phone. Others lost track of how long they had been working and walked around in a daze of exhaustion.
Managers at the paper didn’t want communication to break down during the frenetic bursts of reporting and the crush of deadlines. As a proactive measure, they appointed Silvestrini and another reporter as newsroom ombudsmen. The two reporters have been keeping track of the practical side of things, like making sure reporters are fed during their 10- and 12-hour workdays and demanding everyone take an occasional day off. They’re trying to prevent reporters from feeling ignored or forgotten by their editors.
And they’re attending daily news meetings as advocates for sensitive coverage.
At the Asbury Park Press and other Gannett newspapers, an employee assistance program is always available for workers who need psychological or emotional help. Some staffs can call a toll-free number to talk to a counselor. Some also have the option of an office visit.
Employees of The Associated Press can take advantage of a similar program. In the wake of stressful events, like a colleague killed in action, a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, the AP organizes on-site group therapy sessions.
Most days, between 600 and 800 people come to work at the wire service’s New York headquarters. AP spokesman Jack Stokes said “a handful” had shown up for recent group counseling sessions.
“This is draining physically and emotionally,” he said of covering the current situation. “But journalists tend to be more macho and just keep running forward. The important thing is that [the sessions] are available.”
David Wood, national security correspondent for Newhouse News Service, found it helpful to view the terrible events that befell Washington, D.C., as a story rather than a personal experience.
When the first tower of the World Trade Center collapsed, Wood was on the telephone with a
Chicago-based terrorism expert. He thought: “‘There’s another question to ask about.’ No sense of shock or horror at all.”
Later, a colleague in his D.C. newsroom started yelling: “A plane has gone into the Pentagon!”
Wood recalls that he calmly began scrolling through his Rolodex for Pentagon sources to call. Mentally, he searched for a way to fit the new element into his story.
“It wasn’t until much later that night that the emotional tide broke,” he said. “But there’s nothing like being on deadline on a big story to get you through the horror.”
Such a reaction is not unusual, according to the Roger Simpson, director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.
“That’s the way a journalist always works when a story breaks. They’re chasing down every available bit of information. Adrenaline, personality and the newsroom culture keep everybody going for a certain amount of time,” he said. “Then the stories drop off and exhaustion takes over. Then they need to realize they’ve been holding back emotion.”
Encouraging journalists to think about their feelings is a relatively recent phenomenon, said Robert Frank, executive director of Newscoverage Unlimited, an organization that aims to help journalists who experience trauma. Frank, who free-lances for The New York Times, covered the 1998 Swissair crash that killed 229 people.
“Up until this point, people who acknowledged that a story might upset them opened themselves up to criticism of their objectivity,” he said.
After the Oklahoma City bombing and the Columbine High School shootings, reporters suffered such deep vicarious wounds that some developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or otherwise required professional help.
“We know from our research that anybody who is dealing with this kind of news is vulnerable to an emotional reaction,” said Simpson. “Whether it’s short-term or severe and lasting depends on the person.”
No journalists understand that better than the ones who worked at The Daily Oklahoman in 1995. When Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murrah Federal Building, 168 people were killed.
“It was hard to imagine a day without a story about the Oklahoma City bombing. Now it’ll be hard to imagine a day without a story about Sept. 11,” said Joe Hight, managing editor of The Oklahoman. “This will be an extremely difficult time for journalists, especially those who must cover the recovery efforts day after day, week after week.”
After the bombing, the terrorist attacks and other traumatic events, Hight organized newsroom-wide debriefing sessions for his reporters. He makes it a point to encourage them via e-mail and in person. It also is important to let reporters spend some time away from the newsroom, gathering strength from family and friends, he said.
People who have recently covered another tragedy or have suffered a personal loss, such as the death of a loved one, may be more vulnerable to emotional distress in the wake of recent events. Editors must become aware of reporters’ backgrounds so they can accurately assess their emotional states and decide who is mentally prepared to continue.
“It’s not a matter of just asking, ‘Do you want to go to this?’ because I don’t know any self-respecting reporter who would turn down a big assignment,” Simpson said.
Sometimes, though, it does happen. And when a reporter says no, an editor needs to listen, said Hight.
Back in 1985, Hight was a reporter at The Oklahoman. On July 3, he was sent out to cover a triple murder at an IGA grocery store. Three employees were shot at close range in a stockroom. One of them turned out to be a former classmate of Hight’s, Rick Cast.
“One sidebar that I wrote about the killings included quotes from a friend who said Rick had talked about dying the day before his death,” Hight recalled. “He had said that several of his relatives had died when they were 34. Rick was only five days from his 34th birthday.”
The next morning, Hight’s editor, Ed Kelley, called to ask if he wanted to cover the arrest of two men in connection with the murders.
“I had just awakened after working 17 hours the day before,” Hight said. “After pausing for a few moments, I asked Ed if it would be OK if I didn’t cover the arrests. He said OK and assigned another reporter to the coverage.”
Now that he’s running a newsroom, Hight has followed Kelley’s lead and hopes other editors do, too.
“We must take care of those journalists who face the seemingly endless task of covering this event, so that this overwhelming tragedy doesn’t overwhelm their lives.”
Gina Barton is a reporter for The Indianapolis Star.