Reacting to Disaster

By Bukota, George N. | The Quill, November 2001 | Go to article overview

Reacting to Disaster


Bukota, George N., The Quill


When the rest of the world stopped, journalists scrambled to find the best way to cover the tragedy.

The terrorist attacks that brought down the World Trade Center towers and pierced the Pentagon affected all Americans, including journalists who were there and those handling the early coverage.

Because of the attacks, SPJ 2001 National Convention planners quickly substituted, expanded or added several panel discussions about the Sept. 11 events and their impact on journalism. Alicia Shepard, a senior writer for American Journalism Review moderated one of those panels. It included a journalist who was in the first tower as it was hit and a West Coast editor who flew from Los Angeles to New York in a chartered jet - one of the country's first post-attack flights.

Marty Wolk, MSNBC business reporter, was covering a business meeting at the World Trade Center's north tower, the first tower to be hit. He spoke quietly of the confusion, shock and disbelief during the attack and in the days afterward.

Wolk said that, during the first few hours, he was "part survivor, part journalist," operating on automatic pilot and using family "connections" to get his story back to MSNBC headquarters in Redmond, Wash.

Steve Yoder, San Francisco bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, flew into New York as soon as air travel was permitted to supplement and relieve Journal reporters who lost office space the World Financial Center.

"(New York) editors who should be here to tell you this story not only saw and covered the news, they became part of it," he said. "Many were interviewing people who flooded the street after the first plane hit, then joined the crowd fleeing after the second hit. They were running for their lives while trying to report the news and call their families."

Dan Drummond, of The Washington Times, was on 395 heading to Reagan National Airport when the Pentagon was struck.

"I saw an explosion and a plume of smoke, then the traffic stopped," he said. After calling a radio station and his editor to update them, Drummond "did what a journalist does - I started to interview people stopped on 395."

Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman at the Freedom Forum, was driving to his Pentagon-area office when he heard of the New York attacks on the radio. He was on a Pentagon parking lot ramp facing the east side of the building and level with the third floor when American Flight 77 hit the building's southwest face and exploded.

"All of a sudden, I saw a huge fireball over the building," he said. "It was angry red and yellow, then turned into a sickeningly oily black cloud. I felt the intense heat through my windshield, but I never heard a sound!

Drex Heikes, executive editor of the Los Angeles Times Magazine, told of reporters far from ground zero.

In addition to putting out an extra edition that day, the Los Angeles Times had some "1,100 people develop a worldwide coverage game plan in six hours. We had 20 open pages for the next day, covering four major story elements: on-site, regional, international and the investigation."

Another panel member, Federal Emergency Management Agency Region 10 Public Affairs Officer Mike Howard, described the agency's role in disaster relief and told how the agency relies on the media to provide critical public information.

Most of the reporters faced technical problems in reporting the story, and some had to find creative solutions to get information to their editors.

"I wanted to file a story," Wolk said, "but I had left my laptop, my PDA and my cell phone [in WTC 1] as I ran from the building."

Most of the public phones Wolk saw in the Wall Street area were being used or didn't work. When he finally did find a phone to use, he couldn't get the MSNBC news desk in Redmond, Wash. After trying several other numbers without success, he reached his mother in Cleveland "because she has a personal 800 number. …

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