Vol. 23, No. 1/Fall 2001
Remembering September 11th:
IN WASHINGTON, D.C.
On September 11, the News Research staff of The Washington Post was kept busy enough to hold off the effects of shock and sorrow. With reporters on the ground in D.C., at the Pentagon, in New York and around the world, The Washington Post pulled together an extra edition by 1 p.m. and had staff-written stories up on WashingtonPost.com all day.
We were fortunate not to experience any personal loss on our staff. The many losses in our community were a prime concern to our newspaper. The newsroom looked to the research staff to help collect and track events and people. In one example, our researchers worked with the editors and our webmaster to create a searchable database to record the names of all local victims, updating constantly as families were located and contacts made or no contact requested. We were able to use our intranet to add information and share that information with the entire newsroom. In addition to making more information available to more people faster, we were also able to avoid duplication of efforts and to avoid intruding upon grieving families who had expressed their wish not to talk to the press. At the same time, our database editors and webmaster created a database of suspects to organize and search the huge crowd of names and facts we've gathered. The research staff was also involved in daily stories and ongoing projects relating to the investigation of the suspects, the web of Bin Laden's interests, the government's preparedness and the war. Our services were eagerly offered and eagerly accepted by reporters and editors. The value of our newsroom intranet, The Source, was reaffirmed.
The Washington Post news researchers are Carmen Chapin, Alice Crites, Lynn Davis, Richard Drezen (in New York City), Karl Evanzz, Kim Klein, Madonna Lebling, Bob Lyford, Don Pohlman, Bobbye Pratt, Bridget Roeber, Meg Smith, Rob Thomason, Mary Lou White and Margot Williams. Our database editors are Dan Keating and Sarah Cohen. Our webmaster is Jacqueline Dupree.
September 11 was election Tuesday in New York. I live in Brooklyn and got up early so I could vote before coming into the office. Having done so, I was still on the subway on the way into Manhattan when the two planes crashed into the World Trade Center. As I recall, the train ride was somewhat erratic, but no real warnings came to the riders as to what was happening just overhead. My office is in The Washington Post New York bureau located in the Newsweek building in midtown Manhattan, immediately below Central Park. I arrived shortly before 10 a.m. and got a call from my partner alerting me as to what had happened. I flew into an adjacent office to turn on the television and stared in disbelief when seeing what had been captured on video. The unimaginable images of the planes crashing into the towers and their subsequent imploding were being replayed over and over.
All news organizations live for the "big story," but nothing could have ever prepared us for this one. As the lone researcher assigned to a bureau with a small number of reporters, I felt overwhelmed by the events, but tried to focus. I knew only one person who worked in the World Trade Center and prayed he had gotten out. When hearing of the plane crash at the Pentagon, I became concerned about my colleagues in Washington, but given telecommunication interruptions, I had much difficulty in reaching them by phone until much later and was only able to communicate initially by e-mail. For all the times I had cursed the Internet in the past, I was grateful I was able to successfully use it this time.
As members of the bureau arrived and assignments were made, I was asked to do various things, some not typical of traditional news research. But in the case of such an extraordinary event, every person in the bureau was needed to pitch in. So I answered phones and took notes from local television coverage that were made available electronically to other reporters both in New York and in Washington. As time permitted, I found background information on the WTC buildings and its tenants. I was eventually able to reach my colleagues in Washington by phone to find out how research was being coordinated. Some of the reporters, who had rushed down to the "ground zero" area returned later in the day, covered in ash looking shell-shocked. Sirens seemed to be wailing all day. Various news reports came throughout the day advising that the entire New York City subway system had been shut down. I kept asking myself, "How am I going to get home?" The day ended quite late for me and fortunately one of the subway lines I often take was back in service enabling me to get home that night.
In the days and weeks ahead I worked harder and longer hours than I had ever done before. An army of reporters and photographers came up to New York from Washington, crowding the bureau. Tempers sometimes flared as the stress levels escalated. There were also times when reporters begged to use my computer in order to file their stories and I obliged. I remember doing a mountain of online searching ranging from the simple to the nearly impossible. Trying to figure out spelling variations on Arabic names was an almost comic exercise, but entering names of the deceased into a victims database gave me pause. Running a one-person operation forces you to think creatively and at times call upon your professional network. I was often asked for material I couldnít imagine finding, but thanks to colleagues in Washington (Iím truly blessed working for Margot Williams and with a sterling staff in News Research), some here in New York (a big "thank you" especially to the Newsweek Library) and on Internet listservs, I was able to obtain it. When I needed a book on the World Trade Center that was virtually unobtainable elsewhere, the understanding librarians at the Brooklyn Pubic Library loaned me a non-circulating copy. Iíve always been proud of being a librarian, but being part of the library community during this time of crisis has made me even prouder.
But what about a psychic toll? On September 11th and for a few days after, I found myself becoming numb at times and occasionally unable to concentrate. As Iím somewhat of a light sleeper, I had even more difficulty getting to sleep. Worries of later post-traumatic-stress kept weaving through my head, but I kept going because I knew my contributions were important. This was a horrific news event and it was essential to do whatever I could to help the reporters get their stories into the paper each day. There had been some doubts expressed when my assignment to the New York bureau had been announced a year ago. I like to think my involvement in this has helped to remind my news colleagues back in Washington that a researcher on the scene can be an invaluable resource. However, when I later saw a PBS documentary of New York City, still showing the looming towers of the WTC against the Manhattan skyline, I burst into tears. Fortunately, my partner was there to comfort me. Obviously I needed some professional help and when an opportunity to participate in a group counseling session was presented, I availed myself. It was reassuring to hear a professional counselor tell us that it was important to express our feelings, to cry, to reach out to others, to be human. It was also comforting to hear stories from other news professionals who had found ways to cope in the aftermath of the events of September 11, surprising us all by the huge range of personal responses to such an unprecedented tragedy.
Margot Williams is the Research Editor at The Washington Post. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Bridget Roeber is a researcher at The Washington Post. You can contact her at email@example.com. Richard Drezen is a researcher in the New York City bureau of The Washington Post. He can be reached at Drezen@washpost.com.