OPINION

Extra: How the Herald Democrat covered 9/11 20 years ago

By Don Eldredge
Special to the Herald Democrat
Don Eldredge reflects on 9/11 20 years later.

When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt coined the term “a date which will live in infamy,” the declaration became etched in history. Although he was describing the bombing of Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, the words have come to embody any enemy attack on our nation.

The Islamic terrorist hijackings and suicide bombings on American soil September 11, 2001, still reverberate these 20 years later. The infamy of this brutal act made necessary an immediate reaction from many circles. Herald Democrat employees felt wholly challenged to inform readers of the local impact and to do so in short order.

A 7:45 a.m. Grayson County time on 9-11-2001, a Boeing 767 jet smashed into the 80th floor of the north World Trade Center building in New York City. I was alone in the editor’s office when reporter Dorothy Fowler walked in and told me, “My daughter just called and said a plane hit the World Trade Center.” As I recall, my reply was, “What are the chances of that?”

Reporters and other editorial staff members were drifting in for work. The television in the newsroom was turned on to get some quick details. People from other departments of the newspaper began to gather around the TV to watch coverage of the burning tower. Within a few minutes, a second jetliner crashed into the South Tower of the WTC and it was apparent this was no accident.

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Herald Democrat publisher John Wright was among those gathered in front of the only television in the building. At 8:45 a.m. we were told of a third crash, this one into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. John and I huddled for a conference about what we needed to do. A short time later we learned another hijacked airliner was brought down in Pennsylvania, killing all aboard.

Our Tuesday morning edition had been delivered hours earlier. We knew we would be well behind the breaking news by Wednesday morning. John, without hesitation, ordered a special edition to get onto the streets as early as possible. Considering all that would be involved in doing so, we planned for mid afternoon. We wanted it in readers’ hands before the end of the workday. 

Extra editions, rarely printed even at metropolitan-size newspapers, were primarily a device best known in movies. The newspaper by this date did not employ newsboys on the streets. Our circulation manager Mike Brezina and mailroom director Raymond Hodge and their staffs were charged with a major schedule change. Also, we couldn’t ignore our need to be working on the regular Wednesday edition, which required a degree of concentration on any other local stories and the regular beats.

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We divided duties in the newsroom, with most channeled to the attack and others gathering area news while helping localize the national story when possible. The biggest working story we had going into the day was a visit by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who planned to tour the GlobiTech semiconductor products plant in Sherman. Upon news of the attack, he canceled.

We had an excellent page designer available all day in Jeff Cota, who at that time was in charge of most page layout of our regular editions. Our night editor Darrell McCorstin would normally concentrate on the final four or five pages, but in this case would be called upon to fully take over the Wednesday edition layout. He was called in early.

Besides Fowler, Cota and McCorstin, the news staff that day included Jerrie Whiteley, Lynette George, David Bellows, Todd Hutchinson, Dawn Crafts, Holli Schaub, Mary Jane Farmer and Gary Carter. David Healy of the sports staff pitched in. Lifestyles editors Pat Welch and Bobbie Grant, librarian JoAnn Ecker and typist Rozenna Roundtree took part. Our photographers were Alec Richards and Dan Bouge. A major cog missing that day was our managing editor Kathy Williams, on medical leave.

My first thought was of terrorist points of interest in Grayson County. I remembered when Nikita Khruschev visited the United States in 1959, the idea was reportedly floated by President Eisenhower for the Soviet leader to visit Eisenhower’s birthplace. There was an immediate response from local leaders, asking the White House to take us off the list. The fear was that he would, after visiting here, target Denison Dam and possibly Perrin Air Force Base for a missile attack. The visit never occurred.

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On 9-11, sure enough, someone never identified called in a bomb threat for Denison Dam. It was known the call came from either Bryan County, Okla., or Grayson County. No evidence of a bomb was found, but Hwy. 91 on both sides of the dam was closed for a period. This story and others developed quickly.

Although activity was generally considered to be suspended throughout the county, there was a lot going on. Jerrie Whiteley, still a member of the Herald Democrat staff, recently recalled that “our staff and our sources were all working hard to put aside the multitude of emotions we were all facing.

“Our job,” she said, “was to find ways to let our readers know of the local impact felt from something that happened so far away.”

The reporters contacted city, county, state and federal officials in Sherman and Denison to get a description of what was taking place in the various offices. Churches gave us information on scheduled special prayer services. Hospitals were contacted and information on local emergency services was compiled. We touched base with gasoline distributors and retailers. 

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The Herald Democrat at that time subscribed to two major wire services, The Associated Press and Scripps-Howard News Service. We kept a close eye on incoming stories to get the complete and latest information for the special edition. In some cases, we gleaned parts of the wire stories to include in local coverage, marking those “from staff reports” and including at the close of the stories credit to the wire services as well as the local reporters.

Our photographers searched for local interest pictures. By early afternoon we had gathered nine local and five wire service stories as well as five local and four national photos to include in what was determined to be a four-page special edition. While the newsroom was gathering stories, publisher Wright was organizing the details of getting it printed. He chose a heavy stock of newsprint on hand that was normally used in advertising projects.

Cota designed the four-page section, and while the exact start-up time eludes me, it was around 3 p.m. when finished copies were rolling off the press. Neither do I recall how many were printed, but delivery proved quite successful. Circulation manager Brezina and his staff scoured the two cities, leaving the special editions at service stations, retail stores, grocery stores and putting them in paid racks as well. On counters and in open racks, the Extra was distributed free of charge.

With our efforts in the hands of readers, the newsroom staff took a well-deserved break. I remember thinking after our work was done, over the course of the day we had no time to worry whether we could do it; we were challenged to get it done with no excuses. The fact that thousands were dead from the attack and the consequences to come had not really sunk in.

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Jerrie Whiteley recalled that afterward she became acutely aware that we were not able, as many people were, to be at home with our families. Still there was a feeling of “working side by side with family,” she said. “I was proud of the work we had done and I felt a little safer knowing that same effort was going on in newsrooms across the country.”

Americans’ definition of safety has not been the same since that day 20 years ago. But in the days following the attack, the nation stood strong and united. Quoting President George W. Bush, "Today, our nation saw evil -- the very worst of human nature -- and we responded with the best of America.”

Don Eldredge retired as editor of the Herald Democrat in 2013 after 35 years at the newspaper. His email address is eldredgedon@gmail.com.