Daily World News

September 11, 20 years later

CM 08/09/2021

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I spent February 26, 1993, the day of the first World Trade Center attack, glued to a television set at my in-laws’ in Florida. I was on vacation from my job as a business reporter in Albany, New York.
A 606-kg. bomb had killed six and wounded 1,000 but failed in its goal to topple the North Tower into the South Tower and kill thousands.
Among the terrorists’ reasons for the attack: US support for Israel over Palestinians.

Eight years later, I was finishing my first month as night editor at The Jerusalem Post. I was involved with coverage of the August 9 Sbarro pizzeria bombing on King George Avenue, which killed 15 – including the daughter of someone I had worked with.
As the month ended, a UN-sponsored conference on racism in Durban, South Africa, revived the rejected charge that “Zionism is racism.” The Second Intifada claimed the lives of 28 Israelis and 35 Palestinians in August. 
But none of those events, nor my previous 22 years in journalism in the US, prepared me for the night of 9/11/2001. 

 Alan D. Abbey, 2001 (credit: Courtesy) Alan D. Abbey, 2001 (credit: Courtesy)

SHORTLY BEFORE 3 p.m., 8 a.m. in New York, I was preparing to head to the Post newsroom. My job included ensuring that the paper met its deadline and that the presses would start on time, so copies could be delivered to stores and homes across Israel by morning. JPost.com was a small unit with the now-quaint habit of not producing updates late at night, over Shabbatot and during holidays.
My phone rang. Turn on CNN, the caller said. Something crazy just happened. The screen showed smoke pouring out of the upper floors of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. “We have unconfirmed reports this morning that a plane has crashed into one of the towers,” the announcer said. “Clearly something devastating happened there this morning.” It was 8:49 a.m. in New York. We learned later that American Airlines Flight 11 had crashed into the Tower less than three minutes before.
The network was airing reports by eyewitnesses when, 12 minutes later, a second airplane emerged on the right edge of the screen and disappeared behind the smoking tower. A second later, an orange fireball burst on the screen. 
It was not immediately obvious to the anchors what had happened. A panicky exchange did not mention a second airplane, but TV viewers who hadn’t blinked saw a plane hit the second tower.
I don’t remember what I said, probably, “Holy shit.” I raced out of our apartment to get a cab to the newsroom. The cabbie had a radio on, and we heard news announcers report that a second plane had indeed hit the towers. They spoke of a bomb at the US State Department in Washington. Then a report of a bus explosion downtown. The cabbie skirted the area, adding 20 frustrating minutes to my trip. The reports sounded believable – but were wrong. The Jerusalem “explosion” turned out to be a tire that popped in the heat.
By the time I made it into the Post newsroom, TV was cautiously reporting that planes had been hijacked and the crashes may have been terrorist attacks. However obvious that may seem today – 20 years later – it was not so clear to US media then.
Our media were not as cautious. Battle-hardened by wars and the intifada, it was evident to Israelis – journalists and citizens alike – that these were terrorist attacks.
The Post newsroom sprang into action, but editor-in-chief Jeff Barak wasn’t there. He was in Berlin to cover the opening of its new Jewish Museum. With flights worldwide grounded, he was stranded. Barak was on the phone with us throughout the evening, but it left managing editor Avi Hoffmann and me to direct the coverage and design the front page.
Reporters contacted government, IDF and security sources. We checked into rumors that Saudi-born Osama bin Laden may have been behind the attacks. We followed up reports that Palestinians were celebrating. We asked our leaders if we would get involved.
Updates kept pouring in – smoke at the Pentagon, New York subways shut down, a plane crash in Pennsylvania. Newsroom televisions showed the towers engulfed in smoke and flames that obscured them as they collapsed, a reality we had difficulty comprehending, even though we saw it happen.
Early reports during a major event are often incorrect, even contradictory. We sifted through the barrage of stories we received, made them as accurate as possible, and pushed our deadline to its breaking point. 
As our clock ticked, we argued with each other, with our distant editor and with our publisher about our lead story headline. The publisher wanted the word “WAR,” in giant capital letters. Hoffmann pushed back, repeatedly and ultimately with expletives. We held our ground.
I composed a succinct headline that summarized what we thought we knew and what we hoped sidestepped speculation: “America Under Attack.” The typeface was large, but smaller than the Post’s headlines about the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948 and the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
When we thought we were finished, we remade the front page one last time to insert a brief update on US bombings in Afghanistan that came in as the printing press geared up.
From the hindsight of 20 years, it may feel antiquated to impose an early morning deadline on a story as massive and fluid as the 9/11 attacks. But we produced a physical artifact that stands as a memorial and reminder of that day’s events. 
The Post’s September 12 front page is in at least one book of newspaper pages from around the world. It is a testimony to that night’s efforts, as well as a permanent record of what was known and believed about those terrible events the moment they occurred.
The next day, a weary pack of reporters and editors trooped into the Post’s office to do it all over again. 
The writer is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He had a 30-year career as a journalist in the US and in Israel, including four years at The Jerusalem Post as a writer, editor and senior manager.


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