The ‘first, rough draft’ of the Sept. 11th attacks, remembered by the people who wrote it

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The Sept. 12, 2011 edition of 'The New York Times.' ()
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On a normal Tuesday morning in the late summer of 2001, veteran New York Times metro reporter Sonny Kleinfield would still have been at home with his wife and daughter in their fifth-floor Tribeca apartment at 8:46 a.m., the time when a hijacked plane pummeled into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center four blocks away on Sept. 11.

But Sept. 11 was primary day in a mayoral election year, and Kleinfield had gotten to his desk at the West 43rd Street headquarters of the Times to comb the wires for background material for an article on polling stations.

At first he didn't interrupt his task when he came across a report about the first plane. The wires were suggesting it was probably a terrible accident involving a small private aircraft that had somehow lost its bearings. But then he joined a group of Times staffers huddled around a television near the backfield desk.

Like so many, he was watching live footage of the damage to the first tower when, in real time, a second plane careened into its twin.

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Five minutes later, Kleinfield was leaving the building. He brought three notebooks.

“I was in semi-disbelief,” he recalled earlier this week. “It was a stupefying day.”

The piece Kleinfield wrote on Sept. 11, 2001, appeared in a single column in the upper left-hand of the Times' front page the next morning. Huge upper-case type at the top of the page read "U.S. ATTACKED." Kleinfield's had its own subheadings. "A CREEPING HORROR: Buildings Burn and Fall as Onlookers Search for Elusive Safety."

Here's how it begins:

It kept getting worse.

The horror arrived in episodic bursts of chilling disbelief, signified first by trembling floors, sharp eruptions, cracked windows. There was the actual unfathomable realization of a gaping, flaming hole in first one of the tall towers, and then the same thing all over again in its twin. There was the merciless sight of bodies helplessly tumbling out, some of them in flames.

Finally, the mighty towers themselves were reduced to nothing. Dense plumes of smoke raced through the downtown avenues, coursing between the buildings, shaped like tornadoes on their sides.

Every sound was cause for alarm. A plane appeared overhead. Was another one coming? No, it was a fighter jet. But was it friend or enemy? People scrambled for their lives, but they didn't know where to go. Should they go north, south, east, west? Stay outside, go indoors? People hid beneath cars and each other. Some contemplated jumping into the river.

For those trying to flee the very epicenter of the collapsing World Trade Center towers, the most horrid thought of all finally dawned on them: nowhere was safe.

WASHINGTON POST PUBLISHER PHIL GRAHAM famously told a group of reporters working for him that it was their task to write "a first rough draft of history that will never really be completed about a world we can never really understand."

As the anniversary of Sept. 11 spawns its many commemorative covers and magazines and books, all attempting to find the sophisticated angle, the final assessment, the answer to the question of what's changed about us since the terrorist attacks that day, it's hard to feel any closer to understanding, if understanding is what one does feel, than to read these first accounts.

Many are not written like traditional news articles. In an almost instinctive but strangely pervasive way, the reporters who wrote what they saw when they were there, in the shadow of the towers and then under the great black cloud that hung where they had stood once they'd fallen, were writing from their gut, directly to the reader. Thousands upon thousands of New Yorkers had these stories. But without public transportation to take them anywhere, without phones or the Internet, without so much that we take for granted about the way stories are told and passed along now, these stories, distributed at great pains in extreme circumstances throughout the city in the early morning hours of Sept. 12, were the proxy stories that were for everyone.

Hundreds of journalists like Kleinfield—some whose work spaces and homes were rendered uninhabitable by the calamity; others who had friends or acquaintances who did not survive it—instinctively sprang into action right then. A good number of them risked their lives by running into the disaster area before the perimeter was closed to the press; the conventional wisdom was that once you were in, you could probably stay for a long time, but once you were out you were probably out pretty much for good.

Back at their offices, reporters and editors were tearing up early editions and making haphazard assignments. If reporters trapped in Queens or Brooklyn couldn't be sent downtown, what about the reporter who'd come in early to cover Fashion Week, which had started the night before?

They were combing through pictures, asking the kinds of questions that 10 years later still bedevil the Sept. 11 Memorial: What can you show? What shouldn't you show? Must we transmit as much of the horror and gore to the reader as we saw ourselves, as our photographers and reporters and the eyewitnesses we spoke to saw and felt and heard?

The following morning, as the dust began to settle, dramatic front pages captured the magnitude of what had happened. The Wall Street Journal made a once-in-a-blue-moon decision to go to six columns, running its first banner headline since Pearl Harbor: “TERRORISTS DESTROY WORLD TRADE CENTER, HIT PENTAGON IN RAID WITH HIJACKED JETS.” The Times’ front page was dominated by a Vesuvian shot of the two towers engulfed in smoke and flames. That image was flanked by Kleinfield’s dispatch and a two-column leader by Serge Schmemann, while a pair of good Samaritans tended to a woman covered in blood in a photo below the fold.

The New York Post and the Daily News declared war (but on whom?) against a backdrop of grainy but nonetheless arresting photographs of the second plane moments before its deadly impact.

The New York Observer, a scrappy David to the Goliaths it jostled with on the newsstand, whose reporting muscle and ambition was always underestimated even as its stylishness remained unquestioned, might have gone with its "Happy Birthday, Michael Jackson" cover, closing that night. The Observer instead illustrated the tragedy with one of its signature pieces of cover art—Drew Friedman's Statue of Liberty, like some Thomas Nast "Lady Representing New York" or vengeful, sword-bearing "Columbia," in a sheath of black smoke.

The Village Voice likewise threw a wrench into its weekly production schedule at the 11th hour, swapping out its existing cover for a full-page picture of the burning towers below an appropriately irreverent headline: “THE BASTARDS!” The Voice only had time to insert a brief musing by the writer Alisa Solomon (“I wanted to throw up”).

ABOUT 80 MILES SOUTHWEST OF MANHATTAN, IN THE PART of New Jersey where it begins to feel more like Pennsylvania than New York, Doc Jones was watching “SpongeBob SquarePants” with his three kids when the phone rang. It was Jones’ neighbor, calling to break some news to the newsman next door. The first plane had just hit.

Jones, then executive news editor of the Daily News, changed the channel and watched the second impact happen in real time. He immediately started getting ready to go into the office, even though his shift wasn’t supposed to begin until 2 p.m. He packed some clothes, knowing it might be a few days before he got to come home again.

Jones’ commute from Burlington Township to New York City normally would have taken about an hour and a half. That day it took six. It was a slow haul up the turnpike. Deadlock on Rte. 3 near the Lincoln. An unanticipated detour back west to the Garden State Parkway. Then north into Rockland County and over the Tappan Zee. Then south to Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, where Jones parked his car and took the 1 train down to Times Square. From there it was a brisk walk down the middle of 7th Avenue to 33rd and 10th with his suitcase in hand.

“Not a car passed me,” he said. “It was surreal.”

Terry Golway’s commute from Maplewood, N.J., to The New York Observer’s townhouse on East 64th Street was a bit less eventful. His assignment that day was the mayoral election, so he was reading up on the candidates during the train ride.

Golway, the Observer’s City Editor at the time, was in a zone. Chatter among fellow passengers about a plane crash at the Trade Center hadn't shattered his stoicism. Nor did a 10-minute stop somewhere in the Meadowlands, when the smoke-tinged Manhattan skyline came into focus. Nor did the CNN ticker in Penn Station that carried the news of a second plane crash.

Still immersed in his subject matter by the time he had reached the Upper East Side, Golway didn’t actually realize that the city was under attack until he got to his coffee guy on the corner of 63rd and Lexington.

“They’re going to blame us,” said the young man, who was of middle-eastern descent. That’s when it sunk in.

A few minutes later, Golway reluctantly dispatched a handful of the Observer’s young reporters who had made it into the office back out into the chaos.

“I was 45 at the time, telling these 20-something kids they’ve gotta go down and cover the story,” he said. “They were only used to covering parties.”

Kleinfield, who was 51, had already made it down to Ground Zero by then. It was an eerily familiar trek for him, having covered the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. This time, he found himself running toward the buildings. He passed his apartment. He got three blocks short of the towers. It was 9:59. That’s when the first building came down, darkening the sky and sending plumes of ash and smoke shooting up the side streets surrounding the collapse.

“It was like night had come,” he said.

In a building several blocks away, John Bussey, then foreign editor of The Wall Street Journal, witnessed the collapse from the paper’s ninth-floor office directly across West Street from the Trade Center. He’d stayed behind after the Journal’s building had been evacuated, kept on the line as an on-the-scene phone correspondent to the cable news network CNBC.

When the tower started to crumble, “I dove under a desk,” Bussey wrote that evening in a piece slated for the Journal’s Sept. 12 edition.

The windows were pelted by debris, apparently breaking—I'd never know for sure. The room filled with ash, concrete dust, smoke, the detritus of South Tower. It was choking, and as more debris rained down onto and into the building, the light of the day disappeared. I crawled on the floor and braced myself under a desk deeper in the office. But the air was as bad.

After the cloud subsided, Kleinfield looked up at the patch of blue sky where the south tower once stood. Everything went silent.

“It was the most frightening sight I’d ever seen,” he said.

When the north tower had fallen half an hour later, Kleinfield refocused himself on his task.

“It was the easiest possible situation to talk to people in, because all people wanted to do was talk,” he said. “They were trying to make sense of everything.”